A trip to explore the winding lanes around Scotland’s Loch Lomond with a new Lotus sounded idyllic enough. We were so not complaining. But was it just us, or did the press introduction for Lotus’s new two-plus-two, the Evora, seem a wee bit obvious? You know, curvaceous Scottish roads, new Lotus, end of story we’ve heard before. Add single malt, repeat.
It hardly sounded fair. How could any Lotus – much less the latest one, a machine meant to distill all sixty-one years of the company’s roadholding smarts and legendary handling acumen – fail to shine when asked to tame bendy ribbons of billiard-table-smooth Scottish tarmac? A no-brainer, we thought, like sending Kiefer Sutherland in as a ringer to handle a leg for your team in the body-shot competition at the International Jägermeister Bakeoffs. Lotus was playing to its strength.
What really would have been a test would have been to drop an Evora into an Atlanta traffic jam during a rush hour in July, perhaps while headed to visit Lotus’s North American headquarters in not-too-distant Duluth, Georgia, ideally during a deathly humid heat wave turned flash flood and electrical storm. With the Lotus marque’s historic propensity for sketchy reliability, you really can’t test the new ones hard enough.
We don’t get out much lately, I’m thinking, because we had one important fact about Scotland all wrong. Turns out the narrow lanes chosen for our introductory drive are lovely, but they aren’t smooth anymore, if they ever were. In fact, it appears the relevant Scottish authorities share a philosophy of road maintenance with the beleaguered civil servants responsible for New York City’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Many stretches of our recommended route reminded me of nothing so much as the BQE following a nasty winter, being about as smooth on average as an Afghan goat trail after an F-18 strike. Muddy, floody, pocked, potholed, grooved, greased, creased, half-paved, and undergoing repairs, the local roads meant we’d be running a gauntlet designed to bring out the worst in a mid-engine sports car. And, just in case, it never stopped raining. This was going to be a real test, after all.
Rough roads and inclement Scottish weather likely explained the two accidents we came upon after setting out from our hotel, one a solo exercise in which an econo-minivan had done some variation of an end-over-endo to pile-drive its butt end into a ditch, nose pointed skyward. Extensive rubbernecking, our own included, slowed us down, but this was only after another larger accident had already left us stranded for forty minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That was when we got wise and turned around to run the suggested driving loop backward.
But time spent motionless in the Evora gave us a crucial opportunity to take measurements in the areas of basic livability and reliability. Secondary systems and controls – climate, wipers, electric windows, backup camera . . . gak, did I say backup camera? In a Lotus? – items one might ignore in a mass-produced car, take on a different meaning in a Lotus. Near as I could tell, our test car was in perfect order. That is, everything was operational. But this statement of current condition was as far out on a limb as I, a longtime Lotus owner, was prepared to go. Long-term reliability may be part of the package, but only a fool or a Lotus novitiate would bet his last dollar on it.
For the Evora is very much a Lotus, although company founder Colin Chapman’s apocryphal credo – “simplicate and add lightness” – may have to be amended in its honor. At 2976 pounds, it’s almost 1000 pounds, or 50 percent, heavier than the Elise. Big for a Lotus, it still weighs less than its competitors; in the world of fast GTs, 3500 pounds comes up awful quick. But the Evora does more than take the hand of the game-changing Elise and raise it two seats, two cylinders, and two quarter tons of grand touring heft. While we admit that “complicate and add relaxation” doesn’t sound as good as Chapman’s original slogan, it’s just what the new car does, with excellent results. This is a new kind of Lotus.
The Evora’s +2 facility is – unsurprisingly, given its sporty looks and mid-engine configuration – not its greatest feature; 2 + 2 two-year-olds is more like it, on account of limited head- and legroom. Nonetheless, Lotus says the Evora’s theoretical ability to accommodate a brace of microdudes will help many a child-rearing enthusiast persuade on-the-fence partners to bless their purchase. We say: good luck with that.
The Evora is enormous fun, too, but neither is its ultimate credential the fact that it feels like a big Elise, a master of body control and prodigious grip, even in the wet. It is a tad less responsive to steering input than the Elise, but it’s got more balls, thanks to the bigger engine. And the Evora is usefully bigger than an Elise – its rear trunk will actually hold a set of golf clubs.
Yet its most winning parlor trick is, surprisingly, ride comfort. The cause of road-holding benefits from four wheels suspended properly. Which is why Lotuses have tended to ride well from the early days, but the Evora sets an amazing new standard. Its predecessor, the Elise, goes nicely enough for a single-minded sportster, yet sharp bumps and potholes will catch it out, the suspension crashing with an excruciating brutality that one feels through the entire structure, up to and including the cavities in one’s teeth. That’s where the Evora turns the page. Although cornering remains its raison d’être, with the requisite forged-aluminum control arms all around, one feels mercifully isolated from the worst of the worst roads. Our test car was tight and rattle-free, too, unlike many of the glorified kit cars in Lotus’s past. If Evoras manage to keep this solid feeling over a period of years, a new chapter in Lotus history will have truly begun.
Designed and developed in a mere twenty-seven months, the Evora is not only a remarkable testament to the company’s engineering chops, it also marks Lotus’s return to the two-plus-two market after a seventeen-year absence. Models like the Elan +2, the Elite, and the Excel accounted for 20 percent of all Lotus sales volume through 1996, and the Evora – expected to sell at an average rate of 2000 cars per year, with at least one-third coming to the U.S. during its planned six-year life cycle – picks up where they left off. Being a mid-engine four-seater, its unusual configuration (think Ferrari 308GT4) puts it in a class of one on today’s world stage.
There would be no Evora without the Elise and its derivatives, of course. Lotus’s all-time greatest hit, with its rigid, strong, and easily configurable hydroformed aluminum-spaceframe chassis, caused the faithful to tear up at its introduction in 1995. Here, at joyous long last, was another truly revolutionary Lotus, a technological beacon that continues to point the way forward for other manufacturers, restoring the Norfolk, England, carmaker to its rightful place at the forefront of cutting-edge sports car technology and design. So successful has the Elise been that Lotus, which once farmed out chassis manufacture, recently tooled up – as Lotus Lightweight Structures Limited – to build aluminum components on its own, assuming de facto world leadership in chassis manufacture and design for relatively low-volume (less than 50,000 units) models. Aston Martin, which adopted the concept wholesale to swiftly move its own lineup into the twenty-first century, is but one of Lotus’s many clients.
But after thirteen years of building the Elise and offering more than thirty variations, the Hethel team was ready to move the brand upmarket again. Rather than launch a promised replacement for its long-lived and pricier supercar, the Esprit, which went out of production in 2003 after twenty-seven years, the company radically rethought its plans following the return to the boardroom of longtime executive Mike Kimberley in 2006. Lotus rejiggered its path back to the high end with a new five-year plan that sought to broaden its appeal, first with a two-plus-two car sitting directly above the Elise but below a new Esprit supercar now slated for a 2012 introduction.
The four-seat layout with a transverse mid-engine V-6 all but demands the Evora’s cab-forward supercar look. Along the road leading to Oban, Scotland’s self-proclaimed seafood capital, farmers and fishermen turn to stare along with the waving schoolboys we pass as they walk home. The Evora owes much to the Elise, but its aluminum chassis is brand-new, providing greater torsional rigidity (it’s one and a half times stiffer than the Elise). To a revised central spaceframe, new front and rear modules – designed for enhanced deformability and crashworthiness – are added. This new platform will provide the basis for the next Lotus – the Esprit follow-up – and (it’s hinted unsubtly) future hybrid and all-electric versions. Lotus’s longstanding relationship with Toyota will surely come in handy here, as will the expertise it acquired developing and assembling the pricey, Elise-based electric car, the Tesla Roadster.
For now, a Lotus-tuned version of Toyota’s DOHC 3.5-liter 2GR-FE VVT-i, good for 276 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, offers the step up from the Elise’s 189-hp VVTL-i four-cylinder, also supplied by Toyota, and helps the Evora reach 60 mph in a claimed 4.9 seconds with a top speed of 162 mph while delivering about 30 mpg on the highway. Although six-speed manual transmissions, also sourced from Toyota, are standard, with a sport-ratio option, an automatic will become available in late 2010. A dual-clutch automatic is not in the cards for cost reasons. Don’t hold your breath for a four-wheel-drive version, either. Braking is fade-free and suitably monster, with standard four-piston calipers, ABS, and stability control.
Stopping for lunch, I couldn’t help looking back at the Evora. Its styling, which didn’t blow me away at first, was quickly growing on me. Looking more distinctive in person than in photos, its strong hints of both the Elise and an all-time personal favorite, the Lancia Stratos (clock that wraparound windshield, Lancia fans), were reeling me in.
Inside the cabin, the charms multiply as the Spartan aspect of Elise life is banished. It’s amazing what a little leather and carpet and a modicum of sound-deadening material will do for perception, although not all guests were sold on the Evora’s brushed metal dash and flush mount button switches. The integration of a dash-mounted Alpine GPS system was particularly unconvincing, and the white leather dash top of our tester, which contrasted tastefully with the all-black interior, reflected badly in the windshield, although drivers of cars with black dash tops suffered no such annoyance.
Extra cabin width versus the Elise means that the driver’s shoulders are on less intimate terms with the front-seat passenger’s in the Evora, while longer doors and narrower sills mean one no longer need summon the skills of a contortionist for ingress and egress. This, more than anything, enhances the likelihood that the Evora will be driven daily. For those so inclined, rear seats can be ditched at the factory, further enhancing storage capacity with a 30-pound weight savings as a bonus. Three option packages – Tech, Sport, and Premium – exist to make a play for whatever cash is left in your wallet.
As our day behind the wheel wound down, the proposition seemed increasingly tempting. Body control is stellar, rattles are nonexistent, and steering is little compromised by the Evora’s sissified mission. Indeed, the sensation through the Evora’s leather-wrapped magnesium wheel reminded us strongly of the solid feel Porsche 911 drivers enjoy. So, too, does the Evora’s punch. The sound of its four-cam V-6 under full throttle is sophisticated like Zuffenhausen’s finest, although more in the vein of some worthy Italian. Who knew Camry drivers were having so much fun?
At an expected sub-$75,000 base price, the Evora ought to undercut the 911. And while most would-be Porsche buyers will choose to stick with the accomplished master, a discerning few might find they prefer this new type of Lotus, less raw and more relaxed than those that have come before, but still 100 pounds lighter than Porsche’s base two-plus-two. You’ve got to hand it to these Lotus boys. Even when they’re adding weight, they’re still adding lightness. Cliché or not, that’s a story we’ll never tire of hearing.
Q&A: ROGER BECKER
Vehicle engineering director for Lotus Engineering and board member of Lotus Cars, Roger Becker joined the company as a young engineer in 1966, working on the Elan production line. Now 63, he’s since had his hand in the development of all its cars, including the Evora, the Elise upon which it is based, and the upcoming supercar that’s set to revive the Esprit name.
After the less-than-successful front-wheel-drive Elan of 1989, how did the Elise come about in 1995?
We were in a pretty sad state around 1992. And we just thought, “Bugger it.” I was the instigator. I said, “We need to find ourselves in our history. Go back to our grassroots. Look back at the time when we were successful, and it was all those small, fun cars.” You didn’t need one ’til you drove it, and then you had to have it. And that’s what we needed to create again, a very minimalistic car, to make the world sit up and take notice. If they want exciting, invigorating, fun, agile, then we’ll bloody well give it to them. Revolution, not evolution.
Thank goodness for that.
The small platform underpinning the Elise has now accounted for more than 50 percent of the total volume of cars that we’ve ever produced.
The Elise was a return to original principles. Why had Lotus strayed?
[Colin] Chapman. He got to the point [in the 1970s] where he said, “I’m fed up with all this volume; we’re going to make the same amount of money selling fewer cars.” It seemed like less work, less investment, less risk. Because he was who he was, we all kind of thought he was right. He was a hard taskmaster. In some respects, you could classify him as a tyrant. He had to have his way, even if it was wrong. After his death in 1982, we had to find our own way.
Why the Evora?
We see the out-and-out enthusiasts being about 20 percent of our total customer base. The other 80 percent are those we’ve yet to meet. But we know who they are and know where to go find them. And in [this] platform, we’ve created all of the elements that will attract that type of customer.
Where do you see Lotus’s relationship with Toyota going?
Toyota is incredibly good to us. We have proved our worth technically. We’ve proved our worth in terms of the halo effect they get on both engineering and technology . . . in terms of demonstrating what we can do with their equipment. If you think about the engine that’s in the Evora, that’s an engine you can find in a number of Toyota products, some with their hybrid system. Our large platform has been designed with a very rationalized approach to products of the future. So, we could put anything in it we so wish and the foundation structure can stay the same. The module to the rear can be modified to suit a longitudinal engine and other, different propulsion systems. The world is our oyster.
Design Analysis: Too much (visual) weight, too little style
By Robert Cumberford
Lotus has offered two-plus-two models since the 1960s, always promising Porsche-like practicality, but they were never really usable as serious cars nor very good-looking. The Evora is more interesting than beautiful, but it is said to be the best Lotus road car ever, and if not particularly innovative, it is a decent-looking piece. Perhaps in the interest of making it seem responsibly solid, the designers have managed to make it look heavy as well. We’re a long way from the exquisite, ethereal Elite from half a century ago. Strong concept, great chassis, weak styling.
1. Poorly resolved front end allows license plate to intrude into air inlet, which could have been wider and shallower. Lower scoops are nice, but the whole front end is inelegantly blunt.
2. Deeply curved windshield is very nice, but high sills and letter-slot backlight give an outward impression of a claustrophobic interior.
3. It’s difficult to see any real purpose to the undercut area below the doors, which looks likely to collect mud and snow, making ingress and egress a problem in real-world use of the Evora.
4. The stance of the car, with its rear wheels far back and set well toward the outside of the body envelope, is excellent. The car definitely looks stable and roadworthy, its four-passenger capability well hidden.
5. Only about half of the tiny backlight glass is transparent, insufficient even with the black diffuser at the bottom to keep the rear aspect of the car from seeming massive and heavy.
6. The concave section derived from the lamp sockets and wing underside is nice, but the kit-car taillights are a disappointment. They are cheap, yes, but they shouldn’t look it.
The Specs: 2010 Lotus Evora
Base price: $70,000 (est.)
Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.5 liters
Horsepower: 276 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Transmission Type: 6-speed manual
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension Front and rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
L x W x H: 170.9 x 72.8 x 48.1 in
Wheelbase: 101.4 in
Track F/R: 61.7/62.0
Weight: 2976 lb
EPA mileage: 22/29 mpg (est.)
Cameron House. An imposing baronial manor turned wildlife safari park that is now a luxury hotel. It lies on the banks of Loch Lomond, the British Isles’ largest lake, with dozens of islands of its own, and makes a grand base for explorations of the Scottish Highlands to the north and the Lowlands to the south. The kitchen is excellent, although a knowledgeably staffed whisky bar will take many eyes off the chow. Beware the “kilt lifter” cocktail, a take-no-prisoners libation that blends fine Scotch with Drambuie, the native whisky-based liqueur. devere-hotels.com/our-hotels/cameron-house
Loch Fyne: Cairndow. Named after a sea loch on the west coast of Argyll and Bute that’s highly regarded for its oyster farm, this is a tasteful yet unassuming seafood restaurant that surprised us mightily when we later learned that it was associated with a thirty-eight-restaurant chain owned by the Greene King brewery. Employee-ownership of the oyster farm, the local restaurant, and the smokehouse prevails here in Cairndow. Although the restaurant’s overt devotion to politically correct themes like sustainability and local produce might trouble some opinionated tourists, the quality of the oysters and smoked salmon will satisfy. 011-44-1499-600236; lochfyne.com/ restaurants/locations/cairndow.aspx
Oban. An easy three-hour car ride from Glasgow, this village is the de facto capital of Scotland’s West Highlands and serves as a gateway to the islands of the Hebrides, including Mull, Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist, Colonsay, Lismore, and Islay. Known, too, as an essential seafood destination, it is presided over by the more than 600-year-old Dunollie Castle, a ruin at the entrance to Oban’s sheltered bay. But what most recommends the large small town (population 8500) whose name means “little bay” in Gaelic is natural beauty. No less an authority than the haughty Queen Victoria dubbed it, “one of the finest spots we have seen.” oban.org.uk