Company founder Colin Chapman's apocryphal credo - "simplicate and add lightness" - may have to be amended in honor of Lotus' new 2+2, the Evora. Of course, "complicate and add relaxation" doesn't sound as good, but that's what the new car does, with excellent, possibly even brilliant results that will tempt not just the Lotus faithful, but more than a few Porsche 911 intenders.
Lotus has lived on the razor's edge most of its 61-year existence but has enjoyed some of its greatest sales since the introduction of the extraordinary Elise in 1995. That car led many Lotus fans' eyes to tear up, for here again was a revolutionary Lotus - with its rigid, safe and easily configurable aluminum tub chassis - a technological beacon that pointed the way forward for other low-volume manufacturers (notably Aston Martin, which has adopted the concept throughout its lineup) and restored the Norfolk carmaker to its place at the forefront of sports car technology.
But 13 years and more than 30 Elise variants in, the company saw the need to move the brand up-market, while at the same time broadening its appeal. Rather than launch a promised replacement for its long-lived supercar, the Esprit, which went out of production in 2003 after 28 years, Lotus radically rethought its plans - following the return of longtime executive Mike Kimberley in 2006 - and instead turned out in an astonishing 27 months the Evora, marking the company's return to the 2+2 market after a 17-year hiatus. Models like the Elan +2, the Elite, and the Excel comprised 20% of all Lotus sales volume through 1996, and the Evora - expected to sell at the rate of 2000 cars per year, with roughly one-third coming to the U.S. - picks up where they left off. Being a mid-engined four-seater, however, it is currently in a class of one on the world stage.
The Evora expands on the Elise theme, but its aluminum chassis - slated to provide the basis for an eventual Esprit replacement - is significantly revised, for even greater torsional strength (it's one and a half times stiffer than the Elise) and safety. Looking better in person than in spy photos, with strong hints of both the Elise and the Lancia Stratos, (check that wraparound windshield,) the Evora hardly looks like the four-seater it is, though 2 + 2 two-year-olds is more like it.
Toyota's DOHC 3.5-liter 2GR-FE VVT-I V-6, good for 276 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, marks a step up from the Elise's VVTL-I four, also supplied by Toyota. It helps this car, which is longer, wider and almost 900 pounds heavier than the hyper-focused Elise, reach 60 mph in just under 5 seconds, and a top speed of 162 mph, while delivering over 30 mpg on the highway. Though six-speed manual transmissions, also sourced from Toyota, are standard, with a sport-ratio option present on the cars we drove, an automatic gearbox will become available with the 2011 model year.
Stepping into the new machine, one is instantly aware that the Spartan aspect of Elise life has been banished. It's amazing what a little leather and carpet and a modicum of sound-deadening material will do for perception. Along with the cabin's extra width, which allows one's shoulders to be on less intimate terms with his front-seat passenger, longer doors mean one no longer require summoning the skills of a contortionist for ingress and egress, instantly making the Evora a car more suitable than the Elise for daily use. The rear seats - marginal, at best - may be deleted for a storage shelf and a 30 pound weight savings, at the customer's request.
In terms of build quality and the solidity of its presentation, the Evora is easily the most mature Lotus yet. While heavier than most of its predecessors, none will doubt they are driving a car built by people who place a premium on roadholding and handling. Its grip in two days of rain driving was exceptional, a testimony to its balance as well as Pirelli's P-Zero tires. Still more impressive was the fluidity and suppleness of the Evora as it traversed chewed up Scottish lanes, with none of the bone-jarring crashing over potholes and tendency to tramline found in the Elise. Body control is superb, rattles nonexistent, and steering seemed little compromised by the Evora's weight or sissified mission. If its reflexes are not quite as razor sharp as an Elise, the sensation through the Evora's leather-trimmed magnesium wheel reminds one strongly of the delicious steering feel Porsche 911 drivers experience. So, too, does the punch of the Evora. The sound of the variable multi-cam Toyota under full-throttle is sophisticated like Zuffenhausen's finest, though more in the vein of some fine Italian V-6. Who knew top-of-the-line Camry drivers were having so much fun?
At an expected $75,000, the Evora will likely undercut the 911 in price. 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 300 pounds lighter than the lightest 911. You've got to hand it to these Lotus boys. Even when they're adding weight, they're still adding lightness.