CARMEL, Calif.—It’s always dangerous to meet your heroes—just interact with Chuck Yeager on Twitter if you don’t believe me. So it was with trepidation that I dropped myself into the seat of the bright green $96,950 Lotus Evora GT, a model that has just been tweaked a little for US and Canadian consumption.
Until now I’d never actually been behind the wheel of a Lotus, at least not outside the confines of a British auto show back in the late ’90s. What if it turned out to be crap? Lotus has had a rough time the past few years, and the Evora is getting pretty old these days. The fact that it turned out to be a wonderful car to drive wasn’t just a relief, then. No, it filled me with hope for this small British automaker. If this is how good it can make a car on a shoestring, just imagine what it will be able to do now that it’s properly funded.
The first pre-production Evoras rolled off Lotus’ line in Hethel, England, over a decade ago. At the time, it was viewed as a significant event, the first all-new Lotus model since the Elise back in 1996. Like the Elise and its assorted variants (Exige, Europa S, 340R, 2-Eleven, etc), it is built around a tub of bonded and riveted extruded aluminum and then clad in lightweight composite body panels. The original plan was to develop a range of cars on the Evora’s platform, the same way the Elise gave rise to so many other models. And the car was showered with plaudits at launch: Autocar awarded it Britain’s Best Driver’s Car 2009, and Evo named it as that publication’s 2009 Car of the Year, saying that “[I]t’s not flawless, but it’s a magical thing across the ground… with exceptional poise and feel.”
Unlike the Elise, this one was designed with the US market in mind, meeting then-new crash-test regulations and being powered by a Toyota-sourced V6 that could pass EPA emissions regulations. Like the Elise, it was meant to be the first in a series of new models, but then it all went wrong. A charismatic but ineffectual ex-Ferrari marketer ran the company for a while and promised an entire range of new models, but Lotus’ Malaysian owners never gave it the resources to make any of that happen. So the Evora has soldiered on ever since, updated every so often with slightly more power and a few tweaks here and there.
The Evora GT, which comes as either a two-seater or 2+2, gets a high-output supercharged version of the 3.5L V6, providing 416hp (310kW) and 332lb-ft (420Nm). That doesn’t sound like much compared to rivals like Porsche’s 992 Carrera S or the mid-engined C8 Corvette, but with a curb weight of just 3,175lbs (1,440kg) it’s also a good deal lighter than the competition. Fitted with a six-speed manual as tested, 0-60mph takes 3.8 seconds. With the optional six-speed automatic transmission, that same test requires 3.9 seconds. (Opting for the automatic means losing the Torsen limited-slip differential, however.)
Simplify and add lightness
A lot of the improvements over the old Evora 400 and Evora Sport 410 involve new lightweight components. Many of the body panels are now carbon fiber and have been designed to improve the car’s aerodynamic profile, doubling the amount of downforce at speed compared to the 400. (Although we’re not talking F1-levels, it only generates up to 141lbs/64kg of downforce.) Other options cut even more mass from the car—a titanium exhaust saves 22lbs (10kg), and Öhlins TTX dampers save another 28lbs (13kg).
There really is something special about driving a very light car, and it’s an experience that’s becoming all too rare as our vehicles get heavier and heavier in the name of safety. Sure, in a big and very powerful car you can add lots of power assist to the steering and use gobs of low down torque to overcome inertia, but a car like the Evora doesn’t have to fake it. You sit just ahead of (or maybe just at) the car’s pivot point, so it rotates around you through a corner. Our test drive went up into the winding roads above Monterey, with even tighter corners and more poorly surfaced ones than the route on which I tested the Ferrari Portofino earlier this year (another car that uses lots of power and very quick steering to overcome its curb weight). Even on suboptimal road surfaces, the Evora is a joy to drive, with an extremely supple ride that serves as a reminder that Lotus has a vast institutional knowledge when it comes to setting up a car’s springs and dampers.
Because the Evora GT wears ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires (245/35 ZR19-93Y at the front and 295/30 R20-101Y at the rear), there’s a stupendous amount of front grip. On a public road, you’re unlikely to enter a corner fast enough to overcome that grip (and perhaps driving unwisely if you do). Similarly, at the rear the car remained extremely planted, to the extent that I pushed it—one’s first hour in a car worth around $100,000 is not the time to try exploring the outer edges of its performance envelope unless you’re on a track. The hydraulic steering is just wonderful, with 2.9 turns lock-to-lock and the kind of steering feel that causes older car journalists to get misty eyed and start weeping about the things we’ve lost.
Now Lotus has access to Volvo’s parts bin
OK, it’s not entirely perfect. The spacing of the six-speed manual gearbox’s gate is rather narrow, and I had to be conscious not to select 2nd or 6th when I actually wanted 4th. And the main instrument panel and 7-inch infotainment system (which does support CarPlay and Android Auto) are definitely showing their age. That’s why I am now so optimistic about the future of the company under Geely’s ownership, Geely being the Chinese automaker that bought Volvo in 2010 and then Lotus (and its parent Proton Cars) in 2017. Its stewardship of Volvo has amounted to giving the company the resources it needed to develop all-new vehicle architectures with minimal interference, and the Swedish OEM used it to good effect with a range of excellent new vehicles.
Lotus has similar plans. At Pebble Beach, it showed off the Evija, a 1,971hp (1,470kW) electric hypercar that will be limited to just 130 examples, each costing at least $2.1 million. It’s fair to say the Evija’s reception was not universally positive, and plenty of people we spoke to criticized Lotus’ approach instead of showing us something more mainstream. Cheaper, higher-volume cars are in the works, Lotus told me, it’s just a case of time—it takes about four years to develop an all-new vehicle platform or architecture, and the Geely purchase only took place a little over two years ago. But now it has access to Volvo’s parts bin, which means being able to use things like that company’s infotainment tech.
I am pretty excited about seeing what the first of those new models will be like, because if Lotus can make the Evora GT this good on a shoestring, imagine what it can do with real resources.