A Lotus engineer told us that the reason the cars handle so well is because the company has gone through so many twists and turns. This sort of candor seems to be the rule from one of the U.K.'s few remaining car companies.
We spent a day with Lotus staff while driving the latest model, the 2010 Evora, around the track at Laguna Seca and through the serpentine roads in Monterey, and learned to expect honesty from the employees of this idiosyncratic organization.
Probably the greatest expression of honesty is in the cars themselves. Lotus has no tricks up its proverbial sleeves; the company makes pure sports cars through simply good engineering.
Take the 2010 Lotus Evora. It uses a unique extruded aluminum chassis, a center tub with bolt-on front and rear pieces. Along with its composite body panels, that structure keeps the total weight down to just over 3,000 pounds. It also results in a stiff body structure that ensures the Evora exhibits the same sort of handling prowess that marks the Lotus Elise and Exige.
But where the Evora differs from Lotus' other models is in its cabin space. Because Lotus concentrates on building small, lightweight cars, its earlier models require the limberness of a yoga instructor to enter and exit. One of the guiding principles in the development of the Evora was that it should accommodate a 6-foot-5-inch driver. It was also designed for 2+2 seating, although the rear seat is actually an option.
Having driven a Lotus Elise at Laguna Seca, we had expectations for the Evora, and they were largely met. The Evora feels heavier in the turns, not surprising because of the 1,000 pounds it has over the Elise. But that doesn't necessarily make it feel less capable.
The steering is every bit as tight as that of the Elise. Move the steering wheel, even just a little, and the car changes direction. Building up speed through the first set of turns, the car showed the same effortless grip as the Elise, showing a limit that we had not even begun to approach. The low mass and stiff suspension eliminate any idea of lean, and the grip is so good that rotation only enters the picture in the sharpest turns.
Powering up the straightaway toward turn 5, the throttle proved as responsive as the steering. Lotus fits the Evora with a 3.5-liter V-6 built by Toyota. Although it uses Toyota's dual variable valve timing system, it gets Lotus' own control unit, increasing horsepower and making peak power come on at lower engine speeds.
This engine produces 276 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, giving the Evora a Lotus-tested 4.9 seconds to 60 mph. Keeping the car in third gear on the straight, acceleration showed no sign of letting up before we hit the braking zone. Around most of the track, third gear proved more than adequate for maintaining speed and accelerating, as it has a much wider power band than in the Elise. It was only when we were pushing 100 mph on the main straight that three redline icons lit up on the tachometer, suggesting the shift to fourth gear.
Seriously enhancing performance are the brakes, with four piston calipers front and rear. Even more impressive are the 13.8-inch discs in front, filling up most of the 18-inch wheels. These brakes are not gentle; they grabbed immediately and kept the same amount of braking power on as we held the pedal down up to the turn. They are ridiculously powerful for a street vehicle, but very satisfying for track driving.
The Evora's agility proved a boon while taking the hard right turn down into the corkscrew, and let us cut a little of that turn on the approach to turn 9. But the hairpin double apex turn 2 really put the car to the test. Here, the electronic rear differential did its part in shifting torque to the outside wheel, helping the car rotate when it was really needed.
To show us how it is really done, we also were treated to a lap around the track in the Evora with one of Lotus' racing drivers, Johnny Mowlem. This lap showed us that we had not begun to test the real limits of the Evora, and that it had a lot more to give.
Lotus also used the Evora as a basis for its GT4/Evora Cup car. In this incarnation, it uses the same body and suspension, but it gets a Cosworth engine management system for the 3.5-liter V-6 and a sequential gearbox.
At $73,500, the Evora is not cheap, which explains the coachwork in the cabin. Leather covers the dashboard and sport seats, and metal runs up the center console and sits to either side of the instrument cluster. Although these materials look quite good, the fit was not always up to the standards of competitors such as Porsche. We also were not crazy about the red LED displays showing fuel and temperature levels next to the tachometer and speedometer.
The Evora may have been designed to fit tall drivers, but the cabin is still compact, and some of the ergonomics were troublesome. An adult in the rear seat will have to hunch over a bit, making long trips uncomfortable. And in the driver's footwell, there was no dead pedal, no place to rest our left foot when not working the clutch. Similarly, we had to memorize the locations of the dashboard buttons, as they were hidden by the steering wheel when we sat in the driver's seat.
Just as Lotus sources the engine from Toyota, it also sources the cabin electronics from Alpine. A double-DIN navigation unit sat in the center of the Evora's dashboard, the Alpine IVA W505. Along with navigation, this unit handles Bluetooth phone and iPod integration. Lotus also includes a very necessary backup camera, as rear visibility out of the Evora is negligible.
Although offering a decent feature set, this Alpine unit is a little bit of a kludge, with a navigation module docked behind the screen. On the plus side, the Evora gets Alpine's Imprint audio tuning. We have previously been treated to a demonstration of Imprint, a means of using digital signal processing to shape sound within a car, and came away impressed with how well it staged the audio.
As a small company, Lotus does not have the development and production resources of a Porsche or BMW, and it shows through in the Evora. On public roads, the car did not feel as refined as the quality of its cabin materials might suggest. Where a BMW offers a very comfortable road-going experience, the Evora still showed its stiff body and racecar brakes, requiring very active driving at all times.
That is not to say we didn't find our time on public roads in the Evora enjoyable. It is a thrilling car, especially when barreling down the kinds of twisty roads we were on. We easily overlooked any harshness in the ride or excess cabin noise while giving the steering wheel input and letting the engine rev up high.