The English car maker aims squarely at Porsche, and Kevin Hackett believes it may have hit a bullseye.
2011 Lotus Evora S
Lotus has been in the headlines a lot lately, following the company's remarkable unveilings at the Paris Motor Show. Never before has a car manufacturer announced an entirely new range in one go, but the real shocker for anyone who's followed Lotus's progress over the past couple of decades is that Ferrari and the like are firmly in its sights.
This has been met with a barrage of derision from various quarters, for although everyone seems to want Lotus to succeed and prosper, its output has, so far, fallen way short when it comes to build quality. If it's serious about mixing it up with the established hierarchy then they need to get that feel of solid, world-class engineering. But the one thing Lotus has always, since the days of founder Colin Chapman, got exactly right is a car's handling. And the Evora, launched last year, was as sweet as any Lotus before it.
There was a problem, however: as good as it undoubtedly was to drive, there was always the feeling that it could do with more power. The chassis felt like it could take it and, to be honest, if Lotus really did want to take the fight to Porsche, it is essential to give the Evora some extra punch. Say hello to the Evora S, the car Lotus hopes will silence those critics.
It's never been the most photogenic car in the world, looking so much better in real life, and the S differs externally only by its wheels, a subtle rear diffuser and the S badge on its rump. Paint finish is excellent, although there's still evidence that this is a plastic car in some imperfect edging along the bonnet. Open the door, take a seat and run a finger along the interior trim. Disappointment here, too, especially with the nasty-feeling door handles and the Ford parts-bin switchgear. It's not Porsche standard yet, but it is actually better than the standard Evora and a marked improvement on the Elise.
Another black mark against the Evora's interior is the frankly useless red LED instrumentation on either side of the main dials. In bright sunshine you can't see a thing and even in the dark they're difficult to read. Pity that, but never mind, let's see if this supercharged Evora manages to tick the right boxes on the move.
The Toyota-sourced, 3.5L V6 has been treated to an Eaton Twin Vortex supercharger. As a result, power is up to 345hp at 7,000rpm and torque is up to 400Nm at 4,500rpm. Official figures are a zero to 100kph time of 4.8 seconds and a maximum speed of 277kph, so it's near 911 territory when it comes to performance. Lotus says the Evora's chassis is 2.5 times stiffer than the Elise (and that car doesn't exactly wobble about), while front and rear bushes have been stiffened by 10 per cent and the damping has been revised, too. Lateral stiffness has been increased up front by 22 per cent and by 32 per cent at the rear so it promises to be a whole load of fun behind the wheel.
Turn the outdated, Ford-sourced key and there's an immediate, muscular beat from the V6 sat amidships. My test car features a sports exhaust system, which is obviously doing its stuff but it still doesn't sound like a full-on sports car. Engage first (there's no paddle-shift option yet, just a traditional manual) and the Evora S happily trundles along at pedestrian speeds, but already there's still a very different feel to the normal Evora. It's definitely stiffer but strangely still very compliant and, when the road opens up properly, the S really shows what it's made of.
Drop down a couple of cogs, bury your right foot and hold on tight because the S fires itself towards the horizon as though launched from a big elastic band. Select Sport mode on the new DPM (Dynamic Performance Management) system and the V6 tears all the way up to 7,200rpm, while there's an impressive dollop of torque that makes the Evora S feel properly powerful. In fact, it feels every bit as rapid as a 911, and that's pretty quick by anyone's standards.
Anyone could have made the Evora more powerful by bolting on a supercharger, but Lotus's chassis engineers have been busy making sure the ride isn't compromised. Their efforts have not been in vain because the S is so compliant, so composed over rough road services and so damned eager to press on to the next corner and fling you round it that, at a stroke, you forget all about interior craftsmanship and illegible instrumentation. You're too busy stifling a big "yeeeeehaaaa!", grinning like the village idiot.
It's a remarkable experience but a 20km section of twisting, hilly, Spanish forestry road leaves my legs shaking. The S attacks and destroys it and, in all seriousness, I can't imagine being able to do the same route faster in anything else. Quite apart from the supernatural handling and the urgency of its engine, this Lotus has quite incredible brakes that seemingly never fade, and the only criticism I have of the way it drives relates to its gearshift. It tends to be recalcitrant and has none of the slickly engineered precision of its German rivals. I can't help but feel this will be sorted sooner rather than later, though.
Lotus has kindly arranged for us to spank the Evora S at Monte Blanco near Seville and, joy of joys, there won't be anyone else on track. No helmets, no pace car, just me and a Lotus on one of the best circuits in Europe. Every Friday should be like this. It's here that I finally get to play with the settings on the DPM system and, after a couple of laps to re-familiarise myself with the track, I switch to Sport mode.
The Sport setting, apart from liberating some extra grunt from the V6, allows greater freedom from the electronic nannying, which only steps in when you properly overcook things. Exiting a tight, right hand corner with my foot firmly on the gas, the S relinquishes its rear grip, and as I counteract with some opposite lock there's a delicious tail slide in progress with smoke pouring off the rear boots. I keep the lock on a fraction too long but before I enter a full-on spin, the system kicks in and gathers decorum once again. It's a brilliant system for drivers of average ability - makes us feel like a hero.
Disconnect the system entirely and the S will drive sideways until the tyres are down to the steel cords if you wish. Initially there's a small amount of understeer but keep the throttle nailed and the S simply pirouettes through every bend. If you're more interested in setting a decent lap time than in vaporising the Pirellis, then the chassis' compliance keeps the S neutral and flat: it's a car of many dimensions and endless abilities. It's completely addictive.
If Porsche could make a car handle as sweetly as this then Lotus may well have packed up and gone home by now. The fact is that Lotus is working on its quality issues (it recently poached some of Porsche's own quality gurus) and soon the build will be up there with the Germans. When that happens the world's best sports car could well be a Lotus. Watch this space.
Base price n/a
Engine 3.5L supercharged V6
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Power 345hp @ 7,000rpm
Torque 400Nm @ 4,500 rpm
Fuel economy, combined 10.2L/100km