As the driver of various clapped-out Vauxhall Novas and Ford Escorts during my teens and 20s in the United Kingdom, I never owned an automatic car until I moved to the manual-averse UAE.
Before that, I only knew one friend who drove an automatic. Faced with my ridicule, he defended his clutch-pedal-bereft Nissan Micra with the words: “Well, I can hold my McDonald’s milkshake in one hand while I drive because I don’t need it to change gear. Can you do that in your car?”
I couldn’t. I couldn’t fault the anthropological logic – nobody has three hands – although road-safety bods will confirm that it’s best to keep two on the steering wheel wherever possible.
Automatic has long been the staple transmission in cars in the Emirates. There is enough to concentrate on, what with the varying international standards of driving in our multicultural nation, to worry about having a hand occupied on the gear stick, or so the thinking goes.
Predominantly wide, straight roads outside of the cities and not much in the way of gradients to conquer, certainly in the main conurbations, are other factors. And with the amount of traffic in Abu Dhabi and Dubai particularly, constant clutch work can make every day leg day – such driving travails can be exhausting work. Ban automatics and taxi drivers would be in uproar.
But the auto creep is slowly enveloping model ranges across the planet, partly driven, in many countries, by its aid in generally improving fuel efficiency, with cars’ computers, rather than your hands, making the choices. Supercars and hypercars are increasingly coming without a manual incarnation.
So what is it actually like to pilot a manual car through the highways and byways of the UAE? To answer that question, I am stepping inside the latest in Lotus’s illustrious lineage of two-door sports cars, the Evora Sport 410. It’s a six-speed stick-shift with, as its name teases, a rather handy 410hp.
Reacquainting myself with the basics – the biting point, downshifting while braking, remembering to floor the clutch when coming to a standstill in gear – all require a small amount of conscious thought. The physical effects are obvious, too: my left foot is in mild spasms by the end of a day in the Evora – the clutch pedal isn’t especially taut, but getting back into the swing of using both plates of meat in any car takes a while. On a couple of occasions when approaching traffic, I find myself scrambling for half a second to get my feet back in formation.
The rewards though are multiple. Anybody who enjoys driving as anything more than a simple form of transportation will never tire of dropping down a gear in the little Lotus to get it revving and straining at the leash. Not that it is struggling for grunt at most speeds in most gears, with plenty of power to kick things into life from a cruise – the Evora, incidentally, does have cruise control, operated via four super-simple steering-wheel buttons. The interior is awash with black Alcantara, which contrasts nicely with my cheerily yellow test car’s matching detailing.
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There’s carbon fibre everywhere, from the roof and the engine cover/spoiler to the lightweight racing seats, which have one level of adjustment – backwards and forwards. “Comfort” seats are an alternative option, but the sparser choice feels somehow essential to the ethos here. You need to sit a little closer to the wheel than in an automatic, too, to enable full depression of the clutch.
With aluminium aplenty, including the entire engine, and all that carbon, the Evora’s kerb weight is 1,325 kilograms – 70kg less than an Evora 400, or about half a Rolls-Royce, in layman’s terms. When powered by a 3.5-litre V6 with 420Nm of torque, that equates to a proper mid-engined mini firecracker. The fat central exhaust gets especially conversational in Sport mode.
Throw in the sports-ratio manual gearbox (a six-speed automatic is a Dh9,761 option) and there’s fun to be had. Once you’re comfortable and/or reacquainted with the shifting, you suddenly feel more in control when nipping through traffic and negotiating bends and junctions, rather than just relying on brakes alone, with none of the slight lag that can be associated with automatics when a quick response is required. It helps that the Lotus has some of the finest handling on any car anywhere.
It’s not perfect, admittedly. The dual system of starter button and physical key is a little unwieldy. Rear visibility clearly wasn’t top of Lotus’s list, either – you have to rely on the two not-exactly-huge door mirrors and a few letterbox-esque gaps in the slatted engine cover. Let’s assume the logic is that everybody else will be trailing in your wake.
The stereo/satnav in my test car isn’t standard kit. Storage space? Well, suffice to say you can forget about any hold-sized luggage if you’re off on holiday. Does that matter? Not a great deal.
Much has changed for Lotus from a business point of view in the past few decades. But after various spells of ownership under the likes of General Motors and Proton, its cars haven’t become unrecognisable from the spirit of days when idiosyncratic founder Colin Chapman was at the helm.
In May, it was all change once more, when the company was bought by Chinese auto group Geely, which also owns Volvo. The hope is that the new regime won’t change a thing, because the Evora Sport 410 is an indisputable bundle of automotive joy and an absolute advert for stick-shift driving.
There are only 150 being made per year, though, so you will need to be quicker than the car itself to snaffle one. My aching left foot might argue, but jumping back into an automatic after this is a mighty tough sell.