x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lotus flowers

Jack Hammond gets behind the wheel of the Porsche-rivalling Evora S, as Lotus becomes the latest in a glittering line of famous British motoring brands to establish an official dealership base in the UAE.

The Lotus Evora S may cost about Dh43,000 more than a 911 Carrera, but it remains a serious proposition because of its comparative exclusivity, a staggering engine, scurrying acceleration and sublime handling. Carlin Gerbich
The Lotus Evora S may cost about Dh43,000 more than a 911 Carrera, but it remains a serious proposition because of its comparative exclusivity, a staggering engine, scurrying acceleration and sublime handling. Carlin Gerbich

Every now and then, it’s encouraging to come across people involved in the car industry who are actually interested in what they do. You may think that it’s rather odd that not everyone involved in this business is a dyed-in-the-wool car nut, but the sad truth is that there are many for which working with cars is just another job.

They don’t get excited over the sound of a classic V8 on four-barrel Holleys, get tingly at the thought of driving a 1960s E-Type or instantly imagine the smell of the old leathered interior of a classic Ferrari.

But Len Hunt is certainly a car nut. As Al Futtaim’s automotive president, Hunt has plenty on his plate – but it’s got even busier of late with the opening of the company’s Lotus dealership in Dubai Festival City, alongside the Fisker showroom that opened in April.

Lotus and Fisker are just two cornerstones of Al Futtaim’s new showroom. The British marque Morgan sits upstairs, and the company’s full range of cars is available through Al Futtaim – including the oddly appealing 3 Wheeler and the futuristic Aero 8 – while Al Futtaim also opened its Prestige Collection of approved second-hand premium cars earlier this year.

“We had an opportunity to do Lotus, so we jumped at the chance. It stands for an awful lot. It’s a fabulous car, the handling, everything about it is great. Yes, it’s niche; we’re not going to sell 100,000 of them – but I think it’s an important brand for buyers here,” Hunt says.

“You can’t just have a dedicated showroom for Lotus. Well, you can, but it’s a bit difficult with the overheads. But if you can have a showroom within a building for all these brands, then it works. It says, at Al Futtaim, you can get a Corolla – but you can also get something with a little more panache.”

The Prestige Collection simply ties everything together, Hunt ­explains.

“The idea is that you wander around and you’re in heaven. So if you wanted a Lotus, Fisker, Ferrari or a Morgan, then we have something different, something interesting. The truth is, from an economics standpoint, they all help each other.”

“You cannot believe the interest in the Morgan 3 Wheeler by Emiratis. The young lads. I was out in one of the cars in Malvern [The UK home of Morgan], and you can really have fun in them.”

Al Futtaim is also looking at launching its own restoration service for classic cars and trucks. Hunt says that they’ve already restored two Jaguar E-Types, including the very first V12 Series III car exported to the US in 1971, and he’s currently looking for an Austin-Healey 3000 to restore.

“The other thing we can do is, because we’re so big, we have all the people we need to look after them. We have all the technicians, certified parts, and do it properly. We’ll look after the car for you, over the summer, when you may not want to be out in it.”

The opening of the Lotus showroom brings with it the launch of two models into the region, both variants on the Evora 2+2. The Elise-based Exige hardtop will follow but there are no plans, yet at least, to launch the Elise here.

The Evora is a difficult car to place against its rivals. While the supercharged Evora S debuted in 2009 as Lotus’s answer to the Porsche 911 Carrera, the naturally aspirated Evora is more a match for the Porsche Cayman in terms of layout (forget the rear seats: they’re a little too cosy for anything other than a squashy bag or small child) and power.

Our test car is the S model; the first four-seater from Lotus since it pulled the Excel from production in 1992, and it remains the only mid-engined, four-seat sports car in the world.

It’s a sexy little car to look at, with hardly a bad angle from which to photograph it. The car’s a blend of concept-car lines and established Lotus design language that really works in this explosive shade of solar yellow. The black roof is optional, and accents the helmet-visor look of the roof and glasswork. It also gives an impression that the car is lower than it actually is: something that’s abundantly apparent as soon as it pulls alongside an SUV or bus.

Both the Evora and Evora S get their power from the same base unit, a 3.5L V6 that saw more sedate service in the Toyota Rav4 and the previous-generation Camry and Avalon. In base form, the engine produces 276hp, but the S model rises to 345hp thanks to a Harrop HTV 1320 Eaton-Roots-type supercharger bolted to the top of the engine.

The supercharger is nestled between the banks of the V6 and hidden below a simple engine cover that makes the engine bay look a little neater. Behind that is a shallow and narrow luggage compartment that runs the entire width of the car. It looks entirely useless, but holds a lot of stuff if you cram your belongings into the cavities that extend into the rear wings. You’ll easily get two helmets, an overnight bag and everything else that you’ll need for a weekend of track-day action in there if you really try. Anything else can go on the back seat because, let’s face it, you’re not likely to be carrying any normal-sized people in the back for any great distances.

Swing the driver’s door open and you’ll notice a huge difference between the Evora and its Elise sibling. The sills are narrower, but there’s still a trick to getting in and swinging your left leg without catching the door. The interior is far more luxurious than the Elise, too, with lots more leather, carbon fibre and Alcantara on display than the Elise ever had.

You’ll notice a few other things about the Evora over the Elise, too: like the lack of a clutch pedal. Though manual versions are available, our test model was equipped with the Lotus-devised, six-speed Intelligent Precision Shift (IPS) auto that’s operated by pressing buttons to engage drive, reverse or neutral. You change up by blipping the steering wheel paddle-shifter on the right, and down with the one mounted on the left.

There are other creature comforts fitted to the Evora S that you may not find in the Elise, too. This is the first Lotus that I’ve driven with air-conditioning, cruise control and electric door mirrors and windows. It’s also the first that I’ve seen with a seven-inch touch-screen display, heated seats and cupholders. It’s even got a glovebox that, given the propensity of Lotus owners to drive their cars on track, may even get used to carry gloves.

UAE buyers get power-folding mirrors, a reversing camera and a choice of “Premium” and “Tech” packages that add more features like tyre-pressure monitoring, leather trim, accent lighting, better speakers, Bluetooth and rear parking sensors.

Driving position is comfortable and we’re told that drivers over six feet fit easily behind the wheel with the seat slid all the way to the rear, and a steering wheel that has more reach that any other car on the market. If you like to crowd the wheel in true touring car style, then the Evora is the car for you.

With the V6 barking through the central, twin-exit exhaust and the sport mode button engaged, the Evora is a treat to drive around town. The ride is far more compliant than you may expect, and the car’s low-speed manners are impeccable. Steering is light, and even at urban speeds, you have a great sense of connectivity and feedback from the road.

That feeling only increases with speed once you shake off the shackles of side streets and point the Evora’s bonnet toward the open road. Road noise from the Pirelli P Zero Corsa LS Asimmetrico tyres builds inside the cabin, but the carpets and extra insulation do a great job of keeping the din down. You can still hear the radio or hold a pleasant conversation without any extra effort – not something that can be said for the Elise, in which the radio becomes redundant past 100kph.

As you’d expect, handling is sublime. Despite the extra weight, length and bulk required to make the Evora S a little more civil than its more extreme stablemates, the car has lost none of that Lotus magic. It still scurries off the line when you slam your right foot into the carpet, it still sticks to the road at speeds that you don’t expect to get away with and it still buries itself into the tarmac when you stomp on the brakes.

Gear changes through the IPS aren’t as rapid or as instant as they could be. There’s a slight delay in calling for the next cog and the car responding, and this gets slightly longer as the gearbox gets warmer. It’s only minor, and it could be a symptom of enthusiastic driving by other journalists, but it’s a significant issue if you’re used to the rapid-fire response of other performance cars on the market. Most hardcore Lotus fans should simply opt for a manual gearbox. It may not be as cool to drive as the IPS with its paddle shifters, but the third pedal and H-pattern gear lever has got to be a lot more engaging and satisfying to master. If you do, you’ll be buying a car that not only flatters novice drivers, but also rewards more experienced ones with a lightweight race car that’s designed for the road.

The real issue is whether the Evora S is a match for the slightly more powerful and proven 911 Carrera. The Lotus costs considerably more (Dh386,400 for the Evora S versus Dh343,300 for the 911 Carrera), but comes bristling with a staggering engine and legendary Lotus handling. Add exclusivity into the mix, and the Evora S is an exciting proposition. Hand on heart, I’d probably buy the Porsche, but I’d wake up every morning wishing that I had the Evora S parked in the drive.

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