A slick automatic gearbox in a fast sports car combines the best of both worlds, finds Graeme Lambert.
Road Test: Automatic Lotus Evora S IPS is surprisingly nimble
The manual gearbox has long been an integral part of the sports car experience; from Ferrari's open gate to the slick, rifle-bolt change in the humble Mazda MX-5, the gear stick has featured in some of the greatest cars of all time.
There's certainly an added sense of pleasure to be derived from a drive, getting the balance between clutch, accelerator and brakes just right. Acceleration lulls minimised, each downshift blipped gently, matching ratios as you brake hard into that tight bend rapidly filling your windscreen.
But, sometimes, just sometimes, when you're not on that ribbon of road that slices delicately through the landscape - a piece of automotive folklore often discussed, but seldom found - you just want to settle back and enjoy the experience.
There are few manufacturers more qualified in engineering this sense of enjoyment from behind the wheel as Lotus is. The British firm has brought the world such greats as the original Seven, the Elan, Elise and, more recently, the Evora - a car that took all of its know-how and made for the firm's most all-round package.
Launched in 2010, the 2+2 was a real push forward for the company, which, until then, was relying on the basic but invigorating Elise and Exige models to pay the bills. This car ushered in the new era at Lotus, but not being one to sit back and rest on its laurels, the firm has just made it even more sophisticated.
We've already seen the Evora S, a supercharged version of the standard car with 70hp extra and a 0-to-100kph time of less than five seconds. We've already seen the Evora IPS (Intelligent Precision Shift) with its six-speed automatic gearbox as well, but this is the first time the two have been combined.
Step forward the new Evora S IPS, the fastest self-shifting Evora ever. The drivetrain components may have been borrowed in the main from a luxurious Lexus, but you'd do well to put these origins to one side. Hefty recalibration means that, above everything else, this new car still keeps true to the Lotus ethos - to build world-class, high-performance sports cars. The former is important, and it seems the company has listened to its customers; not only did they want more power and more options, but they wanted improvements, too. More than 100 changes have been made to the 2012 model in a bid to address previous criticisms and Lotus believes this is the best quality it has ever achieved.
But how well the plastics seam together in the cabin has rarely been key to a good Lotus, so no matter how nicely appointed the interior, it's the driving experience that really sells these cars.
It's an experience that starts well - the leather-swathed Recaro seats figure-hug nicely, while the small but chunky steering wheel fits perfectly within your grasp. Fired up, the 3.5L V6 blips the throttle and barks behind you, the revs then gently dying away to a subtle and civilised idle. It's pretty quiet actually but, as ever, respite is at hand, and depressing the sport button on the centre console not only sharpens throttle response but the sound from the active exhaust as well - now we're talking.
A gentle prod of the right pedal sees the Evora leap forward with vigour only afforded to those models that can count lightweight among their attributes. Depress it further and the speedometer needle climbs smoothly round the dial, as gears are quickly and efficiently swopped. Notice the word "efficiently"; this is not a "slushbox", gently blending each cog into the next - even on light throttle openings there is a distinct thump through the drivetrain. Help is at (or more precisely, behind) hand though.
Stretch your digits past the steering wheel rim and a gentle squeeze of the down- or up-shift paddles removes control from the gearbox and places it directly in your grasp. By easing off the throttle as you pull the paddle for the next gear, the thump is reduced, and smooth(er) progress can now be made.
And for those who wish to explore this car's considerable prowess and enjoy the very experience that made them choose a Lotus in the first place, this is the answer. In sport mode, downshifts are accompanied by a swift blip of the throttle, and though the IPS doesn't react as faithfully and quickly as a good double-clutch system, the whole experience is greatly improved.
Find that mythical ribbon of tarmac, gently winding through the landscape, and loosen your grip on the wheel - this Lotus is finally coming alive. Delicately balanced, the wheel might be heavy but the Evora feels light on its feet, changing direction with precision and speed. There's feedback aplenty and soon the extra punch from the supercharged engine makes itself known, as you hold onto each gear that little bit longer, the shift lights growing menacingly red in the background. Ground is covered, the pace is upped and the car is singing beneath you, encouraging you to explore every ounce of its grip. Like the very best Loti, car and driver are now united.
And then, out of nowhere, it comes to an end, the twisting ribbon replaced with mundane blacktop. Back in drive mode, it's time to settle back, relax and reflect on the experience you've just enjoyed, in ... your automatic Lotus. It isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
Price Not available
Engine 3.5L V6
Gearbox Six-speed automatic
Power 350hp @ 7,000rpm
Torque 400Nm @ 4,500rpm
Fuel economy, combined 9.7L/100km