BBC Autos

Review

The unbearable lightness of the Lotus Evora S

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The old piano-bar standard The Streets of Baltimore tells of a husband who takes his wife to the port city, only to return alone to Tennessee after having lost his love to the town’s nightlife.

A visit to Charm City, Maryland, for the IndyCar series’ Baltimore Grand Prix left me feeling that the Lotus Evora S, too, liked those streets better than it liked me.

The race drivers complained about the streets’ bumps, but the Lotus – admittedly travelling more slowly – soaked up the punishment with aplomb uncommon among sports cars. A subsequent trip in the Evora’s natural foil, the Porsche Cayman S, had that car bottoming and scraping over the very same streets.

The suspension engineers at Lotus are masters of tuning steering, damper and spring rates, and that mastery is evident in the peerless accuracy and feel of the Evora. In typical British fashion, the Lotus is softly sprung, letting its shocks and anti-sway bars do the work of corralling ride motions, while the soft springs let the tires mould to punishing pavement rather than forcing jumps and skitters.

As if to underscore their commitment to soft spring rates, Lotus engineers retained the springs of the base Evora for the more powerful S, only fitting harder rubber bushings and a thicker anti-sway bar.

On rural country highways and gnarled city streets, the engineers’ approach worked flawlessly. The Evora turns exactly when and where a driver wants, and the charted line is unperturbed by mid-corner bumps. Dialling up enough speed and power to rotate the car shows that even when the rear tires reach their limits of adhesion, there is no hair-raising drama. The Evora is that rare car that seems to actually do what you intend, rather than what you tell it to do in your best ham-fisted manner. In that way it recalls nothing so much as the near-mythic Acura NSX.

A bias towards understeer – sliding the front tires before the rear breaks free – revealed itself on a skidpad test at around 45mph. In fairness, it was a rural roundabout, but still, it was a little surprising to discover.

The S’s supercharged 345-horsepower, 3.5-litre V6 engine – up from 276hp in the base car – delivers relentless power, with a torque curve only possible through the miracle of forced induction. The underlying engine is a bog-standard Toyota Camry unit, untouched by Lotus save for the bolted-on supercharger and rewritten engine management software. We’ve seen this approach before in the Lotus Elise, whose Corolla engine is utterly transformed by an English accent.

For those so inclined, Lotus offers an optional automatic transmission on the Evora S. Company marketers call this six-speed Intelligent Precision Shifting, or IPS, but in truth, it is nothing more than the gearbox from the Camry. For the purpose of punch-and-go, the IPS is surely serviceable. Actual sports car drivers, however, will be disappointed. This of course foments a culture war beneath the Lotus’s striking metal, as most people willing to tolerate the Evora’s racecar-like ergonomics are die-hards – precisely those who would prefer a six-speed manual transmission. Fortunately for them, the Evora S’s shifter is excellent.

The manual draws forth classic mid-engine sports car characteristics from the S, with light, quick action, thanks to a freshly upgraded stick that travels a touch longer between ratios than current fashion would dictate.

The automatic, although equipped with steering wheel paddles and clever programming, is a letdown, especially when compared to benchmarks like the Chevrolet Corvette and Jaguar F-Type. Against these two, the Evora’s automatic seems woefully behind the times. Click off upshifts with the manual paddles, and the results feel as soggy as a morning at Lotus headquarters in Hethel, England.

The S further self-selects its customer with a supremely rigid aluminium chassis fit for a Le Mans endurance car. That means incredible frame stiffness, which enables the company’s suspension engineers to accurately tune the springs, dampers and steering. The price is paid with wide door sills that impede ingress and egress to such a degree that a driver might absentmindedly fiddle for his helmet radio and drinking water lines.

And if the narrow door aperture doesn’t do it, surely the race-specification Recaro seats – with their concave shape and lack of lumbar adjustment – suggest that a pit crew will be along shortly to cinch down an imaginary Sparco six-point racing harness.

These are great ways to appease the hardcore enthusiast Lotus built its brand on. In comparison, a Porsche Cayman S feels spacious and comfortable, with all the latest amenities. The Evora might own the Cayman on a racetrack and handily leave it behind on a bumpy rural road, but for everyday driving duty, the Cayman’s superior comfort trumps – and when both cars can rub right up against $100,000, comfort counts.

What the Cayman surrenders to the Lotus is exoticism. Parked next to the Evora, the Porsche looks like a Volkswagen Beetle. Then there’s the S’s fanboy-bating equipment list. AP Racing brakes, Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires, a front aerodynamic splitter and rear diffuser that actually function – these are precision tools that heighten the Lotus's appeal.

But intrusion on the driver’s footwell by the left front wheel makes the Evora intolerable for drives of much duration. The left-leg claustrophobia is even worse than that in the Audi R8 or Lamborghini Gallardo, infamous offenders both. The cushy spring rates that would make a cross-country tour in the Evora pleasant are compromised by the agonising discomfort of driving with one’s left leg crossed nearly atop the right.

In around-town driving, pressing the clutch pedal gives the left foot enough to do to avoid cramping. But with the automatic or on the highway, where there are few gear changes, one can feel tendons tighten and toes tingle.

A budding love affair with the Lotus, then, never comes into bloom. It’s heartbreaking, really, but if the Evora is treated as a dreamy track-day fling rather than a soul mate, few limits can be placed on its charms.