|From the moment the Evora’s wheels start turning the signs are that it’s something special|
Parked outside the entrance to the Cameron House hotel on the shores of Loch Lomond are a number of Lotus Evoras and, sticking out like a snowman in a sauna, a gleaming white Porsche Cayman S. We’ve been up-front with Lotus and told them we were bringing along the Evora’s arch rival, so it’s no surprise to them. And now, having had the benefit of an extensive and fascinating presentation from some of the Evora’s key architects, we’re ready to head off into the hills to see for ourselves what it’s all about.
First, though, we need to stow photographer Matt Howell’s camera case. The 2+2 Lotus’s tailgate pops open, revealing the styled cover of the mid-mounted V6 and a narrow but wide boot… into which Howell’s fat, square case won’t fit. ‘Behind the seat?’ I suggest, but already my colleague John Hayman has popped the Cayman’s bonnet and the chunky case drops straight in.
First blood to the Porsche, then, but the next it tastes might well be its own. The Evora has been a mere 27 months in the making and although it represents the biggest investment in Lotus’s history it’s mooted to have cost just a tenth of what a major car maker would have spent. However, from the moment its wheels start turning the signs are that it’s something really rather special. The quality of its steering and damping have made an impression, as has the car’s overall sense of refinement and quality, even before I’ve reached the end of the hotel driveway.
Clear your mind. Easier said than done, and in the same way you inevitably arrive at a car launch with hopes and maybe a fear or two. I was worried that with its Toyota-sourced V6 slung out back beyond its +2 seats the Evora might feel wheezy, sluggish and tail-heavy. Not a bit of it. A few miles up the road, right foot stretched and steering and brakes exercised a bit, it’s looking more and more like Lotus has created a truly remarkable car.
There’s a smooth, gutsy V6 behind yet dynamically the Evora feels light and responsive like an Elise. It’s some trick to pull off, endowing the car with the urge and silky soundtrack of a 3.5-litre V6 but mounting it and tuning the chassis set-up in such a way that its mass appears to be no greater than that of a four-cylinder engine.
We have plenty more miles to drive to get the full picture, and a bunch of rivals, not just the Cayman, along to measure the Lotus against, too. They’re all at our first rendezvous point, a spot up in the hills called ‘Rest and be Thankful’.
To be honest, we weren’t sure exactly what the Evora would be, which is why as well as the obvious Porsche, we’ve also brought along the not-so-obvious but intriguing Farbio GTS, the V6-powered, carbonfibre sports car built in Wiltshire. We’ll also be comparing the Evora with the Nissan GT-R (see page 70) – which is also a four-seat performance car and very close on price to the £58,460 launch-spec Evora – and to an Elise to find out just how different the Evora is.
Lotus says the Evora is unique in its sector of the sports-car market, being the only mid-engine 2+2. That’s true, but the 2+0 version (which will come on line after the 450 fully loaded 2+2 launch models have been built), is a remarkably close match for the Cayman S. It’s pretty much the same size, weighs 1382kg, just 32kg more, and its 3452cc V6 is a mere 16cc bigger than the Cayman’s flat-six. It is a little less potent though, delivering 276bhp versus 315bhp, and 258lb ft of torque versus 273, yet the Lotus is the more expensive car: the basic Evora 2+0 costs £47,500, almost £3500 more than the vanilla Cayman S.
If you want rear seats in the Evora you’ll pay an extra £2375. Like those of a 911, they’re rather upright and cramped, suitable only for small children or a single adult folded in for a short run. This particular Evora has them and just about everything else from the extensive options list, and it comes in at £60K.
The significant options are the ‘Tech Pack’ (£2495), which adds satnav, Bluetooth, cruise control and parking sensors, the ‘Premium Pack’ (another £2495), which covers most of the interior in leather and gets you a chrome ‘Evora’ badge for the facia, and the ‘Sport Pack’ (£950), which gets you a ‘Sport’ button. A press of this enhances throttle response, lifts the rev limit to over 7000rpm and allows more slip. You might also want to add the £1495 sports ratio pack, which shortens the top four gears, and the forged alloy wheels (£1495), which save 3kg per corner and are said to make the car’s responses even crisper.
This Cayman is also the result of an uninhibited romp through the options list and hits £61K, though as we shall discover, some of its fittings are of dubious value here.
At a basic level, this Farbio isn’t the closest match for the Lotus and Porsche. A 262bhp GTS (£59,925) would have been better but one wasn’t available, so what we have here is a £76,375 GTS350 with the 350bhp, supercharged version of the Ford V6. Farbio boss Chris Marsh doesn’t mind the comparison, though, because, he says, his customers appreciate that a car made from carbonfibre will be significantly more expensive. The payback is that it’s significantly lighter – just 1066kg, a huge 300kg less than the Lotus and Porsche – which should benefit performance and handling.
Heroically, Howell bags the cover shot before rain short circuits or mists up all of his camera gear and we head off in search of some corners. I trade the Lotus key for the Porsche’s and get a shock. I last drove a Cayman S just a couple of months ago and although it wasn’t as compelling as the 911 we were comparing it with, it was still a very polished and capable car. Yet straight after the Evora it feels odd, like it’s made of lead and its suspension is fashioned from blocks of rubber.
Porsches are noted for their steering feel and suspension control, yet having first tasted the Evora this morning, on this slow, twisting road the Cayman’s steering feels unnecessarily heavy and rather dull, contrived almost, while its ride feels stiff and bouncy. It’s clearly a firm set-up, even before the sport button is pressed to stiffen the dampers (PASM – Porsche Active Suspension Management – is an option), but while it’s taut both laterally and longitudinally, there seems to be some give in the suspension mounts or tyres, lending an unhelpful elastic feel that smudges its accuracy. I wasn’t expecting that.
The Cayman’s cockpit is very dark after the light and airy Evora cabin with its contrasting biscuit leather, but it’s solidly made, with not a creak or twitter. And although the Cayman feels heavier than the Evora, there’s no question that its flat-six, with its appealing gravelly edged mid-range growl, has the power to trouble the Lotus. Shame this particular Porsche has the optional PDK dual-clutch transmission fitted, because the snappy manual would show up the occasional baulkiness of the Evora gearbox, sourced, incidentally, from the diesel Avensis, there being no manual V6 in Toyota’s range.
It’s an unexpected start to what we all imagined would be a very close encounter. In fact, the stronger initial challenge comes from the Farbio, a car that’s making more of an impact outside the UK in the current climate and with the current exchange rate. The company is exporting everything it makes right now, this left-hand-drive 350GTS being kindly lent to us by Arabian Motors Group, Kuwait, to whom it will be shipped later this week.
The Farbio is a longer, lower, wider car than the others, and it feels it; you seem to perch on the excellent, deep-bolstered Sparco seat with the car diving away to a tapering point beyond the base of the windscreen and your feet. Its fittings may lack the polished design and detail finish of the Porsche and Lotus, but behind you, under a carpeted hump where the Evora’s tiny seats would be, is a V6 with a richness of character that makes the others’ engines seem synthetic. It’s not short of grunt, either.
There’s heftiness to the gearshift and steering that makes this car feel heaviest of all, but with the throttle pinned the Farbio flies. Helpfully, the throttle pedal is long and the build-up of supercharged torque wonderfully progressive, allowing you to meter it out precisely.
On the same narrow roads as the Porsche, it feels planted and biddable, and where the Cayman’s rear end, assisted by an optional limited-slip diff, judders as it fights for grip, the Farbio finds more drive and then slips into a gentle slide with well-telegraphed, confidence-inspiring ease. It’s then that I recall an anxious Chris Marsh asked us to bear in mind that the car was on brand new, still pimpled tyres. Impressive, considering there’s no slippy diff and the traction control on this car is not yet connected.
Ollie Marriage has just got out of the Evora. ‘Fifty yards. That’s all it took. Fifty yards after moving off I was convinced Lotus had done it,’ he says, enthusiastically. ‘Though initially it was the smoothness and refinement that impressed me – the totally silent idling engine and the ease with which the car moved away from a standstill, the quietness of the suspension.’
The Evora doesn’t have a full stability-control system. Instead, it uses steering-angle and yaw-rate sensors to calculate when it is understeering, at which point it will rein back engine power, while at the rear, traction control and an ‘electronic locking diff’ tame wheelspin and oversteer. I can’t say I ever noticed the understeer control, but perhaps that’s because the delicacy of the set-up makes it obvious when you’re driving in a ham-fisted fashion. More likely it’s because the Sport button was pushed most of the time, disabling understeer management. With everything off it’s possible to get the rear to edge out under power, and once there it feels comfortable, with no hint that there’s a fat V6 lump trying to swing it further, followed by an easy gather. Lotus’s Matthew Becker, whose fine handiwork the chassis set-up is, explained earlier that the oversteer balance point on the Elise was very close to maximum lock so an extra three degrees have been built into the Evora.
In search of fresh roads we head further north via Inverary, on fast, sweeping roads around tranquil lochs and through spectacular valleys with lofty peaks. Well, at least that’s what the map suggests is hiding behind the heavy rain and low mist.
On these roads the Cayman starts to assert itself and the Farbio starts to fall back a little. I’ve stuck with the GTS350, and while it’s clearly got the edge in terms of outright performance, it’s not as reassuring as it could be. The brakes are potent but the car feels just a fraction imprecise as the speed rises, the steering a little distracted and lacking in self-centring, the damping a tad floaty so that your enthusiasm – and consequently your speed – are tempered a little.
In contrast, the Porsche is in its element. It all seems to pull into focus, the damping and steering in tune with the road, inspiring confidence with their positive, slack-free responses. Through a series of sweeps you plan the ideal line in your mind and then guide the Cayman with inch-perfect precision, the suspension unfazed by imperfections, the engine strong and willing, the optional PCCB composite brakes right on it when you need them to be.
And then I climb back into the Evora and it’s as if I’ve taken off a 75lb rucksack. There’s such an amazing freshness and lightness about the Lotus, such delicate feel and effortless precision. It’s like layers of filtering have been removed from the steering (which you’d never imagine was power assisted); agility has been gained. Impromptu comparisons of performance tailing the Cayman suggest that there’s nothing in it despite the Porsche’s claimed power-to-weight ratio advantage. If there’s a downside, it’s that the Lotus’s light-feeling nose doesn’t give the Porsche’s unwavering high-speed stability; it’s just a bit sensitive to cambers and surface changes.
The Farbio is essentially right but when compared with two cars of such high calibre, the need for some concerted fine-tuning is clear. It especially needs this in its dynamics, to tie down its damping and dial in a bit more straight-line positivity, but it’s a big-hearted car that’s not short of character.
In the end, though, this is Lotus versus Porsche, and even though they are both global cars and remarkably similar on paper, it seems they can’t help reflecting where they come from, the Lotus excelling on demanding, give-and-take roads, the Porsche coming into its own at speed.
The Lotus is an impressive achievement given the budget. It’s refined, it’s comfortable, it’s fast and it’s economical, just like the Cayman. But what Lotus has added is everything that’s good about an Elise – particularly the clarity of steering, the supple ride and the effortless agility and precision – and allowed them to headline in a bigger, higher-quality package. And suddenly the Porsche feels like its wheels are made of lead.
The Cayman is still a great car but the Evora, well, the Evora is irresistible.