Lotus Evora (2009-2021): review, history and specs
It may not have sold in the numbers Lotus hoped for, but the original Evora was an eCoty winner and – as we’re about to discover – remains a dynamic paragon to this day
This road in south Wales is as lumpy as a sack of spuds, but not much of that turmoil is reaching us through the seats. ‘My car was terrible when I came down here for a recce earlier,’ says photographer Aston Parrott, slightly bemused. The Evora feels astonishingly good, as if the road has been resurfaced in the last couple of hours. Still got it, then.
The Evora’s ride is still outstanding because, along with power-to-weight ratio and torque-to-grip, it’s one of those characteristics that doesn’t age. In fact, the general trend towards firmer cars means that in 2023 the Evora feels even more supple than when it was launched in 2009.
It’s almost a lost art. The Alpine A110 is the only modern sports car that shares the Lotus approach to lightweight build and an absorbent ride, but there’s a key Lotus characteristic Alpine hasn’t yet delivered: connected, talkative, engaging steering. The Evora had great steering right from the start. I remember on the launch leaving the hotel and being struck by its quality before I’d got to the end of the driveway. It’s another feature that’s more impressive now because it’s hydraulically assisted, a rarity today. Electrically assisted systems have made great strides but there’s still something more natural and nuanced about a hydraulic system. It’s why McLaren uses hydraulic and why it’s been retained for the Emira.
With that memory of delicacy and subtlety in my mind, I was a bit surprised to discover that the steering of this beautiful Evora is pretty heavy initially. It’s a 2014 car, one of the last naturally aspirated versions: a Sports Racer model, with wheels an inch bigger than the original – 18-inch front, 19-inch rear – shod with appropriately upsized tyres. Maybe that explains the low-speed heft, though it’s great to discover that as soon as the speed picks up, the steering is as bright and biddable as the original’s.
Owner Martin Taylor, who also has an S1 Elise, bought this Evora two and a half years ago. It’s covered just 10,600 miles and is as tight as a drum. You have to say Lotus nailed the build quality; it’s solid and rattle-free and almost every interior surface is neatly trimmed in Alcantara or leather. Sports Racer models were loaded with options as standard and this one’s got cruise control, air conditioning, heated seats and an Alpine head unit with reversing camera and satnav. It also has rear seats.
A big deal was made of the Evora’s 2-plus-2 layout. Lotus wanted the Evora to be seen as a useable, everyday car, just like the Porsche 911. Tony Shute, head of Evora development, reckoned that, besides being an excellent sports car, it was one of the reasons the 911 had stayed relevant all these years. So the Evora joined a very short list of mid-engined 2-plus-2s, Ferrari claiming both the most and least handsome of them, with the Bertone Dino 308 GT4 and Pininfarina Mondial.
Steve Crijns, whose back catalogue includes the S2 Elise, did the exterior under the direction of Russell Carr. The development team was aware that the ‘plus-2’ aspect shouldn’t exert too much influence over the essential design – there was a plus-zero option – and the resulting shape is well proportioned, neatly detailed, and avoided the over-long, awkward profile of the Mondial. For me, the nose of the original is a little long and bland and the overall look was improved greatly by the more aggressive front treatment of the later Evora 400.
There’s still a bit of a sill to get over, though it’s not as obvious as in the Elise and its derivatives, and inside it’s compact enough to warrant sliding the seat back to ease ingress and egress. All around are aluminium details, referencing the VVA (Versatile Vehicle Architecture) beneath, including neat, skeletal extrusions for the engine-cover hinges and glovebox lid. The view in the mirror isn’t great, like peering under a railway arch, and over-the-shoulder vision is even less good.
The pedals are slightly offset and the seat a little flat, but after a few miles you’ve forgotten those things because the chassis, deft and supple, is already working its magic. The 3.5-litre Toyota V6 is pretty good, too. This Sport Racer has the same 276bhp as the original but crucially has the optional Sport button. A press of this at idle picks up the revs and opens the exhaust valves, giving the V6 a richer, deeper-chested sound. It helps that it’s married to the Sports Ratio set too.
Like the Elise S2’s 1.8-litre in-line four, the V6 was a fruit of Lotus’s good relationship with Toyota. The all-aluminium, 24-valve V6 ‘2GR-FE’ came from the US-market RAV‑4, for the favourable position of its engine mounts, and gained a Lotus-designed intake and Lotus ‘T6’ ECU so that it would interface with the Lotus instruments, stability controls, immobiliser and the like. There was a physical issue to overcome too: despite its many applications within the Toyota group, not one mated the V6 to a manual gearbox.
After a trawl through the Toyota range, Lotus selected the six-speed ’box from the Avensis diesel for its high torque capacity and then adapted it to fit the V6, adding an AP clutch and flywheel. However, being designed for a low-rev diesel, the inherited gearing was quite long, so with Toyota’s blessing Lotus made some new gears, creating the Sports Ratio option. First and second were retained but the other gears were shortened, culminating in a sixth giving 27mph per 1000rpm versus the original’s leggy 36.4mph.
The gearshift on this car is tight and sweet-shifting with a lovely clackety, Elise-like, metal-on-metal report, while perfect pedal spacing for heel and toe encourages you to finesse your downshifts. It’s hard to imagine the Evora without these bespoke ratios. Even with them, every now and again there’s a corner that makes the gap between second and third feel a fraction big, a corner where second would interrupt the flow with a burst of high revs but third gear would have the V6 digging a fraction deep.
In much the same way, the bit of extra character, the bit of spice that the Sport button adds is crucial to getting the performance feel over the line. You’re encouraged to venture to the red line by the aural crescendo, even though you can tell that the V6 is not a pure sports car engine because the delivery is already fading away.
The flat-plane-crank V8 that Lotus had designed and developed for the Esprit was ruled out for the Evora because of emissions and also because it was felt that the natural engine for this part of the market was a six-cylinder. It also had to be an off-the-shelf engine; the total budget to make the Evora was said to be a tenth of what a large car maker would have spent. The time scale demanded it too.
Once Mike Kimberley, Lotus CEO at the time, had been given the go-ahead by then owners Proton, the project, codenamed Eagle, was directed with great skill by vehicle engineering director and long-serving Lotus employee Roger Becker. He knew the best people for each role in the creation of Lotus’s first new car since the Elise more than a decade earlier.
Yes, it got off to a good start because some of the groundwork had already been done on the new Esprit, which was started in 2004 but stalled for lack of a suitable engine, but even so, to go from sketches in August ’06 to the first running EPs (engineering prototypes) in early ’08, an unveiling at the London Motor Show in July ’08, to first build in December and a press launch in March ’09 was quite incredible. Just 27 months, a timeframe that would be ambitious today.
Originally the launch was going to be in the south of France, but it was switched to Scotland as the global recession started to bite. We turned up for it with what we considered the appropriate competitors: the Cayman S and Farbio GTS350 (remember that?). We loved the Porsche but found the Evora refreshingly light and delicate in comparison, taking some of the appealing character of the Elise and adding refinement and practicality. It took the win, and did so again at our Car of the Year, also on difficult Scottish roads, pipping the 997.2 GT3. The Porsche’s thrilling, potent and charismatic flat-six exposed the Evora’s drivetrain for the ordinary fare it was, but the 911 didn’t meld with the roads of Skye, beaten up by surfaces that the Lotus sailed over.
One of the secrets of the Evora’s success was its bonded and riveted aluminium chassis which, with the added strength of a roof, bonded-in screen and extra bulkheads, was 2.5 times stiffer than the Elise’s. This gave an excellent platform for the suspension to work from and the suspension hardware itself played its part. Lotus had invested in forged aluminium wishbones, intending to use them first for the new Esprit. Sadly, the closest they got to that was when early Evora prototypes began winter testing in Arjeplog disguised in old Esprit bodies.
Another Becker was significant in the Evora’s development. Matt Becker, son of Roger and now head of dynamics at JLR, led the vehicle dynamics team, delivering the required ability and the easily recognised and admired blend of Lotus attributes that had been established by the Elise and Exige.
The Evora is one of those rare cars that seems to enjoy all types of road, and there’s a wide selection here in south Wales. You can place it perfectly on a smooth road but it can also declaw a really difficult surface. Its steering is the same, in that its stream of feedback lets you know what’s going on at the wheels but precision is unaffected. It does feel very Elise-like in character, going from being quite heavy initially, to quickly right once the speed picks up, to becoming chattery on a bumpy road, while the feedback and connection allow you to put the Evora just where you want it.
It’s such a satisfying car for such a lot of the time. You can relax into it, stroke the V6 along, short-shifting, or you can pick up the pace, lean into the steering and work the grip and the engine. Either way, the Evora feels poised and polished. The pace really doesn’t matter.
In the dry, the chassis doesn’t want to do anything heroic. You might sense the front just starting to slip but there isn’t an excess of power and torque, so even with the traction control off, the back end isn’t going anywhere without severe provocation. Especially not this one, which is wearing Michelin Pilot Sport 4 Ss rather than the original Pirellis.
You’re not going to run out of brakes, either. The four-disc AP set-up was future-proofed for another 150bhp. In 2010, Lotus added a supercharger and created the 345bhp Evora S, and ever-more potent and sporty versions followed, culminating with the 430bhp GT430. And yet the original formula is just as compelling and arguably more rounded than any of them.
It’s a shame that the Evora didn’t sell in greater volumes. It was supposed to be the first of three new models in a five-year plan that Lotus hoped would boost sales to 6000-7000 cars per year. Sadly the sister models, including the new Esprit, never made it off the drawing board. In fact, the only car spun off the platform is the Emira, which uses a revised version of the VVA chassis and has launched with the same Toyota V6. It’s a much better looking car, though it is a pure two-seater. However, for clarity of steering, suppleness of ride and dynamic agility and precision, this 2014 Evora beats it. I didn’t expect that.
Lotus Evora specs
|276bhp @ 6400rpm
|258lb ft @ 4700rpm
|Price when new
This story was first featured in evo issue 302.