GINGERMAN RACEWAY and SOUTH HAVEN, Michigan—Lotus has a history of making great sports cars that are a thrill to drive on the road and the track. However, the Hethel, UK-based manufacturer has gone through a few ownership changes since its founder, Colin Chapman, died in 1982, and has seen most of its financial year-end reports marked with red ink.
Part of the problem has been its inability to continuously offer products in North America, the world’s most important market for sports cars. Lotus sold its last road cars in the US back in 2014, while Canada got some 2015 units. Neither saw any street-legal models for 2016, although some track-only vehicles did make their way across the Atlantic.
For 2017, Lotus is back in North America, with a model that fully complies with all safety and emission requirements. It’s called the Evora 400, and while it looks nearly identical to the Evora models sold previously, this 2017 model is 60-percent new.
Meet the new boss
The man responsible for Lotus’ return to North America is new CEO Jean-Marc Gales, who joined the company May 2014. Gales, a Luxembourgian with an MSc in management and mechanical engineering, brought with him years of auto industry experience (he was formerly president of Peugeot-Citroen).
Gales – a fan of the Lotus brand since age five – understands the economics of the automotive trade, and since his appointment as the head of Lotus Cars, has been on a mission to not only develop new products, but also improve existing ones.
His first order of business was to make their already lovely Evora model more appealing. He got Lotus engineers to design lower and slimmer side sills to make ingress and egress easier while not compromising overall stiffness.
He also put the car on a diet, getting his engineering team to take apart an Evora S and go through it one part at a time in an effort to save weight and trim costs, without jeopardizing quality. The end result is a car lighter and more practical than before.
The oily bits
Gales also felt the car could be more muscular, so out went the Australian supercharger and in came an American unit. Its new Edelbrock blower is fitted to a mid-mounted Toyota Camry-sourced 3.5-litre V6 motor which, thanks to a water-to-air charge-cooler, develops 400 hp at 7,000 rpm, and 302 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, a gain of 55 hp and seven lb-ft of torque over the old Evora S.
That’s plenty of grunt to move its 1,430 kg of mass. The car weighs seven kg less than the previous Evora S model, and you can save another 35 kg by opting for some lightweight options, such as a titanium exhaust, a lithium-ion battery, rear seat and a/c delete, and a carbon package.
Labelled as the fastest road car ever made by Lotus, it sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds, while its top speed is rated at the magical 300 km/h mark (for the manual version; the automatic version is limited to 280 km/h).
Before a car wins you over with its specifications, it needs to draw you in. Approaching the car, it doesn’t look much different from its predecessor, since it is an evolution of the Evora, not a revolution. The silhouette and many details remain the same, but there are differences, too.
The front bumper is all new, housing much larger air intakes, while the rear end gets a restyled three-piece rear spoiler, and some repositioned reverse lights (now in a housing in the lower part of the bumper instead of near the taillights). Its derriere is finished off with parking sensors nicely camouflaged in its apron, along with a reverse camera.
The head of Lotus design, Russell Carr, wanted to give the car a more aggressive, yet functional look, so, while the new nose ups aerodynamic drag from a Cd of 0.33 to 0.35, it lets larger radiators better aid cooling.
The 2017 Evora 400 also has more downforce than before, about twice as much. At 242 km/h, the Evora 400 generates 12 kg of downforce at the front axle, and 20 kg of downforce at the rear axle, for a total of 32 kg. While these numbers won’t impress a Dodge Viper ACR owner, they are enough to give the Evora 400 a planted stance at speed.
The aesthetic appeal continues as you open the door. The Evora has always had one of the nicest-looking – and -smelling – interiors of any car I’ve tested in the last 20 years. Not only have they kept that up, they’ve improved it.
The lower and slimmer sills mentioned earlier do make it easier to get in and out – a big plus – but once you’ve climbed aboard, you’ll notice the dials are easier to read in its completely redesigned dashboard. The centre cockpit has also changed: the climate control switches are easier to reach, and the infotainment system has been revised.
However, it’s the row of switches above the screen that house some vital features. For comfort, especially in a Canadian winter, that’s where you’ll find the heated seat switches, but then beside it are buttons for driving modes (I’ll discuss those a little later).
On the left-hand side of the steering wheel, you’ll notice the power mirror switch—formerly in a very inconvenient location on the driver’s door, it’s now much easier to play with up on the dashboard. The only other switches on the lefthand side are headlamps, instrument dimmer, and, up by the dials, an ‘Engine Start’ button—press that to start having some fun.
The North American-spec 2017 Evora 400 comes standard with side-impact airbags. This required some clever re-engineering of the car, specifically a new seat that houses the airbag in it side bolster. It’s why the Evora 400 you’ll buy in Canada weighs 13 kg more than its European counterpart.
As a result, the Evora 400 passes all safety tests, and needs no exemptions to be sold in North America.
Apart from the safety tech, the Evora 400 comes with a modest Alpine INE-NAV60 touchscreen infotainment system that features navigation, among other features. Stereo sound is pumped through four speakers, which do an okay job, but this is no automotive concert hall on wheels. For some real music, turn the stereo off and stomp on the throttle.
The number one reason you buy a Lotus is for driving entertainment. I hit the track – Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway – before I took the Evora 400 out on the road. One lap of Gingerman is three kilometres long, and has 11 corners. What makes it especially challenging is many of its corners are off-camber and have blind entry points—in short, they make it far too easy to throw a car off the tarmac, if you’re not focused.
To help save me from the embarrassment of crashing an expensive sports car, I was taken out on a few exploratory laps by Gavan Kershaw, Lotus Cars chief engineer of motorsports, who pointed out where to brake and turn, and where to keep the throttle in, even when the road seems to disappear.
I strap in, and decide to take it easy on the first lap. It took very little time to feel comfortable with the Evora 400, and I soon started building up speed, which comes easily when you have 400 hp to play with.
The throttle response is really sharp, and unlike most modern cars, when you put your foot down, it doesn’t feel like the electronics held a committee to discuss if what you asked of it was acceptable. The Evora 400 just gives you what you want—at least in ‘Sport’ or ‘Race’ mode, which relaxes its traction and stability control systems, allowing more slip angles and wheel spin. The Edelbrock supercharger winds up quickly, and provides lots of bottom-end grunt, just what you need coming out of a tight corner.
Good acceleration is not all you need for tackling a track—you also need a good chassis and steering. The Evora 400 has these areas covered. The underpinnings are an evolution of the bonded aluminium chassis Lotus first introduced with the original Elise in 1996. In its current configuration under the 2017 Evora 400, the passenger tub weighs just 104 kg—compare that to the carbon-fibre chassis of the smaller Alfa Romeo 4C, which weighs 65 kg.
Gales said they preferred the bonded-aluminium chassis over a carbon-fibre tub because the weight savings are marginal, and their existing chassis is tried-and-tested, plus it is much more modular.
They have also stuck with a hydraulic steering rack, rather than an electric power steering system—Gales said that’s because driving a Lotus is all about feel. This made great sense as I continued with my track time. The steering talks to you loud and clear, there is no guessing as to what the front wheels are doing. The chassis is stiff, with compliant suspension, so it doesn’t punish you. The more laps I did, the faster I went.
It is reassuring then, that the brakes are up for the job as well. The Evora 400 uses four-piston AP Racing brakes that feature two-piece ventilated cross-drilled discs—this ensures the brakes can take a beating and keep on performing.
The temperature was about 34 Celsius during my time at the track. Lotus had only one Evora 400 for track duty, and this car had done a hundred laps the previous day, and had been out with a few journalists before I strapped in. Despite all the abuse, the brakes showed no sign of fading, lap after lap.
It was unbelievable, then, that the car was still running on the same set of Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (235/35 R19 front, 285/30 R20 rear) and brake pads for two hard days, and that the engine didn’t lose its temper in that time. Thanks to its charge-cooling system, the motor stays cool under pressure, so you can just continue to have fun.
After my session on the track, it was time to hit the road, in a car with the optional six-speed automatic. The Evora 400 auto loses the limited-slip differential that the manual car comes with, and weighs 12 kg more. Thanks to Lotus engineers writing code for their TCU (transmission control unit), this Aisin gearbox swaps gears twice as quickly as it would on a Toyota Camry, which uses the same unit.
As for why Lotus didn’t opt for a dual-clutch gearbox? Gales said that a DCT unit adds more weight and complexity, and is not as docile in city traffic as a torque converter unit.
That became evident as I hit the country roads of South Haven. The auto-box shifts quickly and smoothly—it really is as relaxing to drive as a Camry. The roads I was on were not exactly smooth, and also quite narrow, but the Evora 400 shined thanks to its excellent ride quality, and its smallish dimensions (4,385-mm long, 1,972-mm wide).
The only issue you’ll have is rearward visibility when you look through its central rearview mirror, but you’ll get used to it. Just because the auto is easier to live with doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on performance—it’s just as quick as the manual, and its steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters still let you have some fun with gear ratios.
The 2017 Lotus Evora 400 seems to be a sports car with almost no foibles. It looks good, and has a very nice interior; its ride and handling are top-notch, and it can take punishment. It might just be the most perfect sports car currently in production.
If you want one, and you live in Canada, you’ll have to wait a bit. While the American market will start getting theirs end of August, Canadian units won’t arrive until next January.
As for the entry fee, that depends on the US dollar, as Canadian price will be based on whatever the exchange rate will be at the time. In America, the Evora 400 starts from $91,900, or about $119,903 Canadian at the time of publication. That sort of money gives you lots of choices, and while most of them are very good, none of them will take the abuse on the track like the Lotus can.
If you’re looking for a sports car that is comfortable for road use, and yet strong for track use, the 2017 Evora 400 might just be the sports car for you.
Disclosure—Travel and accommodations for this event were not covered by the manufacturer—however, they did serve croissants for breakfast, plus fish and chips for lunch. Some photography supplied by Jeffrey Williams.