Lotus Evora S: First Drive

If you ran out and bought a Lotus Evora last year, you're an idiot. If you'd waited, for a paltry four grand more, you could have had this — the Lotus Evora S. And instead of a flawed and compromised edge-of-exotic beauty, you'd now own a flawed and compromised edge-of-exotic beauty that manages to be the best luxury sports car you can buy for under $100,000.

Disclaimer: Lotus wanted us to drive the Evora S so badly that they flew us out to California, put us up in the Hyatt in Monterey and let us whip their cars around Laguna Seca. They also plied us with tequila at a cantina near the track. Did it help? No. Was it a low-key driving-focused trip? Yes. We like low-key trips focused on driving.

Crunch the numbers, and you might assume you can get more car than a Lotus Evora S. More horsepower and speed. A lower price. And certainly, a manual shifter that doesn't feel lifted from a patchouli-soaked VW bus. You can't, and here's why.

Despite a supercharged shove to 345 horsepower, the mid-engined Lotus is not a roadside explosive device, a Nissan GT-R or Corvette Z06. Nor is it the "smarter" choice of a Porsche Cayman, Boxster or 911, with the warm-blanket familiarity that brand provides. And it's definitely not an Elise or Exige, those bantamweight track stars whose interiors recall a rinsed-out Campbell's soup can.

Lowering the discussion to the male-pig trough, the Evora is the supermodel who actually enjoys sex, and can also whip up a nice pot roast.

Lotus Evora S: First Drive

On the subject of sex, the Evora's candy curves and sylph-like performance might seduce even the aforementioned Monks of Exige. As with the 276-horse standard model, valets will showcase an Evora S alongside Ferraris, while comparable Porsches and ‘Vettes share a bitter doobie at the dumpsters. Speaking of bitter, let's talk about the Evora's faithful first adopters for a second.

In yet another major do-over for a brand now becoming known for leaving the faithful stranded by the side of the road, Lotus has chopped the base model's price by $8,000, to $65,175. Supercharged buyers get their own three-Splenda deal, at $77,175 for the two-seater, or $78,675 for the two-plus-two.

I'm dying to hear the bitter conversations at dealers when the Evora's faithful, first-in-line owners – among the industry's ultimate loyalists — seek a trade-in, or even an oil change. Wait, I think I can hear them from my window... and... are they carrying pitchforks?

I know I would be.

Lotus Evora S: First Drive

Evora S buyers will feel Lotus' love with welcome gains in performance and gear at a price that feels more reasonable now. We sampled those gains, greedily, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, romping the Evora S and its natural-breathing brother.

The Evora S's improved thrust, grip and directional stability are apparent from the first lap. A 25 percent horsepower boost to 345, at a 3,168-pound curb weight (up 120 from the base model) gives the S a better power-to-weight ratio than Porsche's own 911S or two-seat Cayman S — just what the Evora needed to truly compete at this level.

The S adds firmer dampers, stiffer bushings, a new upper front wishbone and a wider rear anti-roll bar. An optional wheel-and-tire enlargement adds 19s front and 20s rear, along with grippier Pirelli P Zero Corsas. In sum, the changes deliver a 22-percent jump in lateral stiffness at the front contact patch, and a remarkable 32 percent leap out back.

Yet as any lycra-clad trainer will tell you, athleticism is all about a strong core. And the sensational feedback you get when driving any Evora — its flat-ab feeling of unshakable poise — springs from its feathery, 440-pound bonded aluminum structure. If you grabbed the Evora and wrung it out, it would take more than 19,000 pound-feet of force to twist the chassis by one degree. Lotus claims that's 50 percent stiffer than a Ferrari F430. The Elise's structure is panna cotta by comparison, at barely 7,000 pound-feet of body stiffness.

Of course, compared with that Elise and Exige — to which us Yanks will wave good-bye to late this summer — the 22-inch-longer Evora presses advantages in at-the-limit stability, ride quality, interior space, quiet and amenities. Wide doorsills still require mild clambering, but you don't need to belong to Cirque du Soleil to perform the trick.

Lotus Evora S: First Drive

Call the Evora competently deluxe inside; even the navigation system sort-of-works. But knockout Recaro seats and a stampede of fancy leather can't hide the dull driver's gauges, displays that go invisible in sunlight, or the discount-stereo look and sound of the Alpine unit. Lacking the scale of a Porsche, or a corporate sugar daddy such as an Audi, Lotus just can't blow too many resources inside. That reality makes the hiccups easier to forgive, considering the thrills you get for the dollar. Less forgivable is the lack of a left-foot dead pedal.

A Sport Mode juices the throttle, lifts redline from 6,800 to 7,200 rpm, and calls up a more freedom-loving stability control program. It's part of a Sport Pack that includes a chunky black rear diffuser, cross-drilled and vented brake discs, an engine oil cooler, sports-ratio gearbox and a new exhaust bypass that teases music from the massive, central pipe. But that unleashed exhaust turns out to be the equivalent of Kiss minus the makeup: A tantalizing prospect, followed by horrified pleas to cover it back up. What the exhaust literally amplifies is the Toyota 3.5-liter V-6, the dull-but-durable workhorse that tows Camrys and Siennas through their endless, forgettable lifetimes. In this kind of car, the redline run should be an addictive treat.

The six-speed cable shifter is the other crony compromise, lifted from Europe's diesel-powered IS 200d. This scepter-of-shame is mildly improved, but still beat by any workaday Honda stick: The throw is crazy-long, the feel notchy, and when adrenaline surges, you're forced to gentle it to avoid jamming a gate; I ground the sucker at least three times during otherwise clockwork laps. (A six-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission arrives in 2012, allowing purists to assail the character and parentage of anyone who might want one).

Lotus Evora S: First Drive

And once again: Despite the Achilles' Heel powertrain, the Evora is sneaky-fast, pulling to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, triple-digiting in 10.2, and clocking the quarter-mile in 12.8 at 110 mph. Top speed, 172 mph.

We put those numbers into practice shredding the Salinas Valley on some inviting two-laners. As with the standard model, the Evora S seems to be barely breathing on public roads, plotting a mathematical course with amazing pace and serenity.

The track-and-road combo revealed the Evora S as a rare object of desire, with the looks, stirring British character and quicksilver performance that usually demands a six-figure check. It's a Lotus that you can drive to work, to impress a date, on weekend trips, even cross-country should you wish. Someone really needs to explain to me why that's a terrible thing. Old-school fans, I'm convinced, will grouse about concessions to comfort and market realities, until they drive it, and realize it's still a Lotus. That's because it's still simple and light - for the most part.

Lawrence Ulrich is an auto critic for The New York Times, Automobile and Popular Science.