There’s no five-star resort. There’s no gluten-free, farm-to-table luncheon. No thumping video presentation. At this press launch, there’s just a man, a creaky, folding metal chair, and a garage completely devoid of air conditioning on a day where the temperature threatened triple digits. Oh, and there’s also the best dual-purpose car I’ve ever driven.
The man is Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales, and the car is the 2017 Lotus Evora 400. And in the heat of this summer day in southwestern Michigan, the simplistic perfection of Colin Chapman’s mantra—“Simplify, then add lightness”—has never been more perfectly applied.
“We think about Colin a lot,” says Gales, referencing the direction that Lotus has taken since his appointment as the chief executive in 2014. “We are returning to his formula.”
But Gales has managed to do something that even Chapman was never able to accomplish with any regularity—he has helped make Lotus a profitable company.
(Full disclosure: Lotus needed me to test the Evora 400 so badly they provided flights and lodging for this drive. Kind of them.)
This new Lotus, the first available for the U.S. market in three years, is indicative of that formula. The Evora 400 might wear the Evora name, but 60 percent of it is brand new. The power bump is significant from the previous car, jumping from 345 horsepower to the 400 rating that gives the Evora its new handle.
The extra juice from the Toyota-sourced, supercharged, 3.5-liter V6 helps shove the Lotus from 0-60 MPH in 4.1 seconds and all the way up to a top speed of 186 MPH, making it the first Lotus to ever exceed the 300 KMH (186 mph) threshold.
But the power isn’t the most significant change. That claim belongs to the all-new aluminum chassis, which has torsional stiffness ratings that are comparable to that of a Mercedes E-Class. And, in typical Chapmanesque thinking, the Evora 400 is even lighter than its predecessor, weighing in at a bantamweight-like 3,153 pounds, and that includes air conditioning and an honest-to-God entertainment system.
Greatness can be added through addition as well as subtraction, and the Evora 400 is the first Lotus to sport a limited-slip differential as standard equipment. The suspension is all-new, too, sporting Bilstein dampers. In other words, it’s not just lightness that makes the Evora, it’s stiffness, too.
The SMC (sheet moulding compound) body—don’t you dare call it fiberglass!—is visually striking, tricking the eye into thinking there are contours where there are none.
“Go out and enjoy our car, and in the future, you will enjoy many more cars from our company,” Gales says with a calm confidence. The implicit statement is an important one, that Lotus is financially solvent, efficient, and healthy, having reduced its workforce from 1,200 employees to just 850 in the last two years while increasing annual production numbers from 1,200 to 1,700 cars.
Never one to pass up the opportunity to enjoy a car, I take Mr. Gales’ words as gospel as I head out to the track at Gingerman Raceway. Gavan Kershaw, Chief Motorsport Engineer at Lotus (not to mention British GT Championship race winner), is kind enough to offer to take me around the circuit as a passenger for a couple of laps before I attempt to do it myself.
The new BOSCH ESP has four different drive modes—Drive, Sport, Race, and, somewhat terrifyingly, OFF—and Gavan recommends that I use “Sport” for my first five laps.
How to describe the Evora 400 on track? It’s difficult to do without sounding a bit like a teenage girl gushing over a pop star. Yes, the motor is not dissimilar to the V6 one might find in a Toyota Sienna, but in the hands of Lotus, it produces a thunderous, Wagnerian tone that must be heard to be believed.
The pairing of the Bilstein dampers with the 285 width Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires make breaking the car loose a near exercise in futility. If you get the Evora 400 too sideways, it likely means you’ve done something wrong, as proper racing lines and throttle inputs barely even register with the ESP. The rear of the car is firmly planted, assisted by the 71 pounds of downforce generated by the Evora 400—twice that of the previous model.
Steering is accomplished through charmingly archaic hydraulic assistance to the Lilliputian steering wheel, providing feedback in a way that one might think impossible, given the nearly universal numbness of today’s electrically-steered sports cars.
Gingerman’s recently repaved racing surface acted as a canvas for the rubber brushstrokes of the Evora as I discovered not only the spectacular lateral grip of the car, but also the shockingly good braking. Ridiculously large AP Racing calipers are fitted on all four corners, and it’s impossible to overstate their brilliance.
As I approach Turn 11 at the top of fourth gear over and over, I dive deeper and deeper into the turn, going much further than even I deem to be prudent before standing the car on its nose and whipping the car toward the apex. The stentorian tone of the Michelin tires notwithstanding, the Evora 400 is the complete opposite of every relationship I’ve ever had. it’s simply impossible to upset.
The torque and power curves are so flat that the entire course can be run in third gear, but that would cause one to miss out on the delight of the relatively simple transmission, which Lotus has reworked with lower gearing. Heel-toe downshifting is a facile movement, easily accomplished and highly rewarded. I find myself upshifting to fourth on the front straight just so I can downshift back into third for Turn One.
A quick return to the pits to check tire pressures, which have stabilized nicely on all corners, and it’s back to the track, only this time I tentatively select “Race” as my ESP mode. It doesn’t make a bit of difference, as the Evora 400 is just so damn confidence inspiring.
Can we take turns Four and Nine completely flat? Turns out that yes, we can. And taking Nine flat means that the speed going into Ten is a tad sphincter-clenching. I needn’t worry however, as the brakes are yet again up to the task.
After three laps of “Race” mode insanity, I decide to switch back to “Sport” to see what it takes to cause the ESP to intervene—and I find it. Taking the double apex of Turn Two at full throttle finally causes Sport mode to cut throttle and apply some braking to keep me from spinning. I find that I can induce it in Turn Six by applying throttle too clumsily. But, again, it’s only by making some silly mistakes that the Lotus jumps in to save me from myself.
Finally, I decide to switch back to Race mode for one last lap, and my word, is it glorious. The soundtrack is so delightful that I roll down the windows, just so I can hear it even better. The combined clamor from the supercharged engine, the tires, and the brakes—it’s gone from Wagner to Bach, classically beautiful in its contrapuntal lines.
Although the power-to-weight ratio is not unlike what one might find in a Mustang GT, the Evora straddles the line between discord and rhyme in true British fashion, acting much more like a scalpel than a blunt, coarse instrument.
The car feels as though it is rotating around me, a perfectly balanced ballerina dancing through each corner. If only every car could be like this on track! The ease with which the Evora 400 accomplishes the most difficult tasks would no doubt inspire countless drivers to greatness.
But track time cannot last forever, and I must return the Lotus to pit lane for the next driver. However, after nearly a half-hour of being driven hard, the Evora requires nothing. No brake fluid, no cooldown laps. The crew simply checks tire pressures, inserts the next driver, and sends the little Lotus back to work.
A McLaren 570S could not do this. Nor could a Porsche 911 GT3. And yet the Evora 400 will do it again and again throughout the course of the day, and it will do it in crippling heat. The brakes don’t fade. The tires don’t go away. It is the Sebastian Coe of track cars. It is, quite simply, the best street car I’ve ever driven on track, bar none.
But it will all fall to pieces on the street, right? Lotus provides an automatic transmission example for me to take out onto the harsh Michigan roads that lead to Gingerman, and I happily accept the opportunity to spend more time behind the wheel of the 400 in any of its forms.
It’s at this point that I take notice of the bits of the car that have nothing to do with driving dynamics. While Lotus has always been a paragon of excellence when it comes to handling, the build quality in the past has been... less than inspiring. Nobody would confuse the interior of an Elise with that of a Bentley Continental.
And yet, the Evora 400 seems different. The hand-stitched leather interior is just that—painstakingly done by hand, as nary a single robot is involved in any phase of the Evora 400’s assembly. The seats, sourced from Sparco and draped in luxurious red leather, fit my 5’9”, 175 pound frame perfectly, but the seat can be pushed all the way back to accommodate drivers of much greater heights.
The suspension that operates so deftly on track proves equally adept at handling Michigan potholes. There isn’t a rattle or a clunk to be found in the Evora 400 on the street. It’s just solid, in a way that one would expect the aforementioned E-Class to be.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can give the HVAC system in the Lotus is that I didn’t notice it. Unlike previous Lotuses seen on these shores, the air conditioning actually works, and it works well enough to have cooled me sufficiently after my half-hour track drive. Road noise is almost exactly where you’d want it to be. You can rejoice in the sounds of the downshifts when overtaking vehicles on two-lane roads, but you won’t be assaulted by a consistent engine drone in “Drive” mode.
In my Facebook Live video, I said that I felt the Evora would be a suitable second or third car for an American owner. It’s an idea that Mr. Gales refutes vociferously.
“This is an everyday car that an owner can take to the track on the weekends, push to the limits, and then drive home,” Gales says. “Colin Chapman didn’t even change tires between races, and he won many races.”
Upon further review, I think he’s right. While only time will tell what the durability of this Lotus will be, Gales proudly notes that Lotus has less than ten open complaints from customers worldwide, and that warranty costs have gone down by 66 percent.
So what’s all this brilliance going to cost you? Well, unfortunately, you can’t buy one. They’re sold out until next year. But, for when that righteous day comes that they’ll be available again, the Evora 400 starts at $91,900, and Lotus will even generously delete the (useless) back seats and air conditioning for you at no cost.
If you opt for the automatic transmission (as 50 percent of the American audience already has), that’s an additional $2,700. Don’t bother. It’s the manual that you want. Further lightness can be added in the form of titanium exhaust ($8,000), carbon fiber packages ($10,000), and even a lightweight lithium-ion battery ($1,690), but my tester didn’t have any of that stuff, and frankly, it didn’t need it. At just under $92K, Lotus has made a car that can hang with cars costing twice as much, both on and off track.
In other words, they simplified, and then added lightness. Wherever he is, Colin Chapman would be proud.
Mark “Bark M.” Baruth has multiple endurance racing and SCCA National Solo and Pro Solo trophies to his credit, and has tracked everything from a Fiesta ST to a 991 GT3 on dozens of circuits across America. His writing can be found at The Truth About Cars, Road & Track and Jalopnik. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.