The 2008 Lotus Evora exemplifies the adage that subtlety rarely succeeds.
Stepping outside of one’s accepted position is rarely rewarded, either in life, love, art or car design. For Lotus, revered by generations of enthusiasts for producing cars of often fragile genius, their occasional attempts at marrying dynamic prowess with a dash of practicality have by and large backfired. The 2008 Evora attempted to combine both. Misunderstood by aficionados and (some) members of the press, the car split opinion in 2008. It still does.
When Lotus ceased production of the aged Esprit in 2004, not only had the basic car been in production for 28 years, but its demise left a gap at the top of Lotus’ model range. At the opposite end, the pretty and gimlet-sharp Elise (and its derivatives) had proven a critical and commercial success, and Lotus, having become part of the Proton Group were in the process of persuading former CEO, Mike Kimberley to return to Potash Lane, following stints in the far East at various GM satellites.
Kimberley, a man who understood the marque like few others, having previously steered Lotus through several crises since the death of Colin Chapman in 1982, first rejoined as consultant, then as CEO in 2005. At the time of his arrival, work had started on a new range of cars, retaining the close technical links with Toyota, to be helmed by a new Esprit.
Upon his arrival however, Kimberley is believed to have championed an alternative programme (project number 122) intended to reach the market first. Known internally as project Eagle, this was a more practical 2+2 model, positioned between Elise and Esprit, which Kimberley believed would help grow the business faster.
This would not be the first time Lotus had considered such a car. In 1999, the M250 concept was shown at that year’s Frankfurt motor show. Intended as a more user-friendly car than the Elise, it was to use a version of its bonded and extruded aluminium chassis and be powered by a 3.0 litre V6 engine of unspecified (probably Toyota) origin. The attractive body shape was by Lotus’ own design team, overseen by Julian Thomson, although likely to have been completed by Russell Carr who took over as Chief Designer in 1998, when the former decamped to Jaguar’s Whitley studios.
It combined a cabin-forward design with short overhangs, front and rear. Visual links to the Elise were evident in the top-exiting front radiators, the distinctive side air vents, and in the poised, muscular proportions. M250 was well-received and for a time it appeared as though it was likely to see production, but pending a review into its prospects in markets outside of Europe, it was delayed. This appeared to have been a fatal hesitation, the programme subsequently being abandoned in 2001.
However, project Eagle (Evora) was to prove to be a car of much the same or similar principles. It employed a new (and larger) version of the Elise’s lightweight chassis, all-round double wishbone suspension, power-assisted, rack and pinion steering and a remapped version of Toyota’s 3.5 litre V6 engine. Fitted with a new exhaust system of Lotus’ own design, the smooth and reliable V6 developed 276 bhp at 6,400 rpm and 258 lb/ft of torque at 4,700, which coupled with the car’s stiff, lightweight body, provided 160 mph performance.
The six-speed manual gearbox too was a Toyota design, although Lotus also developed an optional Sport ‘box, with closer upper ratios. Both transmissions benefited from a revised linkage and more positive shift action. An automatic transmission (also Toyota-sourced) with paddle-shifters was offered in 2010.
As befitting a car of its ilk, Lotus engineers paid a good deal of attention to practicality and ease of use. Wider, taller door apertures and narrower sills ensured entry and egress became less a demonstration of acrobatics, while the cabin was optimised to accommodate larger frames. Vestigial rear seats were also provided for children or adults of more compact dimension, although these would be a delete option.
While the cabin of the Elise was an object lesson in reduction, the Evora’s cockpit design was far more elegantly styled and lavishly trimmed, including such previously unheard luxuries as a touch screen multi-media interface, premium leather trim, rear parking sensors, an iPod adapter, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, a reversing camera, an Alpine audio system, and power-fold door mirrors. Even the (rear-mounted) luggage compartment was air-conditioned and commodious.
Styled in-house, the Evora’s handsome exterior is credited to Steve Crijns, under the supervision of Russell Carr. An evolution of M250’s style, the Evora was compact and muscular, with minimal overhangs, strong, well balanced proportions and a singular lack of overt aggression in its demeanour. Slippery too, with a stated drag co-efficient of 0.33. The (uncredited) interior style too, exhibited striking forms, being well executed and surprisingly spacious.
Honed by Hethel’s legendary chassis engineers under the guidance of technical chief, Matt Becker, Evora was intended to preserve Lotus traditions of dynamic alchemy, with the ride and handling team observing that prototypes proved faster around the Nordschlife than the smaller, nimbler Elise, while being more stable than the track-focussed Exige.
Introduced at the UK motor show in October 2008, the Evora couldn’t have arrived at a more uncertain moment, in the wake of the catastrophic stock market crash and recession which followed. It was also met with some ambivalence from enthusiast quarters, with some observers unclear as to quite what it was supposed to be. Because while Lotus believed there was a market for a more practical ‘Porsche-fighter’, what most seemed to want was a new Esprit.
But there was little to argue about when it came to the driving experience, Lotus’ engineers having created a car which was capable of marrying the seemingly impossible – thrilling and cosseting in equal measure. As docile as the Camry from which its power unit was derived, it could play the sybarite and back-roads blaster in equal measure. Poised, accurate, scalpel-sharp, yet freakishly compliant, the Evora was a chassis dynamics masterclass.
In 2010, a supercharged Evora S was announced, with 345bhp at 7000rpm and 295lb ft at 4000rpm – sufficient to catapult the 1437kg machine to 60mph in a claimed 4.6sec and to 172mph. Further revisions to the gearbox and minor chassis tweaks, mated to improved build quality and cabin ambience added up to a car which Autocar’s Steve Sutcliffe described that year as “a stroke of rare genius.”
Yet it all went wrong for Evora. Timing is everything, and the Global recession put paid to plans to export a third of production to the US. Elsewhere, demand dropped as customers held fire and Lotus’ commercial fortunes dipped. Furthermore, Hethel was pitching directly at Porsche and while the Evora was notably better wrought than of yore, it was not entirely without fault. Old reputations die hard.
Nevertheless, under Mike Kimberley’s tenure, Lotus’ relationship with Toyota was strengthened, the business placed on a sounder footing and a deliverable product plan was put in place, which included the program for the next Elise and an Esprit replacement, production of which was allegedly scheduled to start in 2012.
Unfortunately in 2009, Kimberley was forced to retire due to ill-health, precipitating a search for a new CEO. Proton chose Ferrari’s Dany Bahar, a man of some charm, but little substance. Under Bahar, the Evora was deemed yesterday’s car and would not feature in his wildly ambitious and hopelessly unrealistic plans. With those unravelling by 2012, the model was granted a reprieve, repurposed and restyled in 2014 as a more focussed, more aggressive machine – to a large extent becoming the new Esprit in that car’s absence.
While its core brilliance remains, the current Evora has lost much of the original’s wonderful subtlety in appearance and fluency in motion. And while to some extent it has become Lotus’ ‘Porsche-fighter’, in its current Evora 400 form the Porsche it most resembles is the 928, both of which were designed as suave GTs, but were forced to change tack in the wake of customer resistance. Nevertheless it has proved something of a survivor, perhaps as much through fortune – both fair and foul – as (abundant) talent.
But with sales foundering and Hethel once more on the cusp of a much-ballyhooed product-led reinvention, the word is that a new Evora will be built. It is however, likely to be a very different motor car. Project Eagle was not the success its creators had hoped for and never again will Lotus build a car which spreads its talents over such a broad palette, because what the Evora illustrates is that the market for cerebral motor cars is vanishingly small. The next one will know its place – more’s the pity.