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First drive: 2011 Lotus Evora S

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"Simplify, then add lightness."

If the smell of brake dust burning or the shrill screech of vulcanized rubber being torn off pavement brings about a Pavlovian expectation of sudden G-forces, it's likely you know the source of this well-worn phrase.

Lotus founder Colin Chapman's adage for creating a faster sports car has kept the company and its products on course for decades, as the factory in Hethel, Britain, cranked out iconic driver's instruments such as the Elan, Elise and Exige.

So one finds a bit of irony in the fact that Lotus recently complicated, then reduced lightness in its latest product, the 2011 Evora S. Spend more than 60 seconds driving the S and you realize the irony is only compounded by the fact that in doing so, Lotus has created its most well-rounded vehicle yet.

To create the S, Lotus started by bolting a Harrop supercharger onto the Evora’s 3.5-liter, Toyota-sourced V-6 engine. This bumps the horsepower from 276 in the naturally-aspirated Evora to 345 in the S, and pushes the torque from 258 foot-pounds to 295. The 0-60 time is predictably faster in the S, going from zero to hero in 4.3 seconds against the regular Evora's 4.9 seconds.

The suspension setup on the S is slightly revised, with ever-so-stiffer bushings on the front and rear and a rear anti-roll bar that's an eyelash thicker.

The sport-ratio, six-speed manual transmission that's optional (but recommended) on the Evora is standard on the Evora S. The Sport Pack option from the base Evora is also standard on the S. It includes cross-drilled and ventilated brakes, engine oil cooler and a "sport" mode that juices the throttle input, opens up bypass valves in the exhaust, dials back the traction control considerably and pushes the S’s redline from 6,800 rpm to 7,200 rpm.

Aesthetically, little differentiates the S from the base Evora, save for black side-mirror housings and a more aggressive rear diffuser.

All told, these changes add up to a 122-pound gain over the Evora's 3,046-pound curb weight, for a total of 3,168 pounds.

They're possibly the best 122 pounds I've felt added to a car.

R_3_qrtr_use Since its introduction in 2009, the Evora is widely considered one of the best-handling cars on the market. Before, during and after the driver encounters a turn, this Lotus is your best friend: confident, loyal and endlessly communicative. Steering this car is an exercise in automotive prescience and the feedback coming through the steering wheel is like a loquacious 4-year old.

Should you find yourself in trouble mid-turn, the Evora graciously allows for steering or throttle adjustments that brilliantly bring the car back in line. It's the best kind of sports car, one that is eminently capable at making you, the driver, look eminently capable. If you already are, you're just rewarded that much more.

But what makes the new S variant so brilliant on top of this prowess is how it adds to the mix a level of torque conspicuously absent in the base Evora. Barrelling out of turns or up inclines on the road and the track is far more rewarding. Downshifts, namely 3-2, also become less necessary.

  The added power also makes is easier to get the back end of the S loose when you want to, a characteristic aided by a forgiving traction control system. With sport mode engaged (and really, there's no reason it shouldn't be), the computer allows for a healthy degree of controlled sliding before reining things in ever so subtly. The system can also be disengaged entirely -- and Lotus was clear that it means entirely and not "entirely," like other manufacturers it wouldn't name.

Yet for all its handling aptitude, all is not perfect in Evoraville.

Shifting this transmission, which sees work across the ocean in a diesel Lexus IS, feels like you're dragging a stick through a bag of angry cats. It's neither precise nor confident, and it is the only part of the car that doesn't make you feel like your driving skills took a cocktail of EPO that morning.

(And while we're talking about transmissions, an automatic is on its way. This fall, Lotus will introduce to North American markets a six-speed automatic gearbox called IPS, which stands for Intelligent Precision Shift. It's a true automatic with a torque converter; no fancy automated manual here, but it will feature paddle shifters.)

Also annoying are the Evora's narrow footwells. When the driver's left foot is not stomping on the clutch pedal, there's barely anywhere else to put it. This is noticeable for maybe the first 10 minutes each time you get in the car, after which you're simply too distracted by the driving experience to notice that your foot must lie there like a forgotten house pet until you need it to shift again.

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Finally, the rear seat that is a $1,500 option on both Evoras is comically small and unfit for human use. Confining a person back there will likely earn you a call from an ACLU lawyer, so skip it altogether at the dealership and use the space to store 23 cubic feet of luggage. A pair of carry-on suitcases and maybe an overnight bag or two will fit back there with ease.

There's also about 6 cubic feet in the dedicated trunk area, large enough for this set of golf clubs that is, oddly, the standard by which we now measure all sports cars' practicality.

You shouldn't need a magic eight-ball to know that when Lotus thinks of other manufacturers whose products compete against its Evora S, Porsche and its Cayman R are at the top of the list.  Both cars are mid-engine track-eaters that weigh around 3,000 pounds (the Cayman a bit under and the Evora S a bit over) and have similar power-to-weight ratios.

So would I chose the Evora S over the Cayman R? Burning Tuesday. Hairy orange. That depends on what your definition of "is" is.

Clearly I don't want to answer the question. Plus, my seat time in a Cayman R is limited to a handful of laps around an autocross course. [UPDATED 10/6/11: Read my full review of the Cayman R here.]

But speaking purely on the driving dynamics, I have to give the Evora S the slightest of wins. I've just never wrapped my hands around the steering wheel of a production-model car and felt the absolute confidence and direct connection with the road than I have in the Evora S. It's that good.

Those considering the total package of the car (purists, look away) should note the Cayman R has more usable cargo space and its interior has a more professional feel to it. The interior of the Evora S certainly holds a bespoke air with plenty of leather and real metal finishes, but the panel gaps and intermittent squeaks tell you it's assembled on a much smaller scale.

Yet the Evora and the S absolutely win the in looks department. This is a car whose exterior looks much more expensive than it really is, and people on the street notice. They may have absolutely no idea what they're looking at, unlikely with any Porsche, but they'll respect the car's looks and the driver's taste.

And though the Cayman R has a base price of $67,250, including destination, remember that this is a Porsche and the options add up quickly.

Indeed, a quick search of L.A.-area Porsche dealers shows four Cayman Rs in stock with an average sticker price of $82,000.  

This compares with the Evora S' base price of $77,175 for the two-seater, including the $1,175 destination charge. The fully loaded, "Canyon Red" Evora S you see here has a sticker of $88,100 and includes options such as heated seats, a seven-inch Alpine touchscreen navigation system, parking sensors and a backup camera, an upgraded stereo system and forged aluminum rims (19-inch in the front, 20-inch in the rear) with Pirelli P-Zero Corsa LS tires.

But this comparison between the Lotus and the Porsche is like your fourth-grader’s soccer games: there's no loser.

So the Evora S strays from the letter of Chapman's credo. I don't think he'd mind. This car has the spirit of his words oozing from every pore. You'll smell it every time you drive it.

Or maybe that was the brake dust.

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-- David Undercoffler / @LATimes_driven

Photos: 2011 Lotus Evora S outside San Jose, California. Credit: David Undercoffler / Los Angeles Times

 
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