DARK KNIGHT

Evo - - AUDI QU­AT­TRO v NIS­SAN GT-R - by JOHN BA R K ER PHO­TOGR A PH Y by STEPHEN H A LL

The Evora GT430 is the fastest, most ex­pen­sive road-go­ing Lo­tus to come out of Hethel. But is it enough to oust the mighty Porsche 911 GT3 from its lofty perch? We take them to Wales to find out

IT’S A BIG ASK, BEAT­ING THE 911 GT3, A CAR that’s been at the top of its game for nearly two decades, but if there’s a Lo­tus that can, it’s the Evora GT430. Like the 911, the Evora has been in a con­stant state of evo­lu­tion, get­ting lighter and more pow­er­ful with each new ver­sion. The lim­ited-edi­tion GT430 of­fers the best power-to-weight ra­tio of any Evora so far and, frankly, we’d be gut­ted if it didn’t, be­cause up close it looks like it’s made en­tirely from car­bon­fi­bre… and it comes with a price tag that sug­gests as much. But we’ll come back to that. Right now there’s some test­ing Welsh as­phalt to tackle, and the first un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery to be made. The sun is out and the tem­per­a­ture is mer­ci­fully above freez­ing, but an am­bi­ent of 7deg C means that the Miche­lin Cups fit­ted to both cars are just be­low their op­er­at­ing range. Adding to the chal­lenge, the sur­face is wet. With senses on high alert I set off in the Lo­tus and within a cou­ple of cor­ners I’m sur­prised at the level of trac­tion and grip. The fur­ther I go, and the more of this un­du­lat­ing, twist­ing and dif­fi­cult road that passes be­neath the GT430’S wheels, the more im­pressed I am. Even work­ing the growly V6 hard, I can’t seem to un­stick the fat rear tyres. It’s so good that I won­der if there’s very sub­tle elec­tronic in­ter­ven­tion go­ing on be­hind the scenes, keep­ing ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol. To test that the­ory, I go through the mo­tions to turn off the trac­tion con­trol, which in­volves a com­bi­na­tion of TC and Race mode but­ton push­ing. A few more miles and the Lo­tus re­mains as hooked up and on line as be­fore.

I wasn’t ex­pect­ing that. Nor was I ex­pect­ing the GT430 to ride as well as it does. It may look like a road­go­ing race car but it clearly takes the ‘GT’ part of its name se­ri­ously. Ei­ther that or Lo­tus’s chas­sis en­gi­neers just can’t bring them­selves to make a car that doesn’t breathe with the road. The GT430 glides over tricky sur­faces all of a piece, yet the sporty tight­ness of con­trol you’d hope for is there too in the lack of pitch and roll and the crisp­ness of re­sponse. It’s a re­mark­able blend of skills.

The 911 should feel as hooked up as the Lo­tus in these con­di­tions. It’s a modern mys­tery how its masses can feel so bal­anced when there’s a flat-six-shaped lump of metal hang­ing out the back, like a burly bloke on the other end of a see-saw. Logic says the en­gine is in the wrong place, ex­cept in con­di­tions like these, when its lever­age should help pin the GT3’S fat rear Miche­lins to the road.

Af­ter the Lo­tus, the first things that strike you are that the 911’s full bucket seats (op­tional) are more gen­er­ously cut and that as soon as you’re rolling, there’s a chat­ter of feed­back through the slim­mer-rimmed but larger-di­am­e­ter steer­ing wheel. So you know what’s hap­pen­ing at the tread blocks of the front tyres, which is handy be­cause the 911 has less trac­tion than the mid-en­gined (al­beit only just) Evora.

I didn’t see that com­ing, and the rea­son is un­clear. The Porsche’s rear tyres are slightly fat­ter – 305/30 R20 ver­sus 295/30 R20 – but they don’t have to cope with a chunk more torque; the GT3’S 4-litre flat-six de­liv­ers 339lb ft at 6000rpm, while the GT430’S su­per­charged 3.5-litre V6 churns out 325lb ft at a more ac­ces­si­ble 4500rpm. A few more miles con­firm that the 911 has less rear grip, but be­cause it has a front end that lets you know what’s go­ing on, it isn’t an is­sue; you feel in­formed, en­gaged in the process, con­fi­dent that you know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.

Parked be­side each other, these two hard­core driv­ers’ cars look quite dif­fer­ent, both in pro­por­tions and theme. In all white, with its cen­tre-lock wheels and vis­i­ble half cage, the 911 looks like it could be one of a batch of iden­ti­cal ho­molo­ga­tion cars await­ing a set of slicks, spon­sor’s liv­ery and the first shake-down test of the sea­son. On the other hand, with its swathes of ex­posed car­bon­fi­bre and mid-en­gined pro­por­tions, the Evora looks like a minia­ture su­per­car em­body­ing re­cent GT race car aero­dy­namic think­ing. Its nose is made up of mul­ti­ple sculpted com­po­nents, there are wing-top slats for vent­ing the front wheel wells and ducts for the rears, plus a high-mounted rear wing. While the stan­dard Evora pro­file gives it a push-me-pull-me look, the GT430’S aero ad­denda, deleted rear side glass and big­ger rear wheels and tyres give it a dart-like pro­file.

This dark, stealthy ex­am­ple is num­ber one of a lim­ited edi­tion of 60, all of them sold de­spite a list price be­fore op­tions of £112,500. That makes it the most ex­pen­sive Lo­tus ever, and it claims a num­ber of other Lo­tus records too, in­clud­ing most pow­er­ful pro­duc­tion model (430bhp) and fastest top speed (196mph). Im­pres­sive stuff, though there are a cou­ple of caveats. In 2012 Lo­tus made the even more lim­ited edi­tion Evora GTE ( just 25 made) to ho­molo­gate its Gte-class racer, and that had a claimed 438bhp. Mean­while, the fastest top speed goes to the ‘Sport’ ver­sion of the GT430, which makes do with­out the bold rear wing and has less drag.

‘The 911 looks like it’s await­ing a set of slicks, some liv­ery and the first shake-down test of the sea­son’

The be­winged car goes to ‘just’ 190mph, but the ex­tra down­force it cre­ates – 250kg at max speed com­pared with 100kg for the Sport – helps lop a se­cond off its Hethel lap time and means that the GT430 matches the 1min 25.8sec set by the stripped-back 3-Eleven.

The Sport is the lighter of the two ver­sions, too, by 10kg, but if you’re spend­ing over £100k on an Evora you might as well go the whole hog. This ex­am­ple has op­tional metal­lic grey paint that from a dis­tance dis­guises just how much car­bon­fi­bre there is on show. The front and rear bumper aprons are car­bon but mostly painted, but the front ‘ bon­net’, the roof and the en­gine cover are all in lac­quered car­bon­fi­bre, and it’s beau­ti­fully done, par­tic­u­larly the roof with its cen­tre­line join giv­ing a her­ring­bone ef­fect.

Some of these pan­els were first seen on the pre­vi­ous light­est Evora, the Sport 410. The big con­trib­u­tors that make the GT430 26kg lighter still are an even greater use of car­bon­fi­bre (- 4.7kg), a ti­ta­nium ex­haust (-10kg), new ad­justable Eibach/ Öh­lins spring/damper units (-10kg), and a num­ber of de­tail sav­ings (-10.3kg). Off­set­ting that 35kg by 9kg is the new rear wing plus wider wheels and tyres.

Mind, whichever way you cut it, a 1299kg kerb weight for a car of this scale and per­for­mance is a fine achieve­ment and true to the Lo­tus phi­los­o­phy. Porsche might not use such ob­vi­ously light­weight ma­te­ri­als for the GT3 but its body is a clever fu­sion of high-ten­sile steel and alu­minium and, like the Lo­tus, its rear seats are deleted. The GT3 is no heavy­weight but at 1413kg, it gives away 114kg to the GT430.

There’s no im­pres­sion that the Lo­tus has been stripped out, ei­ther. The in­te­rior has come a long way since the Evora’s 2009 launch. It’s now a neat con­fec­tion of Al­can­tara and per­fo­rated and smooth leather with con­trast­ing stitch­ing, and the in­stru­ments are much more con­vinc­ing than the orig­i­nals, with clear white-on-black faces and red nee­dles. The Sparco seats do look small and min­i­mal­ist though, their car­bon shells trimmed with just enough pad­ding and ma­te­rial to of­fer com­fort and dura­bil­ity. The fixed back­rest an­gle is a frac­tion too up­right for me and it seems it can’t be ad­justed be­yond slid­ing it fore and aft, even if you’re handy with an

‘A 1299kg kerb weight for a car of this scale and per­for­mance is a fine achieve­ment and true to the Lo­tus phi­los­o­phy’

Allen key. The driv­ing po­si­tion is all pretty square, the alu­minium ped­als de­cently spaced, the clutch light.

Fire the en­gine up and it gives a char­ac­ter­is­tic V6 growl be­fore set­tling to a steady idle. Snick the lever into first and you sense the im­prove­ments to the gearshift: the ac­tion is tighter, firmer, more pos­i­tive. The gearing still seems quite tall, though, with se­cond gear stretch­ing to 70mph and there­fore more than enough for the cut and thrust of B-roads. Even so, there’s a real and very ap­peal­ing sense of a light­weight car pro­pelled by a torque-rich en­gine. The re­sponse of the Toy­ota-de­rived V6 is en­hanced by a low-in­er­tia, sin­gle-mass fly­wheel, and even the roll-on in fourth is im­pres­sive, the en­gine dig­ging in from 2000rpm and trum­pet­ing its en­thu­si­asm through the cen­tral pipe.

It’s pretty vo­cal, though not as painfully loud as the ex­am­ple Adam Towler tried in evo 243, probably be­cause among the op­tions fit­ted to this car is the sound in­su­la­tion pack. It costs £500 and when added to the oth­ers – metal­lic paint (£1200), ‘pre­mium’ in­fo­tain­ment head unit, sub-woofer and amp (£2400), air

‘It feels like you’re sit­ting on the floor, but the su­perb all-round vis­i­bil­ity of the 911 helps put you at ease’

con (£1500), black ma­chined-rim forged wheels (£900) – brings the to­tal to £119k, and pre­sum­ably adds a few ki­los, too.

The Porsche also has some op­tions, bump­ing its price from a list of al­most £112k to £130k. They in­clude LED head­lamps, front-axle lift, car­bon-ce­ramic brakes, leather in­te­rior and those bucket seats. They’re fixed-back, like the Lo­tus’s, but with elec­tric cush­ion height/tilt ad­just­ment al­low­ing the back­rest an­gle to be trimmed. On the low­est set­ting it feels like you’re sit­ting on the floor but, as ever, the su­perb all-round vis­i­bil­ity of the 911 helps put you at ease. In con­trast, rear vis­i­bil­ity in the Evora is com­pro­mised

by the slat­ted en­gine cover and the lack of rear side win­dows, es­pe­cially at oblique junc­tions.

Their power-to-weight ra­tios say the two cars should feel equally quick. The lighter Lo­tus weighs in with 336bhp per ton, the more po­tent Porsche packs 355bhp per ton, its nat­u­rally as­pi­rated flat-six mak­ing 493bhp at 8250rpm. They do seem sim­i­larly rapid, but in dif­fer­ent ways. The Evora’s de­liv­ery is punchier low down and over­all more lin­ear, its gutsy su­per­charged V6 re­ally start­ing to push on at 4000rpm but then seem­ingly cut off in its prime by the abrupt lim­iter soon af­ter 7000rpm. Af­ter a rel­a­tively less gutsy start, the 911 is also dig­ging deep by 4000rpm and by 6000rpm is re­ally start­ing to wind up. Just as the Evora en­gine heads for the buf­fers, the 911’s makes that mag­i­cal, thrilling move of fully hit­ting its stride, crazily es­ca­lat­ing both the power and the sound to 8000rpm and be­yond. It’s elec­tri­fy­ing, nape prick­ling, and for the full-on ex­pe­ri­ence you need to hold it from tick­over to 9000rpm in one gear.

We’ve mostly driven the 991.2 GT3 in PDK form, but the six-speed man­ual, as fit­ted here, makes for a bet­ter, more nu­anced ex­pe­ri­ence. For­ays into the up­per realms of the rev range are less fre­quent and more spe­cial be­cause you lean on the en­gine’s torque more, when the PDK would have dropped a cou­ple of cogs and ripped on to the red line. A ben­e­fi­cial side-ef­fect is that you en­counter the un­com­fort­able 7000rpm res­o­nance less

‘You get into a sat­is­fy­ing groove with the Lo­tus. There’s much to en­joy and ad­mire, not least the fi­nesse dis­played by its ride’

of­ten. The shift is darned good, too. The Evora’s ’box has a lovely, pos­i­tive, me­chan­i­cal feel, but the 911’s feels tighter and even more slick, and the clutch weight feels more in har­mony with the other con­trols.

In all cars, time be­hind the wheel al­lows you to ac­cli­ma­tise to their con­trols and foibles, then adapt to them. How­ever, when you then swap into a car that has bet­ter con­trol weights and more lin­ear­ity of re­sponse, you no­tice right away. Af­ter the Evora, the GT3 is such a car. You can get into a sat­is­fy­ing groove with the Lo­tus, and there is much to en­joy and ad­mire, not least the fi­nesse dis­played by its ride, which smooths away small im­per­fec­tions and de­liv­ers great con­trol over the big­ger stuff for re­mark­ably poised, calm progress, with fan­tas­tic grip, too.

Then you get into the Porsche and, al­though it’s not per­fect, so much of it is so right, and it starts with the steer­ing. It’s not as sharp as the Lo­tus’s but it’s

‘The weight, smooth­ness and di­rect­ness of the steer­ing are spot on, but it lacks that cru­cial amount of feed­back that gives con­fi­dence’

con­nected and talk­a­tive and paints a clear pic­ture of what’s hap­pen­ing that puts you at ease. Not so long ago, elec­tric power steer­ing, such as the 911 has, was judged in­fe­rior in feel to hy­draulic power steer­ing (now rare), which the Lo­tus has. This was cer­tainly the case when the first gen­er­a­tion 991 was new, but Porsche has been work­ing hard on clos­ing the gap. The sporti­est 991s ben­e­fit from rear steer­ing, sharp­en­ing ini­tial re­sponse, but equally im­pres­sive and harder to de­liver is de­tailed feed­back. The GT3 has it in spades.

The next day starts frosty. You get a warm feel­ing be­ing in the GT430; it’s the best built of all the Evo­ras I’ve tried, with such a re­as­sur­ing sense of qual­ity and in­tegrity. How­ever, head­ing east on the A5 out of Betws-y-coed, up the twists be­tween the stone walls, I’m feel­ing for icy patches, which again high­lights the Lo­tus’s lack of feel. The weight, smooth­ness and di­rect­ness of the steer­ing are spot on, but it lacks that cru­cial amount of feed­back that gives con­fi­dence. Fur­ther out, press­ing on, the weight­ing be­comes a frac­tion light and in­puts re­veal a light front, heavy rear bal­ance of masses that tem­pers your pace a lit­tle.

Get­ting into the 911 again con­firms this. Its steer­ing is more nat­u­ral, au­then­tic – the re­sponse you get for the in­put you make is spot on. But it’s also the over­all bal­ance that makes a dif­fer­ence. The Porsche feels lower slung, and al­though its en­gine is way out back, it doesn’t feel like it; the car turns like all the masses are gath­ered be­tween the axles. It’s quite some feat of en­gi­neer­ing.

The con­trast be­comes even sharper through the wet bend we choose for some cor­ner­ing shots. I take the GT3 first, which is in it­self an in­di­ca­tor of con­fi­dence. I do a run with all the aids on, to sense the grip, then go again with ESC and TC off. The front catches the apex, the rear slips out un­der power, and I back out and neu­tralise. Next time through, I stay with the slip and hold the power steady for a few mo­ments. It feels nicely poised, com­fort­able with the at­ti­tude; and you as the driver have con­trol and op­tions.

The Evora is, well, less good. In fact, all that has been hinted at over the miles we’ve cov­ered crys­tallises here. First, the front doesn’t want to bite and the rear doesn’t want to let go, so next time through, I’m more pa­tient and let the front hook into the turn and then power up the rear. It slips wide but the break­away is too quick, too sud­den. Back off and the mo­men­tum-loaded rear re­gains grip abruptly and the tail bounces back into line. Not smooth, not calm, not re­as­sur­ing. This is much

like the be­hav­iour you’d ex­pect of a fullscale mid-en­gined su­per­car. Sure, there’s a six-po­si­tion trac­tion con­trol al­low­ing you to dial in rear-tyre slip val­ues be­tween one and 12 per cent, but es­sen­tially the Evora does not feel as poised or bal­anced at or over the limit. In fact, the Lo­tus feels more like a 911 than the Porsche does.

What makes it more of a chal­lenge is that lack of steer­ing feel. Feel some steer­ing used to be one of the most re­ward­ing as­pects of the Evora, and the GT430 shows why it is so im­por­tant. With­out it, it’s dif­fi­cult to feel the bite that the front has and thus what the rear might do if you

push harder. And given that the bal­ance isn’t there and the rear feels like the tail wag­ging the dog, that’s a cru­cial loss.

There are a few other as­pects that ran­kle: the shut lines are large, as if drawn with a crayon, where the Porsche’s are drawn with a Rotring 0.5mm fine pen, and the ig­ni­tion key and col­umn stalks are in­ex­pen­sive Ford parts, circa 1983.

That said, in many more im­por­tant re­spects, this is a deeply im­pres­sive car. The stan­dard of the car­bon­fi­bre work is very high, there’s a real sense of qual­ity and in­tegrity, and the en­gine and gear­box have char­ac­ter and pur­pose. And, as ever, the ride qual­ity is ex­cep­tional and al­lied to su­perb body con­trol.

In the end though, as with most other ri­vals that have strayed onto its patch, the GT3 comes out on top. It’s not as spe­cial to look at, it isn’t made from ob­vi­ously ex­otic ma­te­ri­als, it’s not as rare and it isn’t even the top of the 911 tree. It is also some­what un­ob­tain­able, with sig­nif­i­cant pre­mi­ums be­ing sought right now.

Whether it’s worth al­most £200k is de­bat­able, but there’s no ques­tion it is a very finely honed, very sat­is­fy­ing driv­ers’ car. It has su­perb steer­ing feel and thus gives a bet­ter sense of con­nec­tion with the road at all times, but es­pe­cially when you’re press­ing on and feel­ing out the lim­its. And, against ex­pec­ta­tion, at and be­yond the limit it is bet­ter bal­anced and more ex­ploitable than the Evora. Equally im­por­tantly, though, the slick, short-throw shift of the man­ual gear­box trans­forms the ex­pe­ri­ence com­pared with the PDK car, mak­ing it much more a tool of the driver rather than just a crazy-fast ride.

It takes the level of en­gage­ment to an­other plane, de­liv­er­ing re­wards at all speeds, not just when the spec­tac­u­lar flat­six is keen­ing for the 9000rpm red line, and ul­ti­mately helps en­sure that the GT3 still sets the sports car stan­dard.

‘The 911 takes the level of en­gage­ment to an­other plane, de­liv­er­ing re­wards at all speeds’

Above right: Evora cabin much im­proved; Toy­ota-sourced V6 punchy low down, but is stopped in its stride by the rev lim­iter

Be­low and right: GT430 com­bines a poised, calm ride with fan­tas­tic lev­els of grip, even in these con­di­tions; it’s the only Lo­tus that comes with a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial

Left: Evora’s 370mm ven­ti­lated front brake discs sit within Miche­lin Cup tyres. Above: GT3 is made from more con­ven­tional ma­te­ri­als com­pared with the Lo­tus’s gen­er­ous use of car­bon­fi­bre

Left: no PDK here for once – this GT3 has the man­ual ’box, and it’s a good ’un; en­gine is way out back, but you wouldn’t know it from be­hind the wheel

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