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Lotus swings big with the Evora 400

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

In a world of automotive Goliaths, tiny British automaker Lotus is a true David.

Despite a history of struggling from one financial crisis to the next, 50-year-old Lotus has maintained its reputation for building lightweight, no-frills sports cars. And the company has rekindled the hopes of enthusiasts worldwide with its latest model, the 2017 Evora 400.

For performance car fans in the U.S., the imminent arrival of the mid-engine 400 marks the return of the brand to our shores after several lean years. Luxembourg-born CEO Jean-Marc Gales says with a certain pride that his 850-employee company is the smallest automaker in the world to sell cars in the U.S.

And unlike previous Lotus models sold here, the 400 required no waivers from the federal government in terms of safety or emissions equipment. The 2017 model complies with all applicable regulations.

“Thankfully our U.S. dealer network, which is mostly on the east and west coasts, have never abandoned us,” says Gales, who has worked at several major automakers, including Peugeot-Citroen and Mercedes-Benz. “America accounts for half of the world’s sports car sales, so we have to be here.”

Advance interest from consumers in the Evora 400 has been significant, adds Gales, with 250 pre-launch orders for delivery later this month.

So what will Lotus lovers get for the $91,900 asking price of the Evora 400? First, the car is light, although at 3,153 pounds it is not as super-lightweight as some might hope. (For comparison, a base Corvette is 3,300 pounds and an Alfa Romeo 4C weighs 2,500 pounds).

That said, the 400 is the fastest Lotus production car yet, with a 0-60 mph time of 4.1 seconds and a top speed of 186 mph. More important than sheer speed alone, the 400 is terrifically entertaining to drive: taut, responsive, yet refined enough to lift it out of the crude, barely livable category that describes previous Lotus models and for that matter, the Alfa 4C.

I test-drove the 400 at GingerMan Raceway, a challenging club circuit near South Haven, and on nearby roads. The combination of an unfamiliar race track and a powerful (400-horsepower) new sports car can be tricky, but it’s a testament to the Evora’s well-honed handling dynamics that I quickly became comfortable pushing the car toward its limits. Head of vehicle engineering Gavan Kershaw went further and demonstrated the Evora’s engaging combination of mild initial understeer, followed by easily modulated oversteer in the corners. Kershaw is especially pleased with the performance of the Evora’s AP Racing brakes, which he says are now used as a benchmark by Porsche.

Speaking of Porsche, Gales is not shy in stating that the Evora, with its supercharged Toyota 3.5-liter V-6, is a direct competitor to the 911. The Lotus’ base price can quickly escalate into regular Porsche 911 territory if you select some weight-saving options, such as a titanium exhaust system that cuts 22 pounds for $10,000. But to put the Evora in the same category is a stretch. Though the new Lotus boasts better fit and finish and more creature comforts than it used to — with air conditioning that actually works and a hand-stitched leather and Alcantara-trimmed interior — it is way behind the Porsche 911 in available features and overall refinement.

That difference, however, is a big part of the David vs. Goliath appeal. Opting for a Lotus puts you in rare company. And with the Evora 400, you’re buying a car that’s not only fast and fun, but just civilized enough to live with.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com