We're told that dogs and wolves descended from a common ancestor. Somewhere along the way, eons ago, there was a split. Dogs became domesticated, entering a symbiotic relationship with humans. Wolves stayed wild, advancing complex social hierarchies and elaborate hunting patterns without concern for those pesky bipeds. Today, the two animals are clearly related, but you'd never call them the same.
It's like that with these two cars. The 2018 Evora 400 represents everything Lotus has accomplished in the 21st century. It's modern, brilliantly designed and, for the most part, carefully built, a car that helped Lotus become profitable for the first time since its founding in 1952. It offers the kind of sublime driving experience you associate with the hallowed British brand, most of the modern conveniences you really want in a new car. It's evolved.
The Caterham Seven is evolved, too, but in a different manner. Caterham secured the rights to keep building the third-generation Seven after Lotus discontinued the model in 1973. Since then, the company has updated the car extensively—the current edition doesn't share a single part with the early-'70s original. But the raw, fanatical nature remains. To borrow a Silicon Valley phrase, this is the car world's minimum viable product: everything required to build a functional automobile, and nothing more.
Like dogs and wolves, the Lotus and the Caterham branch from the same family tree. But one obeys the wants and needs of modern people, while the other disdains them. The Evora promises to give you that trademark Lotus loveliness in a car you could drive every day; the Caterham wants to elevate driving beyond a daily chore.
So we brought these two distant relatives together to see if they have anything left in common.
The Evora is the most practical, conventional vehicle in the current Lotus lineup. That should reassure you that the British automaker hasn't gone soft. The silver Evora 400 that showed up at the Road & Track offices had four seats, two of which were sized for human occupancy. It boasted a Crutchfield-spec touchscreen infotainment system, a backup camera, power windows and locks, cruise control . . . basically, the equipment you'd expect in an off-lease Corolla.
And not a whit more. The Evora 400 weighs in at 3075 lbs empty, a number achieved through strict frugality of mass. The rear decklid is unpainted carbon fiber, held open by a prop rod. Flipping it open feels like lifting the lid on a good-size beer cooler. The Alcantara-trimmed seats are thin-shelled with thinner cushioning. Sound deadening is sparse. On the highway, the car thrums with road noise. Bumps send a mid-pitch thwang through the monocoque. It's a little like driving an aluminum ladder.
It's direct. The steering is millimeter-precise, wiggling in your hands over highway expansion joints. The firm, progressive brake pedal is perfection. The exhaust gets louder in Sport and Race modes; at full bark, the Toyota-sourced, supercharged V6 lets out a supercar howl like no Camry in the world. You can hear the faint rattle of the pressure plate as you sit idling in neutral. The shifter, delightfully mechanical, conveys the plight of the synchros directly into your palm.
You catch glimpses of the engine at work through the rear view mirror, watching the blower's wastegate mechanism snap to attention with every prod of the throttle. It's pretty much all you can see back there—the louvered rear window makes it feel like you're driving with the blinds down.
Most modern performance cars deliver feeling through addition. Stiffer suspension, a different steering setup, a rowdier drivetrain and gargantuan brakes—the typical slate of components that add excitement to a platform designed to be quiet and smooth-riding. It's a reality of the modern auto industry: Your favorite sports coupe is likely meant to double as a h, hushed grand tourer, depending on the options you select. By default, you're at a distance from the action, able to get a little closer with the right equipment—and maybe a little synthetic fakery.
The Evora has no such distance. Every sensation that comes through your hands, ears, and seat is honest and immediate, and it won't go away with the twist of a drive mode knob. It's cloaked in the swoopy design of a modern exotic—the same carbon fiber and brushed metal that drip off every performance car—but it delivers an unfiltered feeling you swore you'd never find again in a new car.
It makes you want to be sympathetic to the thing, to collaborate with it rather than dominate it or punish it. Because when you get it right, in a precisely rev-matched downshift or an exacting brush of the brakes mid-corner, it feels like perfection.
Then there's the Caterham. This orange example, graciously loaned to us by , is a 2015 Seven Superlight R300, powered by a 2.0-liter Ford Duratec four-cylinder cranking out 175 horses. The trick, as always, is in the curb weight: this Seven weighs in at just 1270 lbs because, like all Caterhams, it lacks anything that might comfort, coddle or protect you. Doors? Nope. Roof? Hardly. Air conditioning? Come on. Stereo? Even if it had one, you wouldn't be able to hear it. The turn signals don't self-cancel. The heater has no temperature adjustment.
We collected the Seven in midtown Manhattan. Hopping into a Caterham is a tricky maneuver—remove the steering wheel, stand on the seat, then snake your legs one-by-one down into the footwell. The fixed-back, no-upholstery chairs adjust fore-and-aft a few inches, but once you've cinched down the five-point racing harness, you're committed to your position.
I like to think I'm relatively courageous, but my first few minutes in the Caterham, in the rush of New York City traffic, were harrowing. The top of my windshield was below the beltline of the utility vehicles around me. An Escalade driver could mistake me for an opening in traffic, summiting my hood before they ever heard the feeble bleat of my horn. The driver's-side mirror was missing; the passenger-side one, a teensy-weensy Formula 1-style affair, vibrated out of adjustment at the first red light. I faced an unenviable decision: keep my belts loose, so I could turn my shoulders enough for a blind spot check, or cinch them tight to avoid being ejected over a pothole? Buzz-bouncing across the George Washington Bridge, eye-level with an 18-wheeler's lug nuts, neither seemed like a great option.
It doesn't help that the Seven, viewed from above, is shaped like a pine-box coffin, narrow at your feet.
Once you get over the willies—or across the river and away from the city—driving this car feels like getting away with something. Like you're 10 years old again, and your go-kart can suddenly do a hundred, and you're sneaking out of the cul de sac to hit the highway.
The steering is light and quick but demands effort. The wheel dances in your hand, shimmying and shuddering and occasionally wrenching itself 40 degrees off-heading on larger bumps. The shift knob, buried up to its ears in the upholstery of the transmission tunnel, couldn't be made shorter or more direct if NASA redesigned it. You operate it by fingertip, wrist dangling, the way you'd pluck the eight ball out of a billiard rack.
For the first few minutes, you have to think about driving the Seven. Mostly, it's about un-learning bad habits that modern cars just absorb. A reckless clutch dump or an imprudent whack at the throttle will cut the rear tires loose. The naturally aspirated, cable-throttle engine has response to shame today's turbo snoozers, exposing how sloppy my rev-matching technique had gotten from years of driving new cars. And you certainly won't one-hand the wheel around a bumpy curve at speed.
Soon, though, you're not thinking about it at all.
It's an overused cliche to call a car "telepathic." That doesn't sound like much fun anyway, does it? Telepathy is a passive act. There's no motion, no flow to it.
Driving the Caterham feels athletic. You hustle the thing along in clipped, efficient motions. There's no need for big, elbow-swinging twirls of the steering wheel or gear shifts that come from the muscles in your back. There's no room in here for that. Every input you give the car is through fine motor skills. Economical, minimal. You drive it the way an Olympic swimmer moves through the water, not a single motion wasted.
On the surface, this is an unfair comparison. The Evora trounces the Seven in every measure of human-friendly day-to-day livability. The Seven, not required to answer to 50- years of safety innovation, is raw and elemental in a way that no modern Lotus with a license plate can be. The conclusion seems obvious: The Caterham is a tool with one job, meant only to whisk down gorgeous country roads and park in a garage next to something more sensible. The Evora is what you buy if you want some of that jazz, but can't commit to the hardcore lifestyle.
I think that answer's too simple. In that reading, the Evora is no different from a 911 or an M4 or an F-Type.
But it is different. The Evora delivers direct, unfiltered and unceasing feel in a way none of the aforementioned competitors can match. That's always been the mission at Lotus. And if that's not what a customer wants? Right this way, to a different automaker's showroom and a heavier, more compromised conveyance.
That's the connection between these two cars. They both deliver on that old Lotus promise: A machine with minimal intrusion and all distraction eliminated. The Seven makes that plain from 50 yards away; the Evora smuggles it into the new-car market.
They're not the same, of course. Hopping out of the Seven and into the Evora is a jarring experience. In the Evora, you can escape the rush of the wind around you. Here, you can't lean to the side and watch the front suspension in motion. The clutch pedal drops to the floor with half the muscle you had to muster in the Seven. You can crank the wheel lock-to-lock at a standstill without breaking a sweat.
But then you get out of the Evora and into any other new performance car under $250,000, and you immediately feel like the captain of an enormous ship. Still in control, but eerily distant from the noise and toil that makes your travel possible.
That's what ties these two machines together. It's a family resemblance you'll recognize immediately.