The lightweight Lotus Elise looks a more modern car than its years would suggest. Jonathan Crouch checks out the latest Series 3 range.
For the overwhelming majority of motorists, a car is primarily a tool that stops them having to walk, ride a bicycle or use public transport to get about. Everything else, the performance, the design, the equipment, is nice to have but it's just window dressing. The Lotus Elise is one of the most accessible examples of a different kind of car, one that most of us don't have the luxury of being able to afford or live with. With an Elise, the primary focus is on having fun and owners have been doing precisely that in it since 1996. Continual improvements have kept the Elise fresh and the latest car shows no sign of losing its innate zest for life.
Ten Second Review
Simple but effective, the Lotus Elise remains one of the finest drivers' cars around and the latest Series 3 models enhance its reputation with sharper looks and improved efficiency. The lightweight design gives the Elise an edge in so many areas that it's hard to see rival manufacturers not following suit.
The Elise has had things pretty good up until now but there are signs that events might be conspiring more and more in its favour. When Lotus founder Colin Chapman laid down the company's overriding philosophy of 'performance through light weight', global warming wasn't a speck on the horizon and most people would have put the melting ice cap down as a drastic cure for sunstroke. These days, other manufacturers are coming around to the Lotus way of thinking, shaving weight from their vehicles not just to enhance performance but to improve fuel efficiency as well. The Elise has a glittering history but its compact size and lightweight design could be the future of the sportscar too. The latest Series 3 models are the most environmentally-friendly Elises yet but fans of the car's phenomenal grip, balance and handling purity won't be disappointed either.
A car like the Elise doesn't need massive power to put a huge smile on the face of its drivers but for getting just the right amount of terror in their eyes, the 243bhp Elise Cup 250 is ideal. This is the range-topping model with a 1.8-litre supercharged engine borrowed, like all of the Elise powerplants, from Toyota. In an Elise that weighs significantly less than a tonne, that's enough grunt to get to 60mph in 3.9s and on to a 154mph top speed. Drop down a level and the Elise Sport 220 uses the same powerplant but in 217bhp tune. This Elise is still seriously fast with a 4.6s time for the 0-62mph sprint and a 145mph top speed. There's also a track-only Cup R variant that also uses this engine. The entry-level Elise 1.6 Sport now has a 136bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine that still punches above its weight. As well as the VVT-I variable valve timing system, it features Valvematic technology which gives the engine management computer control over valve lift too. This brings even greater efficiency with no performance penalty. Even this least potent Elise gets to 62mph from a standing start in 6.5s, faster than a Golf GTI. And the handling? Well at just over 900kg in its faster forms, this car isn't quite as light as it used to be but it's still a featherweight compared to most of its rivals and low mass spells fantastic agility, tuned by some of the best chassis engineers in the business. The last nuances of suspension castor, toe, camber and tyre sidewall stiffness have all been agonised over so that you don't have to. The result is that with a mid-mounted engine for perfect balance and some fat rear tyres generating prodigious grip, you quickly feel more and more confident in exploring the car's limits. Especially since the ride is very good, taut enough to be responsive, absorbent enough not to buck you about all over the place at speed on a bumpy country road.
Design and Build
The greatest weapon the Elise has in the battle to deliver the most engaging driving experience around is its chassis. The bonded aluminium arrangement is hugely strong yet tips the scales at just 68kg. The engine is mounted at the centre of the car in a lightweight steel sub frame for optimum weight distribution and power is sent to the rear wheels through the close ratio six-speed gearbox. With the entry-level model weighing just 866kg all in, you don't need a physics PHD to appreciate where the speed and nimbleness of the Elise originates. As an everyday car the Elise is a challenge. Getting in and out with the roof in place is an art which needs to be perfected, the two-seater cabin is on the snug side and you'll be reaching for a basket rather than a trolley on visits to the supermarket unless you plan on driving home with an oven ready chicken in your lap. What you do get is a superb driving position in seats that use ProBax technology to give the best possible support. What fixtures and fittings there are feel sturdily built but the stereo can be a little fiddly when you're driving along on that 'communicative' sports suspension.
Market and Model
Equipment levels aren't judged in the way we'd normally judge equipment levels. Instead of talking about stereos, cup holders, electric seats and so on, let's take a look at the bits that really count on an Elise. The brakes feature AP Racing callipers at the front and Brembo clamps at the back, linked to 282mm vented and cross drilled discs. Lotus has engineered one of the world's most subtle anti-lock braking systems as well. Rather than a manic juddering of the middle pedal when you get a little enthusiastic in the braking zone, you'll only feel a distant pulsing as the system unobtrusively and efficiently does its stuff. Driver and passenger airbags also feature as do pretensioner seatbelts, but many customers will want full race harnesses fitted. Rivals for the Elise are drawn from all over the place. In terms of outright performance, the more powerful models can live with some real exotica, vehicles costing four or five times the price. A more direct challenge comes from trackday specials like the Caterham Seven and the Ariel Atom but even an Elise is easier to live with than these hooligans.
Cost of Ownership
Keeping an Elise taxed and fuelled up will certainly prove a lot cheaper than it would with the vast majority of the cars in its performance and handling bracket. We have its inherent lightness to thank for that but also the efficiency of its engines and the polished aerodynamic package. The entry level Elise with its 1.6-litre engine is the star performer with CO2 emissions of 149g/km and combined fuel economy of 44.8mpg. Go for the Elise Sport 220 and emissions are still reasonable at 175g/km while the Cup 250 model can still manage 37.7mpg on the combined cycle. Another benefit of the Elise's light weight is that it doesn't eat through tyres, degrade its brakes or destroy shock absorbers in the way an enthusiastically driven heavier vehicle will. The Toyota engines have proven extremely durable (no great surprises there) with lower servicing overheads than the Rover K Series lump that once powered the Elise. Insurance for all Elise models is rated at a hefty Group 43.
Not everyone will be able to get on with a Lotus Elise. It's a car that makes very few concessions to practicality and everyday usability, instead focusing its every effort on achieving the ultimate in pure driver enjoyment. The innovative lightweight design lets it achieve this goal in a more efficient manner than other cars with similar capabilities and the Elise could be more relevant than ever as a result. You couldn't wish it on a nicer car.