Lotus takes the Elise back to basics with a new, no-frills entry-level model. Jonathan Crouch straps up.
Ten Second Review
Where other manufacturers spend millions on technology to drive down fuel consumption and emissions, Lotus has always done it in the most elegant way possible - with less weight. In restyled third generation guise, with a fast but frugal 1.6-litre engine now the ownership entry-point, their little Elise remains a template for the modern sportscar in its purest form.
When it was launched back in 1996, few realised quite what a landmark sportscar Lotus' Elise would become. Not even Lotus, who thought they might sell two or three thousand before the market moved on to something else. We all should have known better. This was, after all, something very special: light, simple and built just like a single-seater racing car with a glassfibre body and a tough bonded aluminium chassis. Best of all, it was sprinkled with more than a little Lotus magic, with steering, suspension and braking so good that in over fifteen years, they've yet to be improved upon. The 2001 Mk2 model saw a move from Rover K Series to Toyota variable valve timing power. The 2010 third generation car is still Toyota-powered, but now more ecologically so, this entry-level version becoming the first Elise to feature 1.6-litre power. There are pokier versions further up the smartly restyled range, but their more muscular aren't essential to an experience that still makes other sportscars seem compromised and commercial by comparison. Insurance 0
If you've never driven a proper sportscar, then slipping behind the wheel of an Elise might take a little adjustment, but it'll be well worth the effort. The low-set driving position, the minimalistic cockpit, the way the throttle buzzes with energy, the absence of any need for power steering - it all prepares you for something a little different. Which is exactly what you get. Steering input seems shockingly direct for the first mile and a half, after which you simply realise that this is how it should be. At just under 900kg, 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 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 as the ride is remains supple and calm at speed on a bumpy country road. This entry-level 134bhp 1.6-litre Elise has a little less torque to play with than the 1.8-litre unit it replaced, so you'll be shifting a little more often about the delightfully slick six-speed manual gearbox - no great hardship. In a car as small and light as this, that's enough to get you from standstill to 60mph in just 6.0 seconds on the way to a top speed of 127mph.
Design and Build
Today's Elise has a cleaner, smoother look than its predecessors and acquired trendy LED daytime running lights. The rear bumper gets a redesigned diffuser and there's a restyled engine deck lid necessary to accommodate the Toyota's taller Welsh-constructed 1.6-litre engine. As before, the whole thing constructed around a bonded and extruded aluminum chassis of outstanding rigidity. That's something that used to be more obvious inside the very basic early Elises but it's a little more concealed by mats and paneling these days, especially if you tick the box for the carpeted Touring Pack that most owners choose. Even so, this is a very basic cockpit for a £30,000 sportscar, even if it has been very carefully screwed together. Not that the racecar style is without appeal, though some steering wheel adjustment would be nice. The controls you do get are brilliantly laid out though and the driving position is excellent. It's harder to warm to the fiddly canvas roof. When it's up, there are issues with refinement. And taking it down remains a laborious process that needs both force, time and practice. Overall, I'd be tempted by the optional hardtop instead. Boot capacity is of course necessarily limited and you'll need to make careful use of every inch of the 112-litre space available - perhaps with a set of bespoke luggage - if you're planning to use this car for weekend trips.
Market and Model
On the face of it, it's certainly true that, with a starting price for this entry-level 1.6-litre S model getting on for £30,000 when you include the Touring Pack that most will want, an Elise is by no means inexpensive. A comparably-sized roadster like Mazda's MX-5 could be yours for £12,000 less. But then the Mazda isn't an Elise. Truth is, nothing else provides as much pure driving enjoyment at anywhere near the price. Whichever Elise you choose, you'll get alloy wheels, central locking, a leather-covered steering wheel and a CD player. Safetywise, there's twin front airbags and ABS. Beyond that though, you'll need to pay extra for a variety of options packs to add at least a few of the features you'd normally expect to find on a £30,000 car. Given the proximity of the engine just behind the cabin, the air conditioning option is probably essential box, as is extra sound-proofing. Both of these features are included (along with carpets, part-leather trim, a cupholder and an iPod connection) in the Touring Pack that really ought to be standard. Traction control would also be nice to have but it's much harder to fathom why anyone would want cruise control which is a fresh addition to the options list.
Cost of Ownership
When it comes to running costs, as in perhaps every other way, there's little doubt that today, this Elise makes as much sense, and maybe more, as it did back at its launch in 1996. Lotus founder Colin Chapman's 'performance through lightweight' philosophy has been the cornerstone of his company's success story down the years and in the light of the current automotive industry imperative for improved fuel economy and lower emissions, it looks positively visionary. Excellent fuel economy and low emissions come thanks to the light 876kg weight (by contrast, a modern MX-5 tips the scales at nearly 1,100kg). When you then combine this with the virtues of this entry-level version's 1.6-litre Toyota engine, one of the most efficient in modern production, the result is the lowest-emitting and most fuel-efficient petrol-powered sportscar currently on sale. CO2 figures for this unit are down 16% - or 30g/km - over the previous 1.8 to 149g/km, while Lotus claims that 45mpg is possible on the combined cycle and that over 500 miles is possible from one fill of the 40-litre tank. Even driven with a degree of enthusiasm, over 40mpg should still be possible on a regular basis. Insurance is a top-of-the-shop group 43 but residual values are buoyant, with the market for pre-owned Elise models thriving. That'll make staying on the Lotus ownership ladder a lot easier than getting there in the first place. A longer 3 year / 36,000 mile warranty is also a welcome improvement.
Anyone can create a supercar with a huge engine and an inflated price. All Lotus need is modest 1.6-litre petrol power and a simple aluminum chassis. Even in its humblest form, their Elise is as magical as ever. On a twisting track or a curving country road, there's little faster. There are drawbacks of course. It still isn't an everyday sportscar in the way that more compromised rivals can be. It could do with being a few thousand pounds less. And the basic trim and fiddly roof won't appeal if you like your creature comforts. But all of this is to miss the point. An Elise is gloriously, uniquely like nothing else. It's fun in a way that modern cars have largely forgotten how to be. Britain once taught the world how to build sportscars. It still does.