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First drive: Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.

First drive: Lotus Elise Sprint 220
Lotus has one last throw of the dice with the Elise Sport 220. Comes up with double-sixes.

 



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Lotus Elise Sprint 220

5 5 5 5 5

It's hard to know whether we're on Lotus Elise S2, S3, S4 or S2.2.5 nowadays, so long has the Norfolk sports car been around. This, though, is the final round of revisions for the diminutive mid-engined machine and while the entire range is updated, there's also the resurrection of a fabled Lotus badge to talk about. Trimming even more mass out of a featherweight car to begin with, Hethel has decided it will call the resulting lighter car the Elise Sprint - a nod back to the Elan Sprint of 1971-1973. The best news is that the Elise Sprint 220 is blindingly brilliant at entertaining its driver.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Lotus Elise Sprint 220
Pricing: Elise from 32,300; Sprint 220 from 44,300
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder supercharged petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: two-seat roadster
CO2 emissions: 173g/km (VED 800 first 12 months, then 450 per annum next five years, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 37.7mpg
Top speed: 145mph
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
Power: 220hp at 6,800rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 4,600rpm

What's this?

The Lotus Elise, with one last round of revisions aimed at re-energising it before a genuinely all-new version arrives in 2020. Lotus has given the 2017 car a notable facelift and also started trimming weight out of it - a tough task, we grant you, given the Elise is markedly less than a tonne in all its various guises and there's not a great deal of stuff left within its frame to actually get rid of.

Anyway, visually there's a wider radiator grille and air intakes at the front, while the clamshell bonnet is reshaped and lightened. The back of the car has been subtly redesigned too, although rather more obviously, the quad taillights of the Elise - a feature of the car since 1996 - have gone the way of the warrior. This relative lack of lamps serves two purposes: one, it makes the transom rear of the Lotus look more like its bigger Exige sibling; and two, it trims 500 grams from the Elise's, um, 'bulk'.

That's not all. We've got a four-vane aluminium diffuser to clean up airflow exiting the car and inside, there's the addition of Bluetooth via a Clarion head unit, an optional five-choice colour pack to detail bits of the interior, more Alcantara, easier-to-read dials in the instrument cluster... oh, and just the small matter of an absolutely gorgeous exposed gear linkage arrangement, borrowed from the Exige. This alone is almost worth the entrance fee for a 2017MY Lotus Elise, because it's enthralling to watch the machined aluminium workings at the base of the gear lever as you snick through each of the ratios (if you are going to stare for a prolonged time at the linkages in motion, do this while at a standstill, please, for obvious reasons of safety). It's a theatrical masterstroke and it also saves 1kg in weight. That's what we believe they call a 'win-win scenario'.

What with little snips and cuts here and there, the Elise Sport (1.6-litre, normally aspirated four-pot with 136hp) and 220 Sport (1.8-litre, supercharged four-banger with 220hp) are 10kg lighter than the equivalent 2016 models. It'll cost you 32,300 for a 1.6 Sport and another 7,000 for a 220 Sport. So far, all so good.

But you need to be looking at the Sprint. It's the one with the evocative name for a Lotus fan - Sprint having been used just once since the hugely desirable run-out Elan died in 1973, and only then for a 40-off limited edition run of the Elise-based Exige of the late 2000s - and it's the one with the headline-grabbing weight claims. Available with the same choice of two engines, the 1.6 Sprint clocks in at 798kg dry weight (this is racing dry weight, says Lotus, so all fluids on board bar fuel and the detergent mix for the washer bottle), making this the lightest series production Lotus since the S1 Elise of 1996... apparently, the even-lighter 2-Eleven and 340R don't quite qualify for inclusion in this category, but it's nice to claim 'the lightest for a long time' tag, eh?

Never mind, though, because you'll want the 851kg Sprint 220 anyway - and no, we can't fathom out why it's Elise 220 Sport but Elise Sprint 220, either. Doesn't matter; this thing has a power-to-weight ratio of 257hp-per-tonne. That's because it, like the 1.6 Sprint, has had up to 40kg (this figure includes the stuff already listed for the Elise Sport) lifted out of it, mainly through the use of carbon fibre. It's used for the bucket seats in the cabin, the front access panel in the clamshell, the rollover hoop and the engine cover. The rear screen is made of polycarbonate and a lithium-ion battery is fitted, which sheds nine kilos all on its lonesome. Then there are those beautiful lightweight black alloys, with their metal-spun rims designed to deliberately evoke the look of the historic Elan Sprint. Later in 2017, lighter two-piece brake discs and Cup-spec dampers will also be offered.

Along with a titanium exhaust that spruces up the sound of the Elise - and which removes 10kg aft of the rear axle - some side-stripe exterior graphics, a black transom panel cloaking the rear lights and logo, the colour pack and contrast stitching as standard within and bespoke 'Sprint 220' badging on the body, all of the above is a neat 5,000 on top of the equivalent Sport model, making the Sprint 220 44,300. Not cheap, then, but as Lotus' CEO Jean-Marc Gales says that, apart from some sundry changes and tweaks in the years to come, there will be no more significant updates for this generation of Elise ahead of the new car in 2020, the Sprint 220 could be the finest and most collectible version of this sports car's breed.

How does it drive?

We really don't know where to start. Pick an attribute of the Lotus, and it will invariably be magnificent to the point of faultlessness. Apart, possibly, from the drivetrain, as this Toyota-sourced 1.8 isn't the finest-sounding engine in the world. But the new exhaust gives the Elise a deeper, bass-rich idle note and a good, blaring soundtrack under hard acceleration that certainly doesn't mean the Lotus is aurally boring. It'll also, even in this age of most performance cars having 400-600hp, quickly make you realise that 220hp is more than enough to be getting on with when it's only shifting this much car about. Power delivery is beautifully linear, throttle response immediate and crisp and the performance is brutally quick. And that wondrous exposed gear linkage is teamed to a superb six-speed gearbox beneath, so you can best elicit the Elise's tremendous pace.

Lotus also still has an arcane knack of managing to make short-wheelbase, lightweight, speed-focused cars ride in an astonishingly composed fashion when you're not 'on it'. Despite its fabled 2.2-mile test track at Hethel, the company says it sets its cars' suspension up on the crumbling roads of the East Anglian fenlands and it really shows. We're not saying the Elise rides like an air-sprung E-Class, of course, but the fixed-rate springs and dampers are judged so wonderfully that, in the space of two hours, we did all of the following and at all times, the Lotus felt completely within its element: we drove up the A11 at constant motorway speeds towards Norwich; we picked our way through heavy traffic and pockmarked roads in the outskirts of Norfolk's county town; we attacked a flowing, undulating B-road running back towards Hethel with real vim and vigour; and then we took exactly the same car onto the test track and subjected it to nine or ten full-throttle laps.

The brakes, AP Racing callipers up front and Brembo items at the rear (albeit AP Racing is a sub-brand of Brembo anyway), proved strong and reliable, although the pedal had gone a tiny bit longer at the end of the Sprint's session on track than we experienced on the Cup 250 in similar circumstances last year, but in essence they bite powerfully and the pedal progression is such that heel-and-toe combined with that razor throttle proves to be a cinch. Turn-in is almost frighteningly direct. Body control is excellent. The variable traction control - which runs fully on, halfway-house and off entirely - is brilliant and unobtrusive when it's engaged, allowing little twitches of the Elise's tail and squirms of the rear tyres under heavy throttle to remind you this Lotus is mid-engined, rear-wheel drive and calibrated to near-perfection. And with traction off, the Sprint slides progressively and evenly, with none of the sudden spikiness that marked out the S1.

But all of this excellence is outshone by the unassisted steering. Blimey, you've not even rolled the Lotus 50 metres and already you're gaping down at the wheel in your hands, slack-jawed at the amount of feedback and feel it is throwing your way. Lotus has always engineered the Elise to be light and to run on narrow 175-section front and 225-section rear tyres, and that slender rubber at the nose is the reason the Sprint 220 doesn't need even hydraulic assistance, let alone the feel-robbing modern preference of EPAS. The outcome of this is that no car we can think of, for any amount of money, has steering as marvellous and informative as this; it's the crowning glory of a suite of fantastic dynamic controls for the exceptional Lotus Elise Sprint 220.

Verdict

We might almost start paraphrasing Miss-America-turned-singer-turned-Hollywood-actress Vanessa Williams here, by saying 'just when Elise's chance had passed, you go and save the best for last' - if not for the fact that we know a 2017MY Cup 250 is on the way, replete with its full aero kit plus all the updates we've outlined here. That could be the glorious last hurrah for this Elise.

But, even if the Cup 250 turns out to be super-expensive or somehow not sublime to drive (unlikely), panic not - because the Sprint 220 is sensational. We still maintain that you could just about live with an Elise as your only car on a day-to-day basis if your circumstances were right and, as a result, there's nothing that so finely blends stunning driving dynamics like this - that work both on track and the public roads - with a reasonable veneer of usability. Brilliant as it is, a Porsche 718 Boxster S just isn't as ultimately engaging as the Elise, while something like an Ariel Atom or BAC Mono would only be used as an all-year daily driver by a particularly deranged sadomasochist.

Yet it's not because it is first in a class of one that we adore the Lotus Elise Sprint 220; it's simply because it's an exquisite dynamic delight that makes the act of driving in a committed fashion into an unmitigated pleasure. Yes, it comes with significant compromises. Yes, you should utterly ignore them, and go ahead and buy the Sprint regardless. It's magnificent.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

4 4 4 4 4 Interior Ambience

3 3 3 3 3 Passenger Space

2 2 2 2 2 Luggage Space

3 3 3 3 3 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

5 5 5 5 5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 11 May 2017









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2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.

2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.2017 Lotus Elise Sprint 220. Image by Lotus.








 

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