Working at Lotus when the original Elise was under development, I used to enjoy walking into the office past a line of shiny pre-production cars every day. I vowed to own an Elise one day. That was before the car became a hit, a renowned driver's car and potential saviour of Colin Chapman's great company. My passion for the Elise has not really dwindled in the intervening years, but circumstances prevented it from ever making it onto my shopping list. A few months ago someone asked me if I would buy one, and my reply was something along the lines of - "someday". That day has just come a lot closer.
The gods rewarded my 6am start by drenching the Lincolnshire countryside with sunshine. The sun was soon high enough not to be a distraction to the driving, so I removed the roof and pointed the Elise towards my favourite roads. Bearing in mind that I was driving the Elise 111S, with 156 bhp to push its paltry 800 kg along, the acceleration does not feel as blistering as you would expect. Saying that, the figures are quite impressive, and it becomes all too easy to exceed speed limits, even on your first acquaintance with the car. The engine itself is a 1.8-litre Rover K-series four-pot. The noise it makes is more loud than inspiring, but it does the job well enough. Bizarrely, the peak power is quoted to be at 7000 rpm, which is also the figure quoted for peak engine speed. This is quite an unusual characteristic. There is a neat "change up" light built into the bespoke rev counter though I must say that it feels natural to change up just about when this starts flashing in any case. I never did hit a rev limiter. Given the frenetic nature of the Elise, the high-revving i-VTEC engine out of the Honda Civic Type R would be an ideal partner in my opinion, especially if it could be coupled to Honda's excellent six-speed gearbox. The five-speed transmission in the Elise is nothing special. When pushing on, it works fine, but it could be slicker. Slotting into 5th can be slow, but it is not really a problem. I really am being a bit picky.
A surprise was in store when I turned the Elise into the first decent corner. It is usually quite easy to guess how much grip a car is going to have, even by just driving it around town. I seriously underestimated the Lotus though. It felt like I had not even tried. Gradually I built up speed and confidence in the Elise to the point where I was pushing the little roadster to the limit yet still retaining full control. The Elise really comes alive the harder it is driven. The steering feels a little unusual at low speed, if communicative, but at speed it is sublime. The seat is thinly padded (though not uncomfortable) which, other than lighter weight, must bring the driver's nerve endings closer to the car. It certainly is possible to feel the car and place it anywhere on the road by that sense rather than just sight. In sweeping sequences of bends the Elise is in its element. There is an abundance of grip in the dry from the Bridgestone tyres, but it is still possible to straddle the fine line of grip/slip with confidence as you can feel every minute movement. In tighter corners it is obvious that the chassis has been tuned to eradicate snappy oversteer, so the Lotus tends to understeer naturally. It can be cajoled into oversteer in the dry, but most of the time this sort of driving will be limited to the track as it involves chucking the car into a corner. Make no mistake though, it is huge fun despite the lack of power oversteer on twisty roads. There are many more powerful and more expensive cars that would not keep up.
As you know, the Elise has played a large part in the growth of track days. Unfortunately I did not have time on the track with this Elise, but it certainly gives the impression that it has been designed to excel in that area. The chassis is almost too good for the public road, with the limits being reached at quite high speeds. Thankfully it manages to be fun even when you are nowhere near the limit. I suspect that this ability translates into further giant killing on track.
After three hours of hard driving, I took a break and looked the Elise over in detail. When the Series 2 was launched at the British Motor Show in 2000
I really was not a huge fan of the styling. I remember describing it as too fussy and perhaps a little contrived. I still think that the original Elise is a more pure shape, and more functional, but I now prefer the appearance of the latest car. The rear three quarter view in particular is a sight to behold. The underbody spoiler and dual exhausts exude purpose, and the four circular lights suit the car's curves. There may be a little too much use of slats, for instance around the rear lights, but they do add to the aggressive appearance, especially at the front. A friend described the front as a grinning maniac. I tend to agree - it could not be described as pretty, but it certainly is stunning. Using the Sex & the City
characters as a metaphor (I'm sure many of us would like to use them in other ways), think of a pretty convertible such as the MG TF
as Charlotte - attractive in a clean-cut, wholesome way. The Elise though is Samantha. In a leather bondage suit. Holding a whip.
The Elise on test was particularly well equipped. I was surprised to discover electric windows, an alarm and immobiliser, and even air conditioning. Is Lotus going soft? Not exactly. You can still have a simple (and lighter), cheaper Elise for pure thrills, but Lotus has cottoned on to the fact that even driving enthusiasts like their creature comforts. They certainly do not detract from the driving experience, despite the extra weight. I suspect that track addicts will not specify them, though they will miss out on the luxury of a cool interior while working hard at the wheel. The cockpit of the Elise is a good place to be, extra luxuries or not. The driving position is nigh on perfect, as is the pedal spacing. The steering wheel is thick-rimmed in the right direction and just small enough. Some drivers may suffer from no recline adjustment on the seats but they suited me just fine. You will already have heard that the Elise is not the easiest car to get into. Ok, with the roof on it takes getting used to, but most people would be willing to put up with this. The roof itself is a clever and simple design. It takes only a couple of minutes to remove or replace and folds away into the (larger than expected) luggage space behind the engine bay.
As you can read, the Elise blew me away. Two days may not be as long as we like to test a car for normally, but it was enough to confirm that Lotus have created a very special sports car. The 111S is more expensive than the entry level Elise, but that money buys you a lot more power. There are more extreme versions available such as the 135R and Sport 190, but the 111S seems to be the choice for enthusiasts that plan to drive more on the road than the track. Since testing the 111S, we also had a week with the 135R, including a day on track with Don Palmer
. The review of the 135R will be available online soon. That's if I don't buy one for myself first...