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The grass is always greener. Image by Mark Nichol.

The grass is always greener
Lotus was so worried the Elise wasn't light enough that it resorted to the only logical thing: ordering a massive bag of hemp.


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| Week at the Wheel | Lotus Eco Elise |

Inside & Out: star star star star star

Like Jimmy Saville, the latest Elise uses a sporty, dazzling and track-ready facade to hide an interior more suited to a residential care home. Bear with me: open the Eco Elise's door, negotiate the gymnastic routine required just to get in, and you're greeted with more brown fibre than the set of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

See, we all know that sports cars are the enemy of our lovely planet, so, presumably for a laugh, someone at Lotus has decided to make an Elise nice and clean by swathing the interior with a heady mixture of soothing brown wool and a deliciously biodegradable Class C drug. The Lotus C-Class? Sounds strangely familiar.

Anyway, over the course of a mere ten weeks, a handful of Lotus rebels dragged a sack full of hemp and some sheep behind the Hethel bike sheds, made a lot of noise, and came out with an Elise they believe can change the way sports cars impact the planet, but without anyone actually noticing from behind the wheel. Sounds win-win to us.

So, the steering wheel boss, door cards, seats and handbrake cover are all covered in natural, un-dyed wool; the carpets and boot lining are woven with 'sisal' (another plant-based fibre); the gearstick is topped with wood and the seats are made of Hethel's favourite hallucinogen, covered in a clear polyester resin. Plus, rather absurdly, the stereo is 'lightweight' - a full 1.5kg less than a standard one.

Outside, the bonnet, boot and roof are made of the same hemp compression as the seats, and the car's 'viper stripes' are actually just exposed panels of the material. The rest of the body is sprayed with water-based paint and - as you've probably already noticed - there's a whopping pair of purple solar panels on the roof. The wheels are lightweight too, and it all adds up to a 32kg weight saving over the standard car (exactly five stone if, like us, you still buy your bananas in pounds and ounces). Thus, it's more economical, more CO2 efficient and, most importantly, quicker than the Elise S on which it's based.

Engine & Transmission: star star star star star

Standard stuff, thankfully. If Tesla wants to put an electric engine in an Elise, fine - but Lotus is more concerned with making the more traditional stuff cheap and light. As such, the same Toyota-sourced 134bhp 1.8-litre VVTi sits behind your lugs; its whining and clacking gushing through the panel gaps with mellifluous intensity in direct correlation to the rev counter needle. But, change gear when the green shift indicator light on the instrument binnacle tells you to and you'll get 42.7mpg and emit 184g/km of CO2 - a healthy improvement over the standard car's 32mpg and 196g/km. You won't always want to follow the light's saintly advice, but it's nice to know such lofty fuel economy is there for the taking. And actually, we managed to get from Newcastle to Stansted airport (270-miles) without ever having to stop and refill the small tank, which for a car that hits 60mph in under six seconds, driven without any environmental cogitation, is remarkable.

We do have a couple of issues, however. The gearshift feels a fraction too long and notchy for our money - almost clumsy at times - and the steering wheel could do with at least some adjustment to suit longer-legged drivers; for such a low car it has a surprising amount of headroom, but the driving position can make it feel unnecessarily cramped.

Ride & Handling: star star star star star

Like any other Elise S - which we reckon has the best 'real world' blend of power, usability and running costs of the lot of them - the Eco offers a joyful balance and responsiveness of control unmatched by anything in its price bracket: it will understeer or oversteer easily, but never feels overpowered or like it will direct you into the nearest tree if you're a bit late on the brakes or clumsy with your palms. So many superlatives have been used already to describe the visceral driving experience served up by the Elise, and it really boils down to this: the green one feels exactly the same.

Obviously the trade off for that feeling of being plugged directly into the road is a ride that will jiggle the change out of your pockets, not helped by wafer thin hemp chairs. Honestly, drive this thing on a motorway in the dark (as we did for over 300-miles, without stopping) and it soon becomes like staring through a letterbox while someone shines a torch in your eyes, all the while being made to listen to a dentist's drill. On the open road, this is a peerless point-to-point machine, but it's a hard, tortuous, noisy slog on long motorway stretch - it's as though Lotus made it for real driving or something. Sheesh.

Equipment, Economy & Value for Money: star star star star star

You can't buy one, and there's really no equipment to speak of other than a stereo that won't pick up radio stations properly or connect to an iPod, as it's supposed to - so no stars on that front. However, if it's thrills-per-litre you're after, it doesn't come much better than sub-six seconds to 60mph, post-40mpg and CO2 emissions of 184g/km, does it? That last figure slides it into VED band E from F, by the way.

Better yet, the unseen life cycle benefits that manufacturing using organic materials brings are great - and to be honest that's the stuff that doesn't get talked about so much, yet is arguably of far greater importance if we're to reduce our longer term environmental impact. Fractionally reducing tailpipe emissions by an iota in order to avoid tax penalties is one thing, but making a car fully recyclable, and building it using processes that don't dump harmful by-products into the atmosphere, is of far greater benefit. Hemp is technically a 'carbon neutral' material because it essentially takes during photosynthesis what is used in CO2 rendering it useful for a chair or a panel. That's got to be a step in the right direction, because as my drifting instructor once screamed at me: "fibreglass doesn't grow in trees, man!"

Overall: star star star star star

We honestly think it would be so much more than a massive marketing coup if Lotus made every Elise S out of hemp and wool - on the condition that it dyed the seats anything other than brown, that is. It feels every bit as good as the standard car, so that both its lifecycle and tailpipe impacts are decreased so tangibly is laudable.

The water-based paint the Eco Elise is coloured with will be seen on all Lotuses by 2010 and there's every chance we'll be seeing more large-scale hemp transactions around Hethel in the near future. As a small maker of light and fast cars, and an engineering consultant to many of car making's elite, Lotus is uniquely placed to lead the way in reducing the overall impact of the car - thus ensuring we get to drive decent stuff for longer. In fact, we're told some of Lotus's illustrious clients have already been on the phone asking about the Eco Elise - so don't be surprised if your next hatchback is partly made out of hemp too. Lotus'll fix it.

Mark Nichol - 13 Mar 2009    - Lotus road tests
- Lotus news
- Eco Elise images

2008 Lotus Eco Elise specifications: (Prototype)
Price: Not for sale
0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 127mph
Combined economy: 42.7mpg
Emissions: 184g/km
Kerb weight: 828kg

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Marcus Coles.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Marcus Coles.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Marcus Coles.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Marcus Coles.

2008 Lotus Eco Elise. Image by Mark Nichol.


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