The lightweight Lotus Elise looks a more modern car than its years would suggest. Jonathan Crouch checks out the latest range.
Simple but effective, the Lotus Elise remains one of the finest drivers' cars around and the latest 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 lightweight', 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 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 217bhp 'Sport' and 'Sprint' '220' models are ideal. These feature 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 4.6s and on to a 145mph top speed. The entry-level Elise variants have a 134bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine that's still quite technologically advanced in the range. 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 the least potent Elise gets to 62mph from a standing start in 6.5s, faster than a Golf GTI.
These revised models feature smarter front and rear styling but the key change here is that Lotus has taken yet more weight out of this car, with the base 'Sprint' version weighing in at under 800kg. Inside, Lotus has introduced a range of cabin enhancements - including the lightweight open-gate gear select mechanism first introduced on the Lotus Exige Sport 350. There's a redesigned centre console, as seen on the Exige. The Elise's instrument panel has also received attention, with slicker graphics making it easier to read and a better in-car entertainment system, including iPod connectivity and Bluetooth functionality, which can be selected when ordering. As before, 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. As ever, there's a superb driving position thanks to 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 thanks to the firm sports suspension.
The Else range is pretty simple, based primarily around two engines and two trim levels, 'Sport' and 'Sprint'. Prices start from just over around £32,000 for the 1.6-litre engine, but you'll need around £40,000 for the pokier 1.8-litre supercharged unit. At the top of the range sits the track-orientated Elise Cup 250 variant, but for that, you'll need the best part of £50,000. External design touches for the Elise Sprint variants include a matt black 'transom panel', black wheels which come with custom contrasting metal-spun rims, distinctive side stripes on the bodywork and unique side and rear badging. Other highlights include bodywork colour-keyed inserts for the sports seats and transmission console, along with Sprint badge stitching. The Sprint's detailing continues inside with an array of optional Alcantara trim panels on the doors, sills, seats and vents surrounds, all with contrasting stitching. 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.
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 1.8-litre unit emissions still dip under 180g/km. 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.
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