It is the featherweight sports car that packs a heavyweight punch. Don Szmidt looks at the Lotus Elise...
It’s hard to believe that the Series 2 Elise was launched as far back as October 2000. The little Lotus manages to look fresh eight years on and still turns heads – it is a real double take design. Arguably there is a purity of design and an organic quality to the Elise Series 1 which the later car simply does not have, but somehow the S2 says more about what it was meant to do. The S2 has a design which portrays purpose in every sense, from the intakes and venting at the front, to the heavily featured splitter at the rear. You look at the car and you just know it’s going to be fun and very, very quick.
The S1 was a fantastic car, much praised for its
handling and driving purity, but Lotus wanted to go one better. The second car was the first Lotus to be created on a computer, with a design brief to produce a shape that was both modern and timeless. The Elise was now sharper, more aggressive and closer to the ground. It had pronounced rear haunches to emphasis its rear-drive layout, and wheels and tyres that better filled the arches. The principle designer in charge of the Elise shape, Steve Crijns, wanted the body to look as if it was shrink-wrapped around the components, with the design features not there just for stylistic effect. The result was a car that looked meaner and more purposeful.
This sense of purpose and simplicity continues inside the car. The large areas of exposed anodized aluminium remind you of what you are in and why you are there. It’s not all basic functional stuff as in a Caterham, the switchgear is good and the lighting pushbuttons are almost whimsical. I’m sure that the guys at Lotus had a little giggle to themselves when they chose pink and blue speedo and rev counter lighting. There is also a nod to practicality, with under dash shelving and even elasticated netting behind the seats for a bit more storage. What more do you need?
It seemed impossible to better the Elise’s already perfect chassis, but Lotus engineers thought it was worth a try. Through a lot of hard work and determination Lotus achieved the impossible – a better handling Elise. The S2 had less roll, better ride, more grip and improved stability. The re-mapped K series engine is still a little gem. Free-revving and eager, it just shouts ‘give me more’, especially as
it hits the magic 4000. No matter what spec you get you’re going to hit 60 in about five seconds, but the car is equally happy pootling around town when needs be. But even then it’s very much you and the car – there is no power steering or feather touch brakes here. The physical driving experience is still elemental; it’s noisy, and poor surfaces will knock it off line alarmingly at times, but hey, just go with the flow. The driving position is spot-on and the steering is kart direct.
The S2 Elise's tenacious front end grip is helped by the downforce created by the car’s aerodynamics. The downforce is balanced over the front and rear axles meaning this is no lairy tail-wagging beast – it is neat, precise, point and shoot. The S1 was known to be a little tail happy when pushed and this has largely been dialled out on the S2, not to say that it can't be done, obviously. Aerodynamically the S2 is superbly balanced and this all adds to the planted feel of the car. If you really, really push the Elise it will tell you that things could get messy with a bit of gentle understeer. Just take the hint, back off a little and it'll tighten the line. The dry grip really is phenomenal and in the wet it is designed to be not far off.
Let’s be honest though - there are downsides to the Elise. The nature of the Elise’s construction around it’s bonded and extruded aluminium chassis means that the sill is still a hurdle (though slightly less so than the S1) and has resulted in comments ranging from ’just as well I’m wearing my best knickers’ through to unprintable expletives during a complete jamming of a mate of mine. Cramp had set in half way through the fiasco and a busy Tesco car park was brought to a standstill in the process.
Other downsides? To my mind the gear selection is still not great: I crave for a light and delicate ’snick snick’ and it just doesn’t. Get over it. Window winder mechs can rattle when the windows are lowered and if you have the hard-top it can creak, but this can be fixed with a re-tighten and a bit of silicone on the seals. However, the S2 soft top really is waterproof and simple to fit.
In the end the Elise is such an addictive little package it is hard not to like it. When you raise the garage door in the morning it just makes you grin. And that’s before you’ve turned the key…
PH Hero Rating: 9/10