Why the Lotus Elise still matters | PH Footnote

Given all that's been written, blogged, filmed, discussed and debated in the past 20-odd years, is there anything left to be said about the Lotus Elise? Well, yes, just about, what with the concept rapidly approaching 25 years old and Hethel's future looking decidedly different from its recent past. We all know the car's significance, its success is unparalleled in the firm's history and everyone will have their favourite derivative; with that in mind, and with one on loan for the PH parade at Silverstone Classic, there was no better time to reflect on the Elise's achievements.

There can't be many chassis that have persisted for so long with so few changes, a mark of how clever the initial idea was. The bonded, extruded aluminium tub was the perfect cake-and-eat-it solution for Lotus: light and stiff, so perfect for mounting sports car suspension on, while also relatively cheap to put into production - ideal for company which, at the time, was in whatever the straits are beyond dire.

All that you'll know already, but familiarity means the Elise doesn't always get top billing in a modern context. Much is made of the Alpine's A110's flyweight virtuosity, for example, but while it comes in a more usable package, there's also no escaping the fact it's still nearly 200kg heavier. A Porsche 718 Boxster GTS now has pretty much the same power of a late-90s 911 GT3, yet it's power-to-weight ratio remains inferior to the range-topping Elise. An M2 Competition makes another 160hp, yet is slower to 62mph (as a manual) than the Cup 250.

Furthermore, with the Evija on the way and a range renewal surely not far behind, it's critical that the Elise's deftness and lucidity (among other talents) aren't ignored or forgotten. Lotus is claiming that its new model will be the lightest of the ever-expanding 2,000hp EV hypercar club, but its proposed 1,600kg kerbweight has more in common with a Lotus Carlton than anything else to emerge from Norfolk in the past quarter of a century. Of course, the Evija will have all manner of physics-defying, torque-vectoring technology, but it's critical that the cars which will underpin the mainstream range keep the Elise's less-is-more mantra, too, even with the imminent advent of yet more mandatory technology.

Why? Because it makes for absolutely, undeniably brilliant sports cars. While nobody will ever claim that the Elise is the most capacious roadster around, and the Cup is probably firmer than is actually ideal for street use, the way the little Lotus charges down a road remains totally bewitching. It doesn't require steering mode changes for a greater sense of connection, because having access to such raw and unfiltered feedback is something you'd never want to change - apart from when parking, perhaps. But even that feels worth the trade-off. The Elise doesn't need damper adjustment on the fly, because the road set up for its Bilstein dampers delivers (mostly) sufficient suppleness to go with its vivid agility and scalpel-sharp response. This Elise is desperately close to being a bonafide Lotus Cup Europe race car, yet can still make liveable company on the road. (Don't forget, too, that a Sport 220 is still available for the less dedicated/deranged.)

Point is that, while some delicacy will have been lost from earlier, purer Elise iterations, the Cup shows how a simple yet clever piece of automotive engineering, enhanced and evolved over the years, can still deliver as a fantastic driver's car. Having as much power as a 330d but a kerbweight comfortably under a tonne means enormous performance; the feeling that comes with lightweight cars and chunky power outputs one of being caught in the breeze and hurled down the road, yet still in total control as the driver. A manual this tactile, that looks this good and works so well - especially with memory of Lotus's stringy shift past - doesn't need replacing. Dimensions that allow even country lanes to feel capacious don't need expanding. And a driving experience this analogue doesn't need digitising. Through its production run of more than 20 years, the Elise has gone from visionary sports car to left-field alternative to a brand-new classic, crammed full of the involvement and immersion we thought had been left behind. Only with a USB port. And 270hp per tonne...

So while this Elise Cup 250 isn't exactly perfect, so much of it remains timelessly valid to the development and relevance of future sports cars: namely that small, light, simple and clever will nearly always deliver the goods. Many will criticise the price now asked, though it's worth bearing in mind that a 111R's new price of Β£27,995 in 2004 is now nearly Β£45k, and that only had 190hp.

Nobody outside the factory quite knows what the future holds for Lotus's sports car range. The manufacturer's ascendance to a more upmarket position seems all but guaranteed (the Evija is nothing if not a Β£2m statement of intent) and the sustained of success of McLaren - a brand devoted almost solely to the business of building supercars - will not have passed it by. In a perfect world, Lotus would simply splice a sliver more habitability (and dare we say it, desirability) into the Elise's raw talent and - hey presto - everyone's favourite sports car would emerge, fully-formed and 20 per cent cheaper than a Porsche Cayman. But that's not happening, not least for all the reasons that make the Alpine A110 a Β£50k car and not a Β£35k one. Better instead to view the 2019 Elise as copper-bottomed proof that, come what may, Lotus still knows where the party is at. Its sheer longevity means that the current generation of Hethel-ites will have grown up with it; as the company grows, a new generation of engineers and technicians must be marched to the track and weaned on it. Welcome to Norfolk, chaps - this is who we are. If Geely is clever enough to let the Elise's shadow loom large over the next twenty years of Lotus car building, it will surely have the kind of rosy future we can all look forward to.

: 1,798cc, four-cyl supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 250@7,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@3,500-5,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.3 seconds
Weight: 921kg (unladen, with Carbon Aero pack)
MPG: 37.7 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 175g/km
Price: Β£49,555

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Comments (344) Join the discussion on the forum

  • sidesauce 07 Aug 2019

    In before kambites comments.laugh

  • Riverside Red 07 Aug 2019

    Enjoyed my 18 months in an Elise S, it was an event every time I drove it, fantastic steering and light weight made it a joy....if only it was easier to get in and out of.

    A better drive than my current 981 Boxster by a mile.


  • SidewaysSi 07 Aug 2019

    My Elise slaughtered my Cayman GT4 as a driver's car. Forget all that is said about the Porsche, the Lotus killed it at pretty much everything that matters.

  • rockin 07 Aug 2019

    Three posts in the thread and already two of them are Porsche-bashing.... biggrin

  • SOL111 07 Aug 2019

    Always wanted one of these and reckon the cheapest base model is still likely to be awesome.

    They hold their money well too. What's not to like (except getting in/out!)

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