Y’s motoring expert Alvin Thomas tests a sports car from a classic marque, and finds out that it really is the best of British.
The automotive world is a funny place to be in: you have a multitude of large “Sports Utility Vehicles” (SUVs) lumbering along the roads, hauling passengers around and not doing anything particularly sporty.
Then we have sedans, which offer mediocre space and superfluous amounts of power; and pseudo-sports cars, which are nothing more than pretenders wearing vapid badges to mark their spots in the performance end of the segment.
And the car we are reviewing this week; well, it is the exact opposite. It is as bare-bones (size zero) and committed as Victoria Beckham in a performance with the Spice Girls yet as hardcore as David Beckham on a football pitch. In other words: it is a thoroughbred performance car.
It is the Lotus Elise, and it has been touted as the epitome of British car engineering, or how Jeremy Clarkson (from The Grand Tour) would put it: a quintessentially British roadster.
Unveiled in 1996 as a performance roadster solely for enthusiasts, the Elise is still one of the very few cars that still manages to offer near-supercar looks, near-supercar performance and all for a fraction of the price of its rivals.
It’s little wonder then that the boffins from Lotus are not swimming in a pool of money. As a matter of fact, Lotus Cars is also currently owned by Malaysian car manufacturer Proton.
But don’t smirk even for a second because teeming along with Lotus is Formula One, 24 Hour Le Mans and an IndyCar racing pedigree – all high accolades in the industry. And my word, does it show off its blue-blood heritage or what?
You don’t look at the Lotus like you look at a normal car – figuratively and literally.
Why literally? It is because it sits way down on the road and you’re inclined to think that it is – in essence – kissing the road surface. Why figuratively? It is because you would have to be a phenomenal car-enthusiast to actually buy this car.
The Elise is no normal roadster by any means. Trust me when I say this: I’ve seen it sit next to a Lamborghini Aventador; and in comparison to the Elise, the Lambo looks like a sizeable sedan.
Finished in tangerine-orange, this Lotus doesn’t fail to impress in looks. It still looks like a hornet with its sharp LED-accentuated eyes, smiling grille and swooping air-intakes. The hood also comes with dual-reverse scoops, which are finished in a metallic mesh. The rear looks rather plain as well: there’s a large spoiler that runs the length of the car, round quad-LED tail lights, a large diffuser, and a mono exhaust in the middle.
The design-language isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it is extremely functional. Every scoop and intake you see serves a purpose. The intakes are designed to funnel air into the engine that sits in the middle, and the scoops dissipate heat efficiently from the radiator. The diffuser is designed to assist in the aerodynamics of the car and keep it planted at high speeds.
The interior on the other hand… well… there isn’t much of an interior. It is quite functional; you get two bucket seats that hug you in tight, a small thick-rimmed steering wheel, indicator and wiper stokes, an air-conditioner unit (with a bunch of vents in the front and behind the seats), a Pioneer audio system, electric power window switches and an “Engine Start” button. Much of the interior is finished in lightweight tinny-sounding plastics but the seats are finished in leather.
Getting into the car is quite a feat, and one that will not fail to attract an audience. There’s only one dignified way to get in the car: you start with your right leg, then squeeze your body into the seat and finally follow up with your left leg. Getting out, however, isn’t dignified at all, and I suggest you park somewhere relatively remote to avoid being an internet meme.
But once you are settled behind the wheel of the Elise, things take a turn for the better. Because you sit low down in the car, there are acres of head and leg room, and adequate space to breathe.
Things only get better from here. Behind the seat – and in the middle of the car – lies a tiny little 1.8-litre Toyota-sourced four-cylinder engine, with a supercharger bolted onto it for extra oomph. The result is an overwhelming 217hp and 212Nm of torque. I say overwhelming because the car tips the scales at a mere 870kg (before I get in), and pumping 217hp in the car that weighs (figuratively) as much as a shoe, is quite frightening.
The result is a 0-100kph time of only five seconds but I reckon it will do a pre-five second run if the conditions are right.
Also, because the car is fitted with a six-speed gearbox, the chances of hitting that mark are even grimmer unless your name starts with Lewis and ends with Hamilton.
The gearbox in my test car is also quite crunchy – possibly because of a worn synchromesh system. But when I did get things right, the experience was beyond words.
Much of the engine’s torque lies on the upper band, meaning I found myself revving the engine hard. This also unleased the brute whine from the mechanical supercharger, which you do not get to hear much these days. But, because the car comes with a supercharger, there’s also no lag from the engine.
For the most part, the Elise handles likes a go-kart, taking corners at insanely high speeds, and remaining poised in each and every corner. But feed in the throttle at high speeds and the back will step out vigorously. Still, there’s traction control and a torque-sensing limited slip differential to keep the power in check.
Oversteer is just one of the fun aspects of the car. Slap on some sticky rubber and you will be taking corners at post-100kph speeds (of course, I didn’t dare do that). However, I did come across a hint of understeer. But I figured that it would be the work of traction control, trying hard to keep the power to the wheels in check.
The steering is well-weighted at high speeds, and it easily provides the most amount of feedback I have received from a car in a long time. You can feel each and every crevice on the road and adjust your turn-in depending on the corner. Where things start to get a bit sketchy is when you drive at low speeds. Since there is no power-steering, you will find yourself wrestling the steering in order to turn the wheel.
The only thing heavier than the hefty steering system is the clutch. Driving this in stop-start traffic is a pain; and pain that will be visible to everyone outside the car – because, frankly, they will all be looking at you.
Keeping in tone with the idea of maintaining “driving feel” is the suspension, which soaks up the bumps and translates to the driver and passenger inside. There’s also a fair bit of wind noise, tyre noise and panel grinding noise on entering the cabin.
But all of these faults are trivial once you get behind the wheel because the Lotus Elise is what driving was always meant to be. It is all about achieving harmony between man and machine, and for what it is worth, the Elise is, by far, the best sports car that I have ever driven.
And mind you, while its competitors such as the Honda S2000 and the 370Z may offer more in terms of practicality, it isn’t even close to the Lotus in terms of driving feel. And at the end of the day, I would not just term the Elise a super-lightweight roadster but rather a supercar killer, with looks to match and an oomph that is just scary.