The Elise, with exceptional feel and control as well as compliance and ride quality, couldn’t be anything other than a Lotus
The current Lotus Elise is as beautifully simple, pleasingly compact and bristling with energy and feedback as it was when it was first released 22 years ago. Cynics will argue that it hasn’t changed and developed enough – it’s still built around an extruded and bonded aluminium chassis, as it always has been. But in reality the Elise highlights just how overweight, over-the-top and cumbersome its so-called rivals have become. The Elise is the perfect antidote to modern cars without feeling in the slightest bit decrepit or outdated.
Whether you want your Elise to be the consummate B-road sports car or a focussed track car there’s a model for you. The range starts from the road-biased Sport model and gets more intense as you graduate through to Sprint to Cup. The Sport and Sprint models can be bought with either a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder or a supercharged 1.8, with the bigger engine they get a 220 suffix to their name. The Cup 250 and Cup 260 use the same 1.8-litre engine, but the Toyota-sourced engine is stretched to make more power and the cars get motorsport-developed upgrades and serious aerodynamic additions.
The Sport 220 is the sweet spot of the Elise range, providing the just the right combination of grip and power. The regular Sport’s engine is a little too weak, while the Cup and Race models have more power than you need.
Performance and 0-100 time
The 0-100km/h acceleration times in the Elise range are affected as much by each model’s weight as they are its power. The slowest accelerating car is the basic Sport, it hits 100km/h from a standstill in 6sec. The Sprint, with its 830kg kerb weight (26kg less than the Sport) reaches 100km/h in 5.9sec.
The 220 models follow a similar pattern. Even though it has a 50kg heavier engine, it’s a more powerful motor with 60kW more than the basic car’s 1.6, as a result the 904kg Sport 220 can accelerate from 0 to 100km/h in 4.2sec. The Sprint 220 betters that by 0.1sec thanks to its 878kg weight.
The Cup 250 is the heaviest Elise in the line-up with a kerb weight of 917kg. However its extra 20kW over the 220 models means it’s able to break below the four-second barrier, with a 0-100km/h time of 3.9sec. The Cup 260 weighs in at 895kg, 22kg less than the 250, and has 5kW more power, it reaches 100km/h in 3.8sec.
The Elise has never been about ultimate top speeds. Its close sprint-style gearing has never allowed to hit hugely impressive top speeds, not that it’s ever bothered anyone. The Sprint and Sport models top out at 127mph and the 220 versions at 145mph. The less powerful Cup 250 has a higher top speed compared to the 260, 247.5km/h and 243km/h, respectively. The 260’s 4.5km/h lower limit can probably be explained by all the extra drag its downforce-generating wings produce.
Engine and gearbox
Despite there being six different models in the Elise range there are only two engines to choose from. The basic Sport and Sprint Elises have a transversely mid-mounted 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that puts out a maximum of 100kW at 6800rpm and 160Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
The rest of the range is catered by a 1.8-litre supercharged four-cylinder, like the 1.6 it’s also a Toyota engine. The extra capacity plus forced induction gives the Sport 220 and Sprint 220 an extra 60kW with max power of 160kW at 6800rpm and max torque of 250Nm at 4600rpm.
The same 1.8 is used in the Cup 250 and Cup 260. Confusingly, it’s the engine in the Cup 260 and not the one in the 250 that puts out 335Nm, that’s complemented with 265Nm at 5500rpm. The Cup 250’s motor only produces 180kW at 7200rpm and 250Nm between 3500 and 5500rpm. All Elises use the same six-speed manual gearbox with a beautiful exposed linkage.
Ride and handling
As ever, the Elise is a fantastic sports car and one of the best driving experiences available, at any cost. One defining aspect that makes it so enjoyable is its tiny dimensions; you have the space to choose your line and have options of where to place the car while remaining on the correct side of the road.
The Elise’s sub-ton kerb weight, no matter what derivative it is, means the chassis can be determinedly controlled as well as communicate everything the car’s doing in intimate detail while still providing a decent, compliant ride. It’s a trick that Lotus has been pulling off for years.
As well as the chassis flooding you with information and doubling your confidence in the Elise’s grip and abilities, you also have steering – still unassisted, just like the first Elises – that keeps you in the loop with exactly what’s going between the front wheels and the tarmac. The brake pedal is so progressive, too, that there’s no recalibration or readjusting needed, you know how much brake to apply in any given situation. It’s so easy to judge you find yourself braking harder and later into corners that you never normally would on the road.
One huge improvement over older Elises is the new gearbox and open linkage. It felt rattly and loosely defined before, but now it’s positive and robust.
The 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine in the Sport and Sprint is relatively quiet below 4000rpm, but as it approaches its 6800rpm limiter it starts to feel much keener and sounds more vocal too. The noise is not dissimilar to the sound emitted from the first Elise’s K-series – there’s the same hollow rortiness. You do really need to rev the engine to feel the full performance of the smaller engine, but it remains incredibly smooth even when you do.
Many of the basic car’s delicate attributes are still evident in the 220 models, despite the extra weight; it’s still supple and communicative. The extra power of the 1.8 makes the power-to-weight ratio perfect. Where the 1.6’s performance is a little too modest, the 220’s engine means you’re able to exploit the chassis just a degree more.
The engine itself is a highlight, too. Many members of the evo team have said it sounds like it’s breathing through a pair of twin-choke carbs rather than fuel injection and a supercharger.
The Cup cars are more serious, as you’d expect. They feel tough and agile, but with huge agility and can carry exceptional speed across country. No matter how demanding the road, the car’s balance is rarely upset and there’s so much grip from the Yokohama tyres that understeer or oversteer are never something you need to worry about on the road. If you want to be able feel a car moving around under you and allow you the option to adjust its line, then the Cup Elises aren’t for you. Still, as with the entire range, there something pure about the Elise experience.
Interior and tech
The Elise’s sparse interior smacks of focus and simplicity. Most of the sills, floor, central tunnel and dash are left as exposed aluminium. There’s also lots of painted plastic to match the exterior. Whatever is left (not much) is covered in rubber, leather or, optionally, Alcantara.
Carbonfibre can also be specified for many of the interior components, the carbon sill plates lower the door opening by 10mm thanks to the greater manufacturing accuracy that allows them to be fitted closer to the extruded aluminium beneath and also make it easier to get in and out. The woven carbon does adds an even racier vibe than standard, but that’s only minimal as the standard exposed, aluminum gearshift mechanism delivers plenty on that front.
The slim seats are pleasantly accommodating in all the models and, even though they aren’t deep with very prominent side bolsters, they are very supportive. Sprint models upwards are fitted with the lighter carbon fibre-shelled examples.
The options list reads as if it’s a decade old – air conditioning, cruise control and even a (bluetooth enabled) stereo come at a price, but arguably that’s the penalty you pay for compromising the car’s lightweight philosophy.
There are elements of the original Elise S1 from 1996 visible in the current car. That’s probably because its underpinnings haven’t changed hugely, but the truncated silhouette, clean styling and four-square footprint mean it has the scaled-down looks of something far more exotic.
There’s a lot of function to the Elise’s design, too. The ducting at the base of the windscreen expels air that enters through the car’s nose to cool the radiator, while air intakes set into the rear quarter guide cool air to the brakes. The rear engine cover, nestled between the buttresses, integrates two mesh grilles to improve thermodynamic efficiency.
The Cup models deviate from the cohesive one-piece look, thanks to big front splitters, massive rear wings and protruding diffusers, but these additions do make the Cup 250 and 260 look every bit a race car for the road.