Lotus Elise through the ages

The Lotus Elise punched above its weight in 1996 and still does so today. evo assesses how it’s stayed ahead of the game

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of the original Lotus Elise, from the buzz that surrounded its gestation to the impact it made when launched. It was a
radical concept in every sense: small, affordable, super-light and built around an aluminium 
tub that was glued and riveted together using high-tech bonding techniques. It was nothing short of a revolution.

The Elise signalled a return to purist, less-is-more engineering principles that echoed Lotus-founder Colin Chapman’s philosophy of ‘adding lightness’. It also brought truly extraordinary mid-engined dynamics within the reach of ordinary car enthusiasts, and gave financial stability to the much-loved Lotus brand.

Looking back, it was a truly magical time. I can still recall visiting Hethel in the months immediately prior to the car’s launch and being completely seduced by the brilliant minds of those involved in the project and utterly enthralled by the groundbreaking machine they had created. Orchestrated passenger rides are derided nowadays, but back then it was a true privilege as it offered a window on a whole new kind of sports car. It felt like the future.

Seventeen years later, there’s still nothing like the Elise. Sadly its asking price has now crept out of the original target buyer’s range, but it remains relevant, both as a lesson in dynamic focus and purity, and as a timely reminder that a bold-yet-simple recipe executed perfectly can deliver where grandiose fantasy will invariably flounder. So as Lotus slowly awakens from the surreal nightmare of the Bahar era, it seems like a good time to sample a few of the many high points from the Elise’s past and present, and to meet one of the men who played a pivotal role in its creation (see sidebar, right).

You’d think there was nothing left to say about the original Elise, but as this group gathers at a murky Hethel, this delightfully original early Series 1 immediately steals the show. What a bewitching little car! Small, pert and perfectly formed, Julian Thomson’s design is as fresh now as the day it left his pen. It’s hard to think of another car with styling that communicates its purpose and dynamic feel so perfectly. The lithe body, thin-spoked alloys, narrow tyres and generous ride height suggest delicate precision and a lightness of touch, yet its non-threatening looks and feminine curves hint at accessible performance with no rough edges.

It’s the same story inside. The semi-naked structure, high sills and vestigial seat cushioning underline that the driving experience has been stripped back to the bare essentials. Even now it’s breathtaking in its honesty.

It takes a bit of pelvic voodoo to drop yourself over the sill and down into the seat, but once you’re in and driving, there’s a unique sense of occasion. It’s hard to find the right adjective to describe how this S1 Elise feels on the road, but for some reason the word that keeps popping into my head is ‘bright’. That might sound daft, but the extraordinary detail that tingles through the steering wheel is so illuminating you feel totally connected, even though the steering weight is much lighter than you’ll find in any other drivers’ car.

This car still has the featherweight Metal Matrix Composite (MMC) brakes, which were made by US-based Lanxide Corp from special silicon carbide aluminium. These were another ‘first’ for the Elise, but sadly later Elises ran conventional brake rotors to reduce costs, and Lanxide went bust. You’d need to try both types back-to-back to feel the difference, but the reduced unsprung and rotational mass offered by the MMC brakes was utterly in-line with the original concept of the Elise, and helped trim the kerb weight to just 723kg.

Can 118bhp and 122lb ft of torque feel impressive in 2013? Damned right they can. The standard Rover K-series engine was a cracking unit, delivering peak torque from just 3000rpm and peak power at 5500rpm, and I’m surprised by just how accessible the performance is. The engine likes revs, but doesn’t need them to deliver decent acceleration, and this emphasises the sense of minimal mass.

On the meandering country roads in this corner of Norfolk, the Elise is an absolute joy, with grip, grunt and rate of response all perfectly matched. Yes, you can sense there’s some lift-off oversteer waiting for you, and this tempers your approach to unfamiliar roads as there’s no electronics to catch you, but thanks to the S1’s transparency you soon feel where those limits are. What’s more, it’s so precise and feelsome that you can drive close to them without feeling like you’re walking a tightrope. It’s still a wonderful car.It makes sense to journey 
through the various iterations of Elise we have here in chronological order, which means the S1 Sport 135 of 1998 is next. I’ve got so used to us saying that this is the Elise to have that I’m half expecting it to be a slight disappointment, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Like many, this particular car has swapped tired original Bilstein dampers for Nitron’s popular Fast Road set-up. Matt Becker – one of Lotus’s most experienced dynamics dudes, and a man whose career began around the same time as the introduction of the Elise – is riding with me and attests to the increased stiffness versus a standard example, yet by the time we’ve both driven the car and returned to Hethel, we’re still smiling like fools.

The on-paper power and torque gains (17bhp and 8lb ft) may seem modest, but they really do make the Sport 135 feel like a big step-up in performance, with very little penalty in terms of delicacy. There’s more grip and a little more weight to the steering, but it’s wholly appropriate and – crucially – in harmony. It makes for a properly quick car across the ground, and thanks to the added physical and aural snort, it’s a more intense experience.

>Find a used Lotus Elise on the Classic and Performance Car site<

There’s a warmth and sweetness to the character and delivery of this version of the K-series that’s really addictive, egging you on to work it harder, but not demanding that you do so. Coupled with greater levels of bite and increased grip, you feel inclined to drive the 135 harder more of the time, yet even with these Nitron dampers it flows with the road surface rather than fights with it. And although it responds to a more exuberant and committed driving style, it will settle quite happily at less than banzai speeds. With so few made (production was limited to 50 units) it’s a rare and collectible car. Better still, the driving experience certainly warrants its reputation.

From the sublime Sport 135, I move on to 2002’s rabid Sport 190. I’m not sure about you, but when I see a Series 2 Elise I automatically think it has a Toyota engine. This full-on track-tune model is the perfect reminder that the K-series was taken to extremes in the sharper, more aggressively styled S2 before Lotus signed its engine supply deal with the Japanese giant.

When you consider the original S1 had 118bhp, extracting an additional 72bhp from a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre twin-cam four-cylinder is quite a feat. It required the use of the VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) motor, first offered in top-spec versions of the outrageous 340R. This particular car – number nine of just 33 produced – has undergone further modification by Lotus Motorsport. This has taken the power output up to 210bhp, the weight down to just 704kg and resulted in the fitment of Öhlins racing suspension amongst a raft of no-expense-spared modifications by the car’s first (and so far only) owner.

A wet, cold and foggy day is not ideal for such a highly strung machine, but it’s still fascinating to see, hear and feel how angry and urgent it is compared to the original S1. It takes revs and an unwavering right foot to get the engine on-cam, at which point the note hardens to something akin to an Escort BDA and the acceleration becomes vivid.

At this level of development, the Sport 190 is a track toy, pure and simple. The appeal is obvious, the character and delivery raucous, the driving experience dominated by noise and physicality. There’s no doubt the Elise responds well to race tuning, but it’s also true to say the pursuit of raw pace robs the Sport 190 of the seductive subtlety found in the earlier cars.

I’m a big fan of the K-series engine, but when you drive the S2 Sports Racer (2006) it’s easy to see why Lotus embraced the opportunity to switch to Toyota power. Here was an engine that arrived in a crate, was emissions-compliant, easy to warranty and good for a consistent 190bhp with no race tuning or other expensive, time-consuming jiggery-pokery required.

The Sports Racer is one of the more obscure and consequently sought-after Elise models. Available in blue or red (both with stripes) it certainly looks the part, and with firmer suspension settings taken from the Exige, it feels the part too. It’s fascinating to discover how the engine and suspension changes transform the character of the Sports Racer compared to the early cars.

There’s a more agitated feel to the ride that means it never quite settles on lumpen backroads, but there’s no denying it feels sharper and more immediate as a result. The colder and more clinical delivery of the Toyota engine somehow suits this edgier feel, as does the transition from off-cam torpor to on-cam frenzy. In short, it’s a car you’ll want to drive hard and fast whenever you get the chance.

The steering has more weight and less detail than the S1 cars’, but it’s still alive in your hands compared to any other contemporary car. The gearbox (now a six-speed) has a sharper and more defined gate than the K-series cars’ five-speed unit, and gives quick, clean shifts. Only when you really try to rush a cross-gate upshift does it occasionally feel a little snaggly.

Other things you notice are the lowered sills, which make it slightly easier to get into and out of the car, but diminish the sense of occasion you feel dropping into the early S1 models. On the positive side it probably reduces your monthly outgoings on Nurofens and osteopathy.

Of all the assembled Elises, the S2 S (2007) is the easiest to overlook, thanks both to familiarity with its styling and this car’s dark colour scheme, but it really delivers. By this stage in the Elise’s evolution, Lotus had completed the transition from Rover to Toyota drivetrains. The entry-level Elise S’s 1.8-litre engine delivered 134bhp at 6200rpm and 127lb ft of torque at 4200rpm, compared to 189bhp at 7800rpm and 133lb ft at 6800rpm for the full-fat motor, as sampled in the Sports Racer.

The result is a car that’s surprisingly close in its delivery to the original S1 K-series cars. The balance of power and torque is more even, and the accessibility of the performance is greater, so while you don’t have the top-end fireworks of the 189bhp motor, you do – crucially – have more torque (and most likely more power) more of the time.

It needs it too, for thanks to crash legislation, improved refinement and the heavier Japanese engines, the Elise’s once-anorexic kerb weight has grown to a relatively chunky 860kg here. Of course this isn’t catastrophic, but you don’t get that ultimate sense of poise, nor is there that magical zero-inertia feel to the way the car stops, steers or controls its mass over crests and into compressions.

That said, of the cars we’ve driven thus far it’s the closest in feel to a basic S1, but with the added pep of the Sport 135. Consequently there’s much to love about the S2 S, even if it lacks the S1 cars’ historical significance or rarity. Its specification won’t win you bragging rights, but it manages that neat Lotus trick of somehow feeling more than the sum of its parts.

The less-is-more philosophy also sits at the core of the 2011 S3 Club Racer’s appeal. Lauded as a return to the back-to-basics approach, the CR marked a concerted effort to trim weight back down – to 852kg compared to the 876kg of the vanilla Elise 1.6 on which it’s based, and the 924kg of the supercharged 1.8.

Like many cars that try hard to lose mass, it’s perhaps what that effort represents that pushes our buttons, rather than any quantifiable uplift in performance that those lost 24kg will achieve. The CR has a definite aura about it, even though a less romantic sort would simply say it’s a de-contented Elise 1.6 with a few funky decals.

But whatever. It has a suppleness to its chassis that marks it out as something special, at least if you appreciate a car that rides well on the road yet still feels happy on track. The inclusion of 21st century electronics means you get a Sport button, which contrives to sharpen the CR’s responses, even if all that actually means is a more aggressive map for the fly-by-wire throttle. There’s also traction and stability control, although whether you need that in a brilliantly balanced mid-engined sports car with decent tyres and just 134bhp is debatable.

The smaller Toyota engine is smooth and willing, but it feels a bit flat compared to the K-series, or indeed the S2 S’s 1.8. The culprit is the gearing, which is too rangey to keep the engine on the boil, even when you rev it to the red line between upshifts. It’s a shame because in every other respect the CR is a very special sports car. But it does have to be said you’d needed to be a particular type of person – a true Lotus person – to spend almost £30k on a car with 134bhp, when cars with far greater performance can be had for less.

So, What conclusions can we 
draw from this journey through the evolution of the Elise? Well there’s no such thing as a bad one, for starters! Each car here is special in its own right. Different too, with distinct flavours created from a broadly common selection of ingredients.

For sheer brilliance, innovation and a driving experience that remains truly remarkable, the S1 simply can’t be beaten. Part sports car, part science experiment, there’s nothing to touch it for undiluted genius. And while it’s increasingly hard to preach the gospel according to Colin Chapman when most manufacturers are obsessed with feeding you more and more horsepower, what this old Elise achieves with 118bhp is little short of miraculous. 

It’s telling that even Lotus found it impossible to resist adding power and grip to the equation. But as long as weight is kept in check and no one element dominates, that’s no bad thing, as the sublime S1 Sport 135 proves so irresistibly. And even when that rare equilibrium is skewed – step forward the bonkers Sport 190 and super-sharp Sports Racer – it merely adds seasoning to cater for more extreme tastes. 

There’s no question Lotus has endured some dark days of late, but the great minds that remain down Potash Lane certainly haven’t forgotten how to make brilliant cars. They haven’t given up on the brand either, and so, I would contend, nor should we. It might seem hopelessly optimistic, but history tells us the best things happen at Hethel when times have been at their worst. Witness the Elise, which was born of adversity and built on a shoestring. Let’s hope lightning can strike twice.

Thank you to Barrie Cornes, Jonathan Joseph-Horne, Jonny Pittard, Simon Parry, Ben Speak and Guy Munday for providing their cars. Also thanks to Bibs at thelotusforums.com for his invaluable help. The Sport 190 is currently for sale at Castle Sportscars (www.castlesportscars.co.uk), the S3 Club Racer at Stratton Motor Company (www.strattonmotorcompany.com).

Richard Rackham: the Elise’s chief engineer

‘The original brief for the Elise was simple: to be a modern successor to the Lotus Seven. That car really was a little race car for the road, but it had major shortcomings in terms of weather protection and safety, both of which we knew we would have to address.

‘At around the same time Lotus had been doing some consultancy work on developing a new aluminium frame. That project ultimately came to nothing, but we’d worked closely with Hydro Aluminium and could see huge potential in an aluminium structure.

‘Typically, there was no money to do the project! The bill of materials was incredibly low, but I saw this as an opportunity. If we designed the structure in a certain way, the interior could be the structure. It was a technology we wanted to show off, so we made sure the beauty was in the design and materials. Good examples of this are the door hinges and pedals, which truly are sculptural components.

‘What you have to remember is the Elise was all about creating a race car experience for the road. Things like refinement were off the agenda, and that’s what enabled us to use big, flat, thin aluminium panels. They’re noisy as hell, but it is supposed to feel like a racing car. In the concept phase, I went with Julian Thomson to the Donington Collection to have a look at the racing cars. When no one was looking, we jumped in a few. The ’60s GT cars with aluminium monocoques were great inspirations; you’d climb over the big side member and drop into the cockpit. They really did feel fantastic to be in, and that was something we wanted to recreate. So those high, awkward sills were all part of that racing aesthetic, and they worked brilliantly from a technical perspective.

‘The original business case was for 3000 cars over four years. That’s not a lot, so when you’re faced with that kind of objective, you think, “We can make something pretty special here.” We wanted to keep the car as small and as low as possible, so we thought, “Big guys, this car isn’t for you.” I’m just under 5ft 11in and I was OK in it, and other significant people on the project weren’t any taller. None of the directors were tall either, so we slipped it under the radar! It was an indulgent decision: big people simply didn’t fit, and small people struggled with the high sills and lack of height adjustment on the seat. Nowadays cars are designed for 98th-percentile [6ft 5in] males, so you can see where styling, size and weight compromises creep in.

‘I think we sold 3000 cars in the first 18 months! I have no doubt that if the brief had been to make a car that would sell 3000 per annum for 16 or 17 years it would have been a very different car. But I doubt the magic would have been there. As it was, our pursuit of low unsprung mass was relentless: we were totally obsessive about it.

‘The first time the car ran, it had the correct structure, suspension, steering, etc, but only rudimentary bodywork. It was the last working day before Christmas in 1994. We’d got the car going and went out on track, me in the passenger seat. It was freezing and the engine sprang a water leak after half a lap, but it was a magical moment. Even then we knew we’d created something very special.’

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