Standard procedure when putting together a group test is
your new car versus the two most appropriate rivals. Pretty easy, really,
considering the market's awash with identikit products from copycat brands.
But when the new MX-5 came out we were a bit stuck. Cheap two-seat roadsters used to be everywhere. Toyota MR2, MGF, even the Fiat Barchetta on a lean day. And pick of the crop was the entry-level Lotus Elise. But by late 2005 they'd all gone AWOL.
Essentially, the reason for the Lotus's disappearance, and that of the woeful MGF, was the demise of Rover. With that went the K-Series engine, shared by both, a cheap and infinitely tuneable powerplant that kept many low-volume sports cars on the road.
Higher-end versions of the Elise use what the dorks refer to as the '222', a complex 1.8 Toyota engine that is even more tuneable, but also accordingly pricey. What powers this Elise S, Lotus's latest entry-level product, is not a detuned version of the '222', but an all-new, cheaper and less tuneable 1.8 Toyota lump called - wait for it - the '122'.
The Elise S is going to cost $69,990, exactly $25,000 less than the 'R'. You lose 41kW, meaning a 0-100km/h time of 6.1 seconds instead of 5.2, and a top speed of 204km/h, down from 241km/h.
No great loss you might think. And on many levels it isn't. The 'S' has exactly the same underpinnings as the 'R' and the same standard spec. So you still get a very basic, focused drive with feather-light feedback through the wheel and chassis.
The gearchange is still crisp and satisfying, too, and response to any input is typically immediate from a car that weights 860kg.
The power peaks and dips much earlier, though, keeping the standard five speed 'box busy. It remains a hugely rewarding drive on the right road, but that lack of shove can intrude on the experience.
So is this the driver's alternative to an MX-5? Only if you're a nutter. The Elise is superb, but it's every bit the second or even third car it always was.
What knocked our MX-5 into second spot in the group test, and would trouble the Elise S, is the two-litre BMW Z4. It's a good drive, if not up to the pin-point accuracy and feel of the Lotus. But it's how much better it would be to live with that makes the difference.
The Elise is still difficult to clamber out of, has a nightmare for a roof and the storage space for a thong. Plus, its lack of refinement, all part of the Lotus experience, is too much for most. The cosseting Z4 is over a grand cheaper. And that's a car. The Elise remains a very, very good toy.