Opinion: we’re going to really miss the Lotus Elise (but not all of it)
The little lightweight bowed out for the final time at Speed Week 2021. Here’s what we loved… and didn’t
I would have campaigned quite hard for the Lotus Elise Sport 240 Final Edition to win a glorious and deserved overall victory at Top Gear’s 2021 Speed Week.
Seriously, take the ‘it’s a quarter of a century old’ factor out of the mix and look at what we’re dealing with here. A well-built sports car from a well-liked marque, that doesn’t take up much space on the road, doesn’t use much fuel or emit hateful globs of bad gases, is fast without being scary, grippy without feeling inert, and weighs less than a tonne.
The Elise has always been the recipe for a great sports car, but now, in 2021, it’s something it arguably wasn’t back in 1994: it’s ultra-relevant. It does more with less. It’s an unselfish way to be selfish. You get a pretty roadster with an open-gate manual gearbox and world-class unassisted steering, with a lower carbon footprint than a Swedish pine forest.
However, the campaign was derailed somewhat by an unfortunate incident where I may have accidentally locked the keys inside it, and then had to ask someone to break in before the man from Lotus got back from his lunch.
In my defence, my intentions were good. Someone had left the Elise in a hurry with its door open and the roof off. Presently, the pregnant sky began to drench the Top Gear test track in its eighth rain shower of the morning, and the Lotus was filling up like a roll-top bath. Heroically, I braved the elements, secured the canvas roof atop its pop-out slats, tensioned the fabric, and slammed the door shut. Just in time to notice the keys were on the dashboard and the Elise’s central locking hadn’t noticed. Ah.
The great thing about being British is we’re an ingenious island, and, our sports cars roofs don’t fit brilliantly. So, after a delve around the high-fashion dressing room of the Top Gear production office turned up a wire coat-hanger which we could fashion into a hook, some of the highly intelligent and skilled engineering technicians present to support the Speed Week supercars volunteered to thread our makeshift fishing rod under the roof, pluck the key off the dash and hoist it out of its fibreglass prison. This took a mere 25 minutes and only required several grown men to get soaked to the skin. Thanks, guys.
I think this is what’s known as classic British sports car character. The Elise has lots of this. There’s the finnicky, shrieking immobiliser you must disable like a timebomb every time you want to rouse the engine. On a wet day, it steams up faster than a bashful optician in a sauna. And climbing in and out remains torturously fraught with cramp, tweaked muscles and savage backache.
And yet… if the measure of what makes a car great is not so much how happy it makes you, but how much you’re willing to forgive it, then the Elise is rightly one of the greatest sports cars of all time. I’ll even forgive the 240bhp Final Edition its £45,500 price tag. Which is too damn high.
It’s incredibly forgiving, thanks to the latest generation’s traction control, but the short wheelbase and crisp reactions mean it’s still a challenge. It’s rapid and makes a decent noise and the gearshift is a mechanical delight. And no car - not the 911 GT3, not the Tipo F1-car thingy or even the trick-to-catch Caterham 170R – is as rich in sensation and feedback as the beautifully balanced Elise.
I love the interior too. Properly adore it, once you’ve limbo’d down into it and got VERY intimate with your passenger’s right thigh, intentionally or otherwise.
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For an Elise it’s space age – a (clear) digi-instrument display, buttons for the driving modes – but no touchscreens, tactile climate controls, and really excellent ergonomics for such an elderly car.
If I could’ve chosen any of our 26 contenders to squelch home in and keep forever, it wouldn’t be the Ferrari SF90 Stradale or Porsche GT3 or Lamborghini STO. They’re overkill. And one day, somehow, they’ll be superseded. For me, nothing will ever replace the Elise – not even a new Lotus. It’s my ‘last tank of petrol’ car forever. Just be careful where you leave the keys.