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Overall verdict

The Top Gear car review: Lotus Elise

Overall verdict
If you really, truly care about driving, the Lotus Elise is about as obvious an answer as water being wet and fire being hot


Astonishing handling, defiance of the ‘more is better’ mantra that ruins too many sports cars


Reputation for unreliability still dogs Lotus


What is it?

It’s now been a quarter of a century since Lotus first introduced the Elise, and it’s fair to say that it’s the car that’s defined Lotus since it arrived in 1996. Case in point: the Exige, Hethel’s most extreme (and possibly best) car, grew from Elise origins, adding V6 power, aero and general insanity along the way. 

The Elise continues to define modern Lotus by following the same precepts that made Lotus a force, on both road and track, since men wore flat caps and David Hockney was referred to as a ‘confirmed bachelor’. It’s the all-too famous (and often butchered) mantra: simplify, then add lightness. 

And even over the past 25-or-so years, as most cars have become as complicated as string theory and as bloated as Gérard Depardieu, the Elise remains resolutely simple and svelte. For a road car to go on sale in 2019 with a kerb weight comfortably under the one-tonne mark is something to be celebrated. For the same car to offer just the driving essentials, without the gesture-control, active-whatsit, haptic-touchscreen frippery that’s pervaded the rest of the market is surely worth inventing a new award. Let’s see… if music has the Grammys, how about the Autommys? No? Fine, you come up with something better. 

There’s a temptation to look at the Elise’s aluminium chassis, two-seat layout and rear-mid-engine setup and imagine that not a lot has changed in the decades since the S1 was launched. But that’s like saying that not a lot changed between the first and last Jaguar XJ. The new Elise performs an interesting perversion of the Ship of Theseus analogy by replacing everything and coming up with something that’s true to the spirit of the original, but that’s adapted over the years to suit the modern demands and desires. 

And, because lists are so fun, let’s have a merry jaunt through just a few parts that have been wholly replaced since the first Elise. The original Rover K-Series engine, which is as old as the Stone Roses, was replaced by a Toyota engine, which was then replaced by a newer, better Toyota engine. Which was then supercharged, because that makes roughly everything better. 

The Elise’s chassis and bodywork have also changed over the years, as have the crash structures, brakes, gearbox, suspension, tyres… look, we realise that while it is technically impossible to run out of internet listing all the wholesale changes and minor tweaks that have graced the Elise over the years, it’s entirely possible to run out of the will to live while reading such a list. So let’s get on to the absolute best thing about any Lotus: the driving.

Highlights from the range

Title 0–62 CO2 MPG BHP Price
The fastest
1.8 Cup 250 2dr
3.9s 177g/km 37.7 246 £48,220
The cheapest
1.6 Sport 220 2dr
4.2s 173g/km 37.7 220 £39,720
The greenest
1.6 Sport 220 2dr
4.2s 173g/km 37.7 220 £39,720