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£43,920 when new

Car specifications

Budget
£43,920
Brake horsepower
217bhp
0–62 mph
4.20s
CO2
175g/km
Max speed
140Mph

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Lotus
is alive!

Yes
indeed. After a lengthy period under the radar, a time of quiet contemplation
and regrouping, Lotus is ready to launch some new – or at least properly
updated – cars. There’s something big (but still secret) at the Geneva show in
March, but for now we’ve been to Norfolk to test the latest version of the
immortal Elise.

By
‘immortal’ you mean withered and beset by the travails of old age?

The
Elise was launched in 1996, the same year as the now-ancient-feeling BMW Z3.
And the Elise still has the same aluminium chassis and basically the same
suspension as it did way back when. Yet there’s still something special about
it, and as other cars get fatter and remove you further from the action, the
Elise’s honesty and intimacy become more than ever something to treasure. It’s
still fresh.

OK, what’s this one?

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The Elise S Cup. It’s the roadgoing version of the S Cup R. To decode: S means supercharged, Cup means hardcore and R means racing car. The S Cup R has a high-downforce body kit and stiff suspension, forged alloys, uprated brakes and fixed hardtop, and the dead-eyed stare of a car whose headlamps have been removed for lightness. But as a fully-certified road car this new S Cup (no R) gets its lights back, plus a two-stage ESP system. And a heater, airbags, three-point belts and a trimmed interior. The one I drove even had air-con, a stereo and some extra sound deadening. But you can also option back many of the track parts – full cage, extinguishers, harness, race seat, lightweight battery, race tyres and so on.

The aero looks serious…

It is. At 120mph it’s shoving you into the tarmac with a force equivalent to 100kg. It’s already doing 66kg at 60mph. And yet the kit costs just eight percent in drag. It consists of a big front splitter, barge boards, side duct vanes and a huge rear wing and diffuser combo. The diffuser works a treat with the flat underfloor.

Apart from making you look a bit Carlos Fandango, what difference does it make?

About three seconds a lap versus a regular Elise S. At least it does if you’ve the skill and faith to exploit the extra grip it provides. Have to confess I don’t, but even so there’s an obvious and delicious dose of meatiness and precision as you barrel through fast bends, circumstances where a standard Elise would be getting a bit floaty.

“Where conditions permit”, eh?

Yup, I was on a track. A place where this car thrives. There’s adequate but not intimidating performance, superb traction and grip, and all the brakes you could want. Most of all it’s about precision and talking to you, the delicious steering letting you know just when it’s nibbling at understeer, the seat communicating the onset of oversteer. The ESP’s sport setting allows you to play small slide angles with great subtlety. Even so, it’s a car that trains you to drive neatly. The short wheelbase means it’s not in favour of a lairly oversteery style. I tried cutting the ESP entirely on a wet steering pad and kept on spinning.

And on the road?

There are plenty of supercars that can do similar things on a track. But out on the road a quick Elise is like no other car, even ones that can numerically out-accelerate and out-corner it.

The Elise is small, and its ride is supple, and its tyres are a super-slim 175mm in section. So it doesn’t need much road width, and it isn’t dragged off course by cambers or bumps. It brakes straight and true too. On tight and lumpy British backroad those are stupendous assets. And the minuscule nose weight means the steering rack happily goes without power assistance. The steering that results is an absolute joy, free of friction and largely without kickback, yet intimate in telling you exactly what the tyres are up to, what grip they have left, and quite possibly whether the surface was laid by the men from Murphy or Amey. It adds enormously to your confidence. I hadn’t driven an Elise or Exige for a couple of years. To get back in one was to remind myself that the gap between Lotus’s nude steering and everyone else’s powered systems is growing, and that’s everyone else’s loss.

You’re not trying to tell me a 1.8-litre engine puts you into proper sports-car territory?

Well, even on the dyno it’s none too shabby for a 1.8. Lotus takes a Toyota four-cylinder engine and puts a supercharger onto it, and does its own management. Result is 237bhp. Then there’s the fact that this Elise is just 932 kilos and has short gearing. Result is it makes 0-60mph in 4.2sec, or 0-62 in 4.6. Though it didn’t feel that quick when I was driving because I had a passenger just as heavy as me. In a car this light, every extra kilo of human flesh makes a difference. Whatever, it’s an effective engine, albeit a little whiney in its sonics. It goes better than it sounds. And the light weight helps fuel economy. The gearshift is short and accurate now, a vast improvement on early Elises.

OK, so it’s got a heater and a radio. It won’t mist up and you can listen to the Archers, but it can’t really be a very useful or habitable road car can it?

Not if you’ve stepped out of a Boxster. It’s hard to get into, it’s cramped, the boot is tiny, the seat adjustment is rudimentary and there’s no nav or comms. But it’s not actually that noisy, and the ride is acceptable. It’s more civilized than other low-volume track-biased specials. There has even been an attempt to jolly up the cabin with some Alcantara and contrast stitching, but unfortunately the contrasting colour shows up that the stitching is a bit wobbly.

So there’s a price in practicality. In money?

It’s £42,500 plus options. A fair bit for an Elise, very little for a car that gets to sixty in the low fours, ridiculously little for something with this much handling finesse.

What do you think?

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