Final Edition? Really?
OK, let’s tackle this first. Because there have been a lot of limited edition Lotuses in the last few years, each with a tickle more power than the last, an extra flick of aero or new colour scheme. But this really is it. The last Elise. Lotus needs to stop building it and the Exige (and, although they haven’t admitted as much yet, the Evora) in order to focus on the Type 131, Evija and other new stuff coming down the pipeline.
25 years they’ve been building the Elise. The S1 was replaced by the S2 in 2001, and it’s basically been soldiering on ever since. I know, the S2 became the S3 in 2010, but that was just a minor facelift. What we’re looking at here is a long lifespan for a largely unchanged model.
But now they’ve changed it?
Of course not. This is a run-out special. An extra 20bhp over the car that preceded it courtesy of an ECU upgrade, some new colours and not a whole lot else. It’s quite refreshing to jump in and realise that, yep, the roof is still as Heath Robinson as you remember (it rolls up from one side to the other and stows in the boot). New digital instrument display, though. Not quite as cool as the Stack dials fitted to the original Elise, but clear and legible all the same.
Minor tweaks to a familiar recipe then. A small, light, mid-engined roadster powered by a 1.8-litre supercharged four cylinder and driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. It develops 240bhp at 7,200rpm and 181lb ft from 3,000-7,000rpm. That means 0-60mph in 4.1secs and a 147mph max for the 931kg two seater.
Hang about, 930kg? I thought the Elise weighed about 750kg?
They did originally, but having to comply with tougher crash and emissions regs, plus the change in buyers' tastes has meant the Elise has gradually become heavier. That said, 930kg is about half a tonne less than an entry-level Porsche Cayman and 200kg down on an Alpine A110.
But they both have creature comforts.
Point taken. Choosing an Elise requires compromise. But not as much as I expected. It must be a few years since I last drove a regular Elise rather than a stripped out Cup model (which to me still misses the point of what the Elise is about), and I was pleasantly surprised by the car’s solidity, integrity and quality. It felt really well put together, the materials are tactile, there’s not much bare metal on display, and what is there is lovely to look at and touch. With so many cars getting carried away with screens, data and excessive ‘design’, the Lotus's stripped bare approach has a lot of appeal. It means there’s not really anywhere sensible to put your phone and wallet as they’ll slide back and forth on the passenger-side aluminium dash shelf, but you’ll get more in the boot (aft of the engine) than you expect and there is a cupholder between the seats. No, it won’t take a mega-gulp.
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Nor one of the human variety. The biggest issue for the prospective Elise owner is getting into the thing. If you can’t touch your knee to your chin, forget it. If you’re much over six foot, forget it. This is a small, sinuous car for small, sinuous people. Once in you’ll find a seat with a short squab and very shallow side bolstering. Cracking driving position though. The new steering wheel, alcantara clad in this car, has a slightly wider diameter, lowering turning effort for the unassisted steering, and down to your left is the gorgeous open-gate manual gearlever.
As good to use as it is to look at?
Absolutely. The kind of crisp, accurate shift that clicks and slips so nicely between its six forward ratios that you can’t help but shift for the sake of it. And this is a car, even over and above the Alpine, that has absolutely no slack or delay in it. Above 2,000rpm the supercharger is there, instantly, the steering is millimetric, everything happens exactly, precisely as you expect. It flows along in a way I almost hadn’t expected. Track-focused Cup versions have stolen the headlines, so it’s great that for the Elise’s final flourish, Lotus has chosen to emphasise the standard model – it’s a reminder that not much, if anything, flows down a B-road as well as a Lotus Elise.
The extra weight actually means it feels less flighty than earlier Elises, and its stability at speed and your confidence in it are both remarkable. That steering. Oh my. It just goes along a road so beautifully, so dexterously. You just sit there and absorb the sensations, marvelling at the communication. The only change I’d possibly recommend is to make the brake pedal slightly firmer underfoot. No qualms about stopping power, but having a pedal that retained its short travel under hard use would tie it in better with the other controls.
What about the engine?
It’s always been a chassis car, with the engine there to provide propulsion between the corners. The supercharged four is great at response, not so great at charisma. It doesn’t feel as fast as 4.1-to-60 suggests and the power delivery is very linear, so there’s little sense of it building to a crescendo as the 7,000rpm redline approaches. A more exotic set of pipes and freer induction would probably help enliven things aurally – and possibly add a bit of mid-range punch that the Elise could happily cope with.
Because this feels like a very thoroughly developed car. Often these runout versions seem overwrought, the cars have had their time, lost their relevance and come across as gilded lilies. Not the Elise. Given our increased focus on treading lightly on the planet, a small, light car wearing narrow tyres, making little noise and consuming little fuel (36.2mpg on the combined WLTP cycle) feels very appropriate today.
How Lotus goes about translating these virtues into a new range of cars that we’ve got to assume will feature heavy battery packs, is going to be fascinating.
Can you drive it a long way?
Depends what you’re prepared to tolerate. As I said earlier, this Elise feels really well finished, finessed over the years to the point that wind noise, water ingress and other annoyances have mostly dissipated. But it does get buffeted by trucks, noise does get through and it doesn’t daily like a Boxster. You need to commit to the Elise way. Or just use it, as most do, for summer weekends.
Bit of an investment these days, though?
Well, it’s no longer the £20k snip it was back in 1996. This Final Edition retails at £45,500, which puts it smack in Alpine A110 territory. Are they competitors? You decide, I’m more concerned about how both companies are going to work together in the future than whether they are butting heads right now.
Will you miss the Elise when it’s gone?
Massively. Hugely. I always thought it was so important to have a car like the Elise on sale, because it was a vital touchstone – for us as drivers and for other sports car makers. We could shine a light on their cars and ask why they weighed so much, why they were so wasteful when Lotus showed there was another way. It adhered to Colin Chapman’s ‘simplify and add lightness’ tenet in exactly the right way, sitting in that unique territory midway between Caterham and Porsche.
And there’s nothing else quite like it. Nothing that drives like it or has the same sense of purity and clarity. It’s on its way out now, but it still feels fresh and relevant. If, as we fear, the electric era heralds a demise in great driving cars, well, we’ll be losing one of the key benchmarks. We’ll only properly miss it when it’s gone.
Specs: 1.8-litre supercharged, 4cyl, 240bhp/181lb ft, 0-60mph in 4.1secs, 147mph max, 36.2mpg/177g/km