Lotus Elise is back and, yes, it's as good as ever

Time of article published May 24, 2010

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Lotus hadn't planned on making many Elises. About 2500 should do it, Lotus thought, taking the Elise from its 1996 launch to, maybe, the millennial cusp. After all, not many people would want a basic, pure, minimalist but still expensive sports car. Surely?

The brand returned to South Africa in 2005.

Well, the Elise has just entered its third generation and about 35 000 have left the UK Lotus factory so far. The idea has proved more widely seductive than the original creators dared to hope and, as I turn and go back up the twisting road by Goodwood racecourse to savour the bends yet again, I am once more completely under its spell.

There is nothing quite like an Elise. Other cars have had the individual elements - lightness, simplicity, a mid-mounted engine, a British badge - but currently the Lotus is a unique mix of good things. Here's another bend: as ever, the Elise turns instantly, precisely, seemingly without any sensation of shifting a mass, only the front wheels' castor action forming a resistance against which my hands must work.

Driving a new car without power-assisted steering is a rare occurrence nowadays but it's not needed here. Instead, you just enjoy total two-way telegraphy with the road surface. The sensation is all the better because you sit low, looking over a low fascia with the near part of the road framed by the bulges that cover the front wheels.

It's a very special vantage point. Above me is only sky (the fabric roof is stowed in the surprisingly roomy boot) and I'm at one with this car.

Great. But what's the news? It's that third-generation thing I mentioned. The second-generation Elise, born in 2000 at the point when the original plan would call an end to the whole idea, had busier styling full of strakes and slashes and a body pressed in a mould from pre-impregnated composite sheet, like a Renault Espace used to have.

It replaced the cottage-industry method of hand-laying glass-fibre matting and resin and made the Elise into a more consistent, better-quality product, but the original's visual purity had been lost. Now, with this latest Elise, it mostly returns.

The nose is smoother and incorporates Audi-like daytime running lights in LED strips; the side vents are protected by mesh instead of vanes; the tail is calmer, apart from an ugly but effective aerodynamic diffuser.

Inside it's much as before. The stalks on the steering column betray its Vauxhall Cavalier origins but why re-engineer something that works? There's a racing-car functionality about it, aided by a bonded and extruded aluminium chassis of remarkable rigidity.

And now the most important bit. The entry-level Elise has a new engine, still made by Toyota, still using a Lotus management system, but down from 1.8 to 1.6 litres. Power stays the same at 102kW but peak torque is down slightly and the key reason for the change is that the official CO2 output drops from 196 to 149g/km.

It's a so-called Valvematic engine: a conventional throttle system is used only at idle and all other speed control is effected by altering the amount by which the inlet valves open. This less-obstructive pathway for the engine's suction of air is the key to the improved efficiency.

Result? A more frugal Lotus but a no less entertaining one. Despite the drop in maximum torque, the Elise still feels punchy enough not to demand frantic revving, although it will do that, too, if you like.

Best of all is the way all the major controls work in such perfect harmony. You flow with instinctive co-ordination within 100m of driving off in an Elise for the first time. Only two minor snags mar the bonding process: the engine sometimes has a little gasp for breath as it accelerates and the magical way the Elise breathes over bumps and undulations is occasionally shattered by a thump from the rear suspension over a nasty ridge.

Otherwise the Elise is, as ever, a balletic, sensuous, life-affirming delight. Objectively it seems expensive for what it is. But objectivity never bought a Lotus.

The Rivals

Caterham Seven 1.6 Sigma 150: Derived from 1957 Lotus Seven. This version has tuned Ford engine. Ultra-light, ultra-basic, a bombardment of good sensations.

Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport Tech: Today's MX-5 is far more luxurious than the simple 1989 original but it's still a lot of fun. Sole descendant of the "traditional" sports car.

MG TF LE500: Reborn under Chinese ownership but built in Birmingham. Seems dated and a bit crude but top version is great value for a mid-engined sports car.

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