It was with a fair amount of trepidation that we set out on a near 1,000 mile road trip in the Elise S. The car isn’t exactly known for its refinement and this being our first time behind the wheel of Lotus’s most iconic car, we figured 15 hours on the motorway might not be the best way to make friends.
Oh, how wrong we were. The modern Lotus Elise is as easy to drive as a Fiat 500 and almost as quiet when you want it to be. It might lack some of the leathery German predictability of a Porsche, but then the Elise turns twice as many heads.
So from Lotus in Hethel to Monaco and back again, with some windy mountain roads in between, the Elise turned out to be even better than we expected.
Lotus has made some subtle tweaks to the Elise exterior in recent years. The front clam now has a much less fussy look, with a clean and simple intake offset against some great-looking LED daytime running lights.
While the car’s looks from the front are still eye-catching, it’s a lot more understated than previous offerings - that is, provided you don’t order it in bright orange, which we would.
The same approach has been taken to the rear end of the car, which still has a nice set of vents above the mid-mounted engine, but again much more simple than the previous Elise. Don’t get us wrong, the Elise is still a wild-looking car, but there is a touch more class to the design that just wasn’t there before.
Inside, things it's as simple as it needs to be. Obviously the Elise is all about keeping things light inside, but Lotus has done a good job providing just enough creature comforts to keep a smile on your face.
The air conditioning unit, for example, consists of just three knobs for adjusting temperature, power and positioning, but is put together with brushed aluminium. It’s the perfect halfway point between racing car and road car.
The only thing which really feels dated about the Elise’s interior is its speedometer. Lotus gave the steering wheel an update, complete with airbags, but left the speedo untouched. Compared to the rest of the build, it feels a touch cheap and we would love to see a bit more of that stripped-back design ethos applied to the driver’s display.
The Elise S, with its supercharged 1.8 litre engine is certainly quick; 0-60 takes just 4.2 seconds. But it isn’t really the straight line speed that makes the Elise so special: admittedly, we enjoyed blasting through the gears after each payage on the French autoroute, but it’s the cornering that matters.
The car has so much grip that getting close to its limit is a challenge in itself. There is so much poise and such an incredible turn in, that all you want to do is get on the power and keep your foot planted. Through winding roads, it’s complete dynamite and the amount of power on offer is usable, rather than licence-losing.
The gearbox is also a fairly joyous thing to behold. It lacks some of the refinement of the more expensive Porsche systems, but has such a clunk to it whenever you shift, that it just adds to the feeling of the car being a stripped-back racer.
The Elise S we tested came with an optional sport mode, which opened up the exhaust and gave plenty more throttle response. With this button switched on, through the windy stuff, we really can’t think of much better for fun on public roads. It’s all just so usable, with the car never feeling intimidating and the amount of grip encouraging you to push as hard as you can.
What we didn’t expect was how capable the Elise was of settling down when it needed to. It’s a strange thing that a car so outrageously quick can shut up and behave itself when it matters. We spent around 20 hours on the motorway in the Elise S and not once did we feel remotely tired or uncomfortable.
The Probax seats, while tough, have just enough padding and support to keep you comfy. We did get a touch of sore bum, but a five-minute leg stretch and all was fixed. The touring pack fitted to our test Elise also did enough of a job to keep road and engine noise down. Admittedly if you start cruising above 80mph, the cabin gets a bit noisy, but leave cruise control on at 7mph and it's quiet enough to listen to an audiobook.
That Alpine sound system, which hooks up nicely to an iPhone or Android handset, also sounds fairly good. Okay, so all the intricacies of a piece of classical music aren’t going to be audible, but you can easily enjoy the boring driving with some sing-along stuff.
So the driving dynamics of the Elise are much more mature than we expected. Its direct steering isn’t hugely heavy, so parking is easy, but it gives more feedback when pushing the car than any of the competition. Motorway driving was more than fine, but then the twisty stuff put a bigger smile on our face than a Porsche ever could.
Ask yourself this: a tiny bit of compromise for a more enjoyable drive when it matters? Or creature comforts and compromise when you are having fun? We know which we would choose.
We figured a special section on the Elise S’s usability was in order. We have already mentioned how easy it is to drive, but there are a few special things about living with an Elise that potential buyers need to know.
First the fuel economy. The 1.8 litre Toyota engine in the Elise S has the most varying fuel economy we have ever seen in a performance car. Amazingly we managed to get all the way from Hethel to Monaco and back on around 280 euros (£242) of fuel, which is an amazing achievement. The car managed 40mpg plus on the motorway, but dropped way down into the sub 20s when we started pushing it.
The issue is the size of the fuel tank. We couldn’t get more than £40 worth of fuel into it, which means that a few hours of driving will see it empty. But what’s more, while it’s not thirsty on the motorway, when you get off that changes. This can mean that the remaining fuel will vanish far quicker than you were expecting. With the small tank, this can make for some anxious times.
Next up is the getting in and out. The Elise has huge side sills which make up its beefy aluminium tub. You need to step over these in order to get in. Those above 6ft won’t find the process easy, but once in, they won’t struggle for headroom.
Taking the roof off is one of the easiest things you can do with the Elise. It consists of a section of fabric clamped in on either end and two bendy plastic rods. The roof will fit just behind the driver’s seat or easily in the boot. Once off, provided you keep the windows up, there isn’t a huge amount of buffeting.
Finally we have the Elise’s construction itself, which is something definitely worth considering if you plan on living with one daily. Put simply, this car doesn’t deal with crashing or car parks as well as others. Think of the Elise like a super stiff aluminium bath tub wrapped up in glass fibre. That can crack easily as well as the aluminium tub, if you bend it, the car is a write-off.
The modern Elise is a much more refined and manageable machine than the car Lotus launched back in 1996. It is fuel efficient, has a decent stereo and that easy to use removable roof is even better than before. Comparisons will always be drawn with the likes of the Porsche Boxter and Cayman, but they are very different cars.
In terms of usability, refinement and just general all-round German goodness, the Porsche will always win. Where it can't claim the prize is in making you feel really special. Sure it's enjoyable to drive, but the Elise will always turn more heads. To those who know it, it means you take your driving seriously. The car would be more than good enough if you were sitting on a cardboard box, provided the handling and dynamics were still there. Everything else is just a bonus.
Some won't even consider a car like the Elise and wander straight through the doors of their nearest German car garage, but they will be missing out on owning something truly special. A British classic, a joy to drive and in bright orange, as eye-catching as any Ferrari or Lamborghini.