The automotive world is full of pretenders. Pseudo-sporty cars that wear badges intended to mark their apparent place at the performance end of a model range. Rarely are they as hardcore as their titles suggest. Then there are cars at the other end of the spectrum, cars like the British-born Lotus Elise.
The Lotus Elise is a car so focused, so specific to a given role, that unless you’ve long craved or desired one, you’d never consider spending the money to buy one.
First launched in 1996, the Lotus Elise has long been respected for offering near-on supercar performance for significantly less than supercar coin.
These days though, so-called ‘supercars’ are becoming ever more ‘driveable’ and politically correct. Electronic overlords are rife, manual transmissions are few and connection between car and driver has been progressively dulled through the respective rise and fall of the previous two.
Standing proudly within a limited crop of purist models – including the Caterham Seven – the Lotus Elise made its intentions clear from the very beginning: less is more and weight (or a lack of it) is king.
The current line-up starts with the entry-level Elise at $74,990.
Powered by a 100kW/160Nm naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder tucked into its backend, the already lean (876kg) base Elise claims a 6.5-second 0-100km/h. Want a lighter Elise? You can spec up the base car to the 852kg Club Racer for no additional outlay.
Want more oomph? Enter the 901kg Elise S with its supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder. Thanks to its force-fed Toyota-sourced powerplant, the $84,990 Elise S claims 162kW of power (at 6800rpm), 250Nm of torque (at 4600rpm) and 4.6 seconds 0-100km/h.
Matching the Elise S for price, but erring even more on the side of road-registered track car, is the Chrome Orange Lotus Elise S Club Racer tested here.
Initially launched locally in June last year starting at $83,250, the Club Racer – or CR – originally teamed a more than 20kg weight reduction with sports suspension (comprising Eibach coaxial springs and Bilstein mono-tube gas dampers), an adjustable front anti-roll bar, and satin black alloy wheels fitted with high performance Yokohama Advan tyres.
Helping to cut kilos from the ‘normal’ Elise S were weight reductions to the drivetrain and body, as well as the deletion of remote central locking, a stereo, a cup holder, sound deadening, mud flaps and a roof.
Then in January this year – due to a reaction to ‘buyer preferences’ – Ateco Automotive (the official distributor of Lotus Cars in Australia) announced a taming of the CR by making a previously optional ‘comfort pack’ standard fare.
Along with upping the price by $1740, the inclusion of the pack reintroduced the base car’s central locking, four-speaker Alpine stereo, sound deadening, front mud flaps and black fabric convertible roof, along with its standard suspension and anti-roll bar.
That aside, until the October arrival of the Elise S 220 Cup (formerly known as the Elise S Cup), the CR remains the most hardcore Elise S you can buy in Australia.
Like all Elises, at 3.8m long, 1.7m wide, and 1.1m tall, the S CR is small. Properly small. It’s also notoriously ‘challenging’ to get into – particularly with the roof on.
The process involves opening the door, sliding your left leg in first, then your bum, then your right leg. Tricky, sure, but it is a procedure that starts to become second nature after not too long with the thing.
Once in, drivers are greeted by a ‘basic’ interior comprising hard and scratchy plastics, body-coloured composite sports seats with suede-like inserts, a tiny button-free non-adjustable Momo steering wheel, aluminium pedals, an aluminium floor and an aluminium passenger footrest.
There are nice Alcantara highlights on the doors (padded), grab handles, handbrake boot and top and bottom of the steering wheel. The indicator and wiper stalks, however, are identical to a mid 90s Holden Astra and, while air conditioning is standard, the three rotary climate control dials are incredibly stiff to operate.
Oh yeah, there’s also no glove box, no cup holder (optional), no door pockets, no Bluetooth audio streaming, no phone connectivity, no cruise control, no power steering, no stop-start system, no satellite navigation, no touchscreen, no parking sensors and no reversing camera.
Are there better finished cars for near-on $85K? You bet. Hell, there a better finished cars for less than half that these days but that’s not why you buy a Lotus…
Sitting in Sydney traffic bound for the Marulan Driver Training Centre around 180km away, the Elise is less than fun.
Neither the red speedometer nor tachometer needle is pointing to any particularly impressive number, the key protruding from the ignition barrel is hard-up against this six-foot driver’s right knee and indicating for left-hand turns can be cancelled simply by clutching up (this reviewer’s left knee easily reaching the stalk when down).
“Why is there an antiquated key in a car that has the modern inclusion of an engine start button?”, we hear you ask. Because the button is restricted to starting the car, you still need to turn the key to turn the car off.
Ergonomic shortfalls continue to be found the longer you spend behind the wheel.
The seats are heavily scalloped but hard, largely uncomfortable and free of much bolstering. And when in the fifth of the manual gearbox’s six ratios, the gear lever becomes overly friendly with the outside of the driver’s left leg.
Vision out is difficult with the roof on and still restricted with the roof off – thanks to the Lotus’ engine-flanking bodywork. The small wing mirrors do an excellent job considering their difficult task, though be aware, they are non-power adjustable (oh yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve had to reach out of a car window to adjust an exterior mirror).
You’ll become all too familiar with them too, as on the road, the Elise feels as small as it looks. A Honda Jazz, Hyundai i20, it doesn’t matter. Anything bar an original Mini seems like a compact SUV when you’re hunkered down in the little Lotus.
Traversing Sydney’s infamous pockmarked roads the ride is firm and unforgiving but not entirely unliveable either.
In a car that’s entirely about ‘feeling everything’, the suspension is no exception. Every pothole, every cat eye, every bump and minor imperfection is translated directly to the driver via the steering wheel or the seat or both. That said, things rarely become totally bone-jarringly uncomfortable – more ‘busy’ and ‘active’.
As you’d expect, the Lotus Elise doesn’t have the quietest new-car cabin. Surprisingly though, while road, wind and tyre noise are all quite high – you can hear when you're driving over painted lane markings or not – the car itself is not crazy loud.
The engine and exhaust aren’t especially noisy and there’s no race-spec mechanical differential or gearbox whine. And while the only thing heavier than the clutch is the unassisted steering, the whole package in fact, while clearly motorsport slanted, is not actually entirely untenable to contemplate as a daily driver. To buy an Elise – and definitely the Elise S Club Racer – you simply have to be committed (or perhaps, some may argue, should be).
Pulling into the Marulan Driver Training Centre car park we’re welcomed by sunshine and a dry track, so we immediately unclip and roll off the fabric soft top – an easy enough affair – and store it in the quaint but handy 112-litre load cavity located behind the engine.
We engage the ‘Sport’ setting of the Elise’s Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) stability control system to allow for more slip angle and fire out onto the circuit.
Immediately the Lotus feels in its element – precise; responsive; agile; pure. There’s no doubt that $84,990 is still a decent amount of buck, but when it comes to the Lotus and a track, it’s hard to argue with this much bang.
The mechanical rack and pinion steering, while still heavy, is engaging, communicative and super sharp. Point the Elise S CR at a corner and, with the help of its ultra taut suspension and sticky 175mm 16-inch front/225mm 17-inch rear Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 tyres, it flatly and obligingly obeys your every command.
Highly receptive to every driver input, the car’s impeccable balance and poise and sublime direction changes are highlighted by controllable lift-off oversteer moments.
Be it minute weight shifts, lifts or prods of the throttle, modulation of the brakes, or feints of the steering wheel, they all have an instant effect on the car.
The catch? Cold honesty. How you drive the Elise, is how it behaves. There’s nowhere to hide in the Lotus. Drive it well, with patience and respect, and it will respond with unadulterated accuracy and communication. Overdrive it though, and you’ll pay the price with understeer, poor corner speed and a lack of corner-exit and straight-line punch.
The AP Racing and Brembo brake package – comprising two-piston front/single-piston rear calipers and 288mm cross-drilled front and rear discs – does a solid, confidence inspiring job.
And although the open rear differential – equipped with an Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) – can only do so much to prevent an inside wheel rotating faster than an outside one, the supercharged Elise doesn’t quite have enough power to really ‘smoke tyres’.
The engine itself is buzzy and flexible, with easy shove available from as low as 2000-2500rpm. Pushing the needle towards 7000rpm, though, is hugely addictive. Also fun, the close-ratio six-speed gearbox – clunky to the ear but accurate to the hand – is a key component of the car's completely immersive driving experience.
For true lovers of cars, the Lotus Elise S Club Racer is bliss for the senses. The niggly foibles and ergonomic failures that annoy and frustrate on the road, become less of a concern or entirely dissolve away when on track.
If the majority of modern cars are continually distancing and blanketing drivers from reality through various technologies, the Lotus Elise is the complete opposite, positively bombarding its driver with feedback and information.
The comprises tied to owning a Lotus, unlike the car itself, are weighty. But unquestionably, the car is simply outstanding on the track. And let’s be honest, you buy a Lotus because you want to buy a Lotus. It’s a super niche car that is designed and built to satisfy a unique clientele who want precisely what the car offers.
Ok, so for exactly the same money, you can land yourself another roofless rear-wheel-drive British kit car in the form of the Caterham Seven SV 175. But while the 675kg Seven claims a sharper power-to-weight figure than the Elise S (184.1W/kg plays 179.8W/kg), the Caterham is not a Lotus.
And sure, you could spend around $50K less than either of those two and nab yourself a Toyota 86 or Subaru BRZ and still get 90 per cent of the driver involvement you find in the British pair. But again, neither is a Lotus.
Even with the thought of only occasional track work, for $85K, the Elise S Club Racer makes a far stronger value case then its $130,000-plus bigger brother the Exige S or its upcoming Club Racer equivalent – a car you’re never really ever going to push to its limits and certainly never on a public road.
The Lotus Elise S Club Racer is the result of years of honing and fine tuning. It’s as harder work to drive on the road as it is on the track, but its combination of exquisite balance, supreme control and otherworldly response is at a level few cars come close to delivering, regardless of price.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Lotus Elise S Club Racer images by Christian Barbeitos.