When I was a kid, Lotus meant many things to me. It meant the best-looking Formula 1 cars on the planet, resplendent in their iconic black-and-gold JPS liveries (name a cooler looking livery… I’ll wait). It meant the exploits of the men who raced those cars, their names etched in my memory for all time, including my childhood hero Elio de Angelis.
Lotus also meant a series of aspirational road cars, not least of which that 1980s wedge-shaped icon, the Esprit Turbo (I’ll have mine in black, thanks, with gold pinstriping).
So, when Lotus Cars Australia offered me an invite to drive one of their modern iterations around a race track, I was staring down the barrel of a dream fulfilled. The track? None other than Australia’s – and one of the world’s – greatest race tracks, Mount Panorama, Bathurst.
The catch? I had to drive there myself. In the Lotus.
The Lotus of choice is the 2020 Lotus Elise Cup 250, finished in British Racing Green. Asking price? Around $107,990 plus on-road costs. It’s a lot of coin for something with not very much in it, in terms of equipment. But what it lacks in sat-nav and CarPlay and cupholders and a radio, it makes up for with a heartbeat and a soul as spiritual as it is real.
It’s a drama that immerses you in delight from the moment you press the starter button and that gloriously supercharged 1.8-litre engine wedged into the back barks and growls and howls into life. You soon forget the contortions required of your body to leverage yourself into the cabin just moments earlier. Instead, you marvel at the simplicity of it all, like looking at a piece of abstract art that is little more than a black square on white background. Purity of being.
The cabin screams purpose, with nothing to distract you from the pure driving pleasure this car was engineered and built for. The steering wheel is solid in hand, more solid still for bypassing any form of power assistance. There are no dials, nor buttons of any kind on the wheel. It remains a singular tool with only one purpose.
The open gate gear selector, with its polished metal linkages, is automotive art. It’s as lovely to behold as it is to use. Solid, mechanical, cool to the touch, sheer engineering artistry.
The sports seats are firm, and with plenty of side bolster, snug. No height adjustment, of course, merely limited fore and aft mechanical adjustment. It’s easy to get cosy though, and the driving position – legs straight ahead on the closely-spaced (hello heel-toe) pedals reinforce the track-focussed vibe of the Cup 250.
It takes but a moment to forgive the Lotus its minor flaws. That moment comes with the satisfying ‘snick’ you not only hear, but feel in the palm of your hand as you select first gear. The clutch is mercifully short with a bitepoint at once predictable and comforting.
And the intensifying whine from the 1.8-litre supercharged four just behind your ears as you climb through the revs is intoxicating.
Lotus sources its engine stock from Toyota. But once the Hethel squad has tweaked and turned, programmed and fettled, nurtured and tuned, the once-staid 2ZR-FE Toyota donk is transmogrified into a performance beast. In Cup 250 trim, it’s good for 181kW (or, 250PS, hence the badge) at a scream-happy 7200rpm and 250Nm between a reasonably broad 3500-5500rpm. The dash to 100km/h takes just 4.3 seconds while top speed maxes out 248km/h. We’d get close to that V-max, but not on the drive to Mount Panorama.
Instead, the Cup 250 proved once again, you don’t have to drive outside the legal limits to have the type of fun about which we can usually only reminisce. At city speeds, the Cup 250 can feel a little out of its comfort zone, like the athletic kid at a party full of Goths. There’s a lurchiness to the way it handles traffic, while its stiff suspension isn’t made for below-average city roads.
But, once you hit the open road – as we did driving from the outskirts of Sydney to Mount Panorama via the Bells Line of Road and across to the Jenolan Caves – the Cup 250 comes alive.
The rev-happy 1.8-litre sings and howls for your pleasure, while the delicious torque band hauls you out of corners with delight and a sure-footedness that beggars belief. That’s partly because you’re not hauling much weight. Tipping the scales at a positively svelte 931kg, the Cup 250 exudes athleticism and dynamism. She can be hustled with verve through twisting and winding roads that even at the signposted limit, feel like you’re driving a race car.
Until, that is, you hit the track and drive it like it was meant to be driven.
Mount Panorama needs no introduction other than to say it’s Australia’s most feared and revered race track. Challenging, fast, dangerous, the nominal ‘tourist road’ is usually reserved for major motorsport events, serving time the rest of the year as a public road with strictly enforced and highly patrolled sensible speed limits.
But, not today. Today, Lotus Cars Australia has booked the track for one of its increasingly popular track days. And it’s a full house, with around 160 participants lining up for the privilege to thrash some 60 track-bred machines around one of the world’s great race tracks.
Prior to today, like most people with more than a passing interest in Australia’s rich motorsport heritage, I’d only ever driven the 6.213km circuit at a sedate pace. And, of course, the countless thousands of laps on race-sim games where the consequences are a trip to the reset button.
That’s why, as I strap in for the first of my three 20-minute sessions, my palms are sweaty, and my heart is galloping like a Melbourne Cup winner on the home stretch. In a former life, before CarAdvice, I had attended countless races at Mount Panorama, I had seen great feats performed by the racing gods. I had witnessed monumental mistakes that destroyed cars. And I had seen death.
All of this is rushing through my head sitting in pitlane waiting for the green light. This is a track that bites, and when it does, the consequences can be lasting.
Blood. Thumping. Palms. Sweaty. Green light. F***!
And yet, it take a lap-and-a-half to realise the Cup 250 is just about the perfect car for a track this daunting. Light weight, not a massive amount of power and an oh-so-forgiving chassis give the Elise an ardour around this place that’s hard not to love.
Make no mistake, it’s plenty fast enough – I top out at 215km/h up Mountain Straight and nudge 230km/h down the fearsome Conrod – but where the Cup 250 really shines is through the fast, twisting sections climbing both up and down the Mountain.
Thanks to its agile chassis, beautiful Bilstein damping (tailored for the race track) and a prodigious amount of grip thanks to its aero trickery, the Cup 250 corners predictably, smoothly and bloody quickly.
The unassisted steering is beautifully weighted in these conditions as well as telegraphic. There’s no hint of vagueness; instead the tiller signals every movement, every bump with a precision that inspires confidence.
The six-speed manual gearbox is a peach, too, and not just for its delightful mechanical action. You simply get a surge of satisfaction with every gear change – snick, snick, snick – that reminds you of why manuals still matter.
And that blown 1.8-litre sings with an abandonment right behind your ear, howling with each stab of the throttle, reaching a full-blown crescendo as the tacho needle nudges redline. It’s simply intoxicating.
Highlights of Mount Panorama? There are a few. The crest on Mountain Straight, where the already light Cup 250 feels like a feather as you hit the rise before dropping down into a dip that’s both deeper and longer than you think. Your stomach drops and your adrenaline glands work overtime.
Next… the climb up the Mountain, a series of rising corners that are as challenging as they are daunting. Lined by concrete barriers on either side, the margin for error is slim. And yet, those same barriers tease you with the knowledge the closer you dare get to them, the faster your lap will be.
Then… the ‘coast’ down the Mountain. Again the drop is far steeper and far more savage than you think. And yet, you can also take it much quicker than you believe is possible. The Cup 250 helps, no doubt, its prodigious grip and entirely predictable nature a boon.
Finally, and it’s cliché, and yet for the first time I believe it to be true. Conrod Straight, Australia’s longest, despite being the fastest part of the track affords you the chance to relax after the heart-in-mouth moments of navigating the Mountain. That is until…
The Chase. Little more than a right-hand kink engineered into the track as a safety measure following the death of Mike Burgmann in 1986, it’s said by those who ply race cars for a living, to be taken flat-out.
And maybe it is. But, not on this day. The limitations? My own feeling of mortality. The Lotus could, in better hands, probably take it flat before settling into a straight line in readiness for the hardest braking point on the track.
You come over the crest on Conrod and the kink looms large in your windscreen. It’s a daunting sight, one that requires circumspection and consideration. For me, inexperienced as I am, a lift, then a light dab on the brakes to brush off just enough speed before tipping into the right-hander was the order of the day.
And that’s the thing about the Lotus Elise Cup 250. It’s designed for exactly these moments. And it is forgiving, flattering even average abilities. Like mine. It’s eminently drivable, and fast enough to provide thrills on the track often missing from other, more expensive track-focussed cars. I think that’s one of the major reasons why Lotus aficionados – and there is an army of them out there – so revere the brand.
Yes, there’s the brand’s long and storied history adding to the appeal. But there is a charm to the company’s philosophy in how it engineers its cars that’s hard not to admire. ‘For the drivers’ is Lotus’ current slogan. The Lotus Elise Cup 250 may be imperfect in small measures, but on this day, on this track it is the perfect accompaniment.