There are views – supported by countless motoring press articles worldwide - that the Lotus Elise and Exige family are the best handling sports cars in the world. Some even going so far as to compare them to the handling of a Ferrari. A bold statement, but I could possibly be starting to agree.
The Elise R model, which was released in 2007, is essentially the re-badged re-optioned Elise 111R, and although much hasn't changed, it's apparent it has been on a refinement trip at Lotus HQ.
The 'Turnip farmers' (as Jeremy Clarkson lovingly refers to Lotus) of Hethel, Norfolk, have gone so far as making items such as air-con and other modern luxuries as standard for the Australian models for the first time.
So let's get stuck in and see the results of this refinement.
The first thing you notice compared to previous Elise models is that Lotus has really tried to fit the interior out with some nicer materials. Perhaps this is to broaden the appeal of the Elise to the buyer who would happily use their car for both track and day-to-day driving, and create some distance from Westfield or Caterham and other purely track day cars.
This particular Elise (under review) is fitted with the optional Touring Plus Pack which adds sound-deadening panelling and roof lining, leather seats and highlights, embroidered carpets, auxiliary front driving lamps and an up-rated flashy Alpine stereo with iPOD connectivity. (Not that you'll hear much in the way of your favourite Britney Spears MP3s with the roof off.)
It also comes with the optional Sports Pack which adds, for the first time, the switchable Lotus Traction Control System via an electronically-controlled limited slip differential. It also comes with Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs, twin oil coolers (specifically an addition for the Australian climate) and some rather sexy looking 18" seven-spoke ultra-lightweight forged alloy wheels in Black - borrowed from the range topping Exige S.
Weight has gone up a little from the old model a little more so when the optional Touring Plus pack is fitted, but with a power-to-weight ratio packing 164 kW/t, the little Elise R is still a featherweight that can punch with the big boys. In fact, when compared to a member of the Porsche family with simular performance, the Porsche 911 S (997), the power advantage of the 911 is only 10 kW/t. Overall weight is a whole different story: 860kg for the little Elise versus 1,820kg for the Porsche.
Lotus has invested real money in seat design of late, using an external consultancy company to design the new 'Pro-bax' seats. Compared to the hard alcantara pews in the older Elise, they are a dream to sit in.
Other practical additions to the Elise's interior include a stowage net just behind the rear seats (handy for maps and CDs), a drinks' holder just in front of the gear lever and some trinket tray dividers to stop items sliding around on the dashboard during tight corning antics.
Everything inside the snug cockpit looks and feels like it was designed for lightweight strength – from the well-formed leather bucket seats, to the extruded aluminium pedals, and even the passenger footrest (which has holes cut into it to save that little bit of extra weight). It almost makes you feel guilty for eating that big lunch.
The review car, in 'Polar Blue' paintwork, shows off the delicious and unique curves of the modern Elise. At the front, forward of the driver, there are large gaping apertures to channel air through the radiator and oil cooling system (while reducing drag). The large side air intakes allow cool air into the air-intake of the mid-mounted Toyota engine. Vents on top of the engine bay also help keep things cool.
The body work is a lightweight glass-fibre composite. The roof is a manually removable affair that easily unclips, rolls up and can then be placed into its own zip-up bag that fits in the boot. I found the roof fitment and take off procedure - after going through the motions a few times – easy to come to grips with.
Ah... the boot: not the greatest selling point of the Elise. Good for smaller bags (it will take a few) but not best suited for larger bags. (Take the sensible car if you're heading to the golf club.)
Under the skin
The engine, nudged up tight behind your back, is a Toyota-sourced 1.8 VVTL-I.
VVTL-I you say? That would be Variable Valve Timing and Lift. The extra lift cam that kicks in at 6100rpm feels similar to a small turbo (that’s the best way I can describe it). To keep it on the boil and use the 141kW to its full potential, keep those gear changes between 6000rpm and 7500rpm. Do that and you can hit 0-100 km/h in an impressive 5.2 seconds. Also, when you are above 6000rpm, the un-interesting exhaust note changes to a rising metallic shriek (it seems to jump 20db), and sounds something like one of the old six-cylinder M3s on full chat.
With slightly less power, the lesser Elise S model is also available. This features the same engine but without some of the more clever-dick technology – like the high-cam lift. This lowers the power output to 100kW but still delivers impressive performance of 0-100 km/h in 6.1 seconds. It is a lot cheaper to buy at $69,990.
As an option, the Elise R under review is fitted with the limited slip differential for improved traction. It's an ideal addition for low speed, high acceleration driving – like on tight twisty roads or, depending on where you get your kicks, around your local multi-storey car park.
Under the skin is the clever design of the Lotus Elise's chassis which was the first car ever to use an extruded and bonded aluminium chassis in mainstream production. This is glued and pressed together and, amazingly, is as strong as a normal welded chassis, but even better at coping with twisting and flexing forces.
On the road
We took this latest model from the 'Turnip farmers of Norfolk' out through Sydney and onto the roads of the Royal National Park to Wollongong in the South.
Through the city, the first thing you notice is just how much attention the Lotus grabs over your more common BMW, Mercedes or other Bavarian prestige car.
The suspension is certainty firm but supple enough not to have you running back to the dealer with your chiropractor bills! The firmness is a sure sign of good things to come (for when we hit the winding National Park roads).
The only negative at this point is the un-interesting exhaust note. The standard exhaust on the Elise has always had a reputation of being a tad 'bland' - and this one is the same. There's no sports car howl or rumble present... no wonder the first thing on most Lotus owner's options list is a Lotus Sport exhaust or a set of aftermarket pipes (like a Larini exhaust).
Travelling along the motorway in sixth is surprisingly comfortable - the sixth gear ratio of 0.815:1 equates to 3500rpm at 110kph. Once we hit the National Park, the twists and turns of the roads show what this car is really about, and what the time and effort of the engineers and the countless years of racing have produced.
The six-speed manual gearbox with a short accurate action is so precise you would swear the cogs were directly under the gearstick itself. This is definite track day material. There is also no power steering – meaning no power-assisted servos getting between you and the feedback through the wheel from the road. Positive and negative camber corners can be taken at speed with confidence and with ease.
The setup of the Elise R's weight distribution is 40 percent front and 60 percent rear, the front tyres being 195 versus the rears of 225. With this setup the car naturally understeers when taken to the limit. It was chosen by Lotus’ chassis engineers to set the car in this way to allow less-experienced drivers recover more easily from the limit. (Rather than the beginner's panic-stations situation of an over-steering car.) In this setup it encourages you to push harder exploring the limits of its corning ability. When people say 'this thing corners like its on rails', I absolutely agree.
So we know this car is an absolute hoot to drive near the limit, but what about its everyday driveability? Fuel consumption? The Elise R delivers a combined cycle of 8.8 l/100km. Let's compare that to our previous example, the Porsche 911 S (977), which returns a rating of 17.9, that's near as dammit to 10l/100km difference.
Price, safety and options
The additions of everyday items we take for granted in other cars such as air-con, full leather interior, fully fitted carpets, ABS and traction control are all now included in the Elise R, albeit most of them as options.
Safety updates to the Elise now include LED rear lights, dual airbags, both for driver and passenger and side-impact protection bars.
The options list for the Elise R is pretty substantial: there is the 'Touring Pack' ($8000) which adds a leather interior, embroidered carpet, noise-insulated roof and panelling, auxiliary front driving lamps, and Alpine CD/MP3 stereo which includes an iPOD connector.
The 'Sports Pack' ($7000) includes the Lotus switchable traction control system, stiffer sports suspension (front 12%, rear 8%) featuring Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs, twin oil coolers and lightweight seven-spoke forged alloy wheels in your choice of Hi-power Silver or Black.
The last option pack is the 'Super Sports Pack' ($POA) for the serious track-day enthusiast. This includes fully adjustable suspension, adjustable front auto-roll bar, strengthening to the rear suspension for continued hard track use and front and rear wider street-legal Yokohama competition tyres (as found on the Lotus Exige and Exige S).
The last ticks you could put on this very long list is the torque-sensing Limited Slip Differential (LSD) ($2275) and a body coloured hard-top roof ($4500).
With the little added refinements now fitted, comfort levels still do not match the likes of the naturally comparable Porsche Boxster S, but certainly make the Elise a more comfortable car to live with on a day-to-day basis. But a Lotus cannot be 'soft'. Would the Elise still be the road and track weapon that Colin Chapman envisaged if Lotus did put comfort ahead of performance?
Chapman would be proud that the Elise R has still remained true to his essential design philosophy as a raw-edged, lightweight sports car. Driving back into the city, I am happy in the thought that Lotus has produced a car capable as a daily driver but still an absolute hoot when you demand more from it.
For that spirited Sunday drive or that track session you’ve promised yourself, it is still one of the world’s best sports cars sensible levels of money can buy.
Mark’s Big Statement
“I feel that if Lotus’ founder Colin Chapman was still with us today, he would be proud to see what the Elise has evolved to in the present day; the Elise R has remained true to its key design brief as a raw lightweight sports car experience.”
Spec as tested: Elise Touring Plus Pack, Elise Sport Pack, Lotus Traction Control, LSD, Metallic Paint option.
Base Price: $94,990
Price as tested: $120,000
Best road & track car bang for your buck, Lotus Road handling and dynamics
Un-interesting Exhaust note, a little more power.
|Engine:||Mid-mounted 1.8 litre 2ZZ-GE engine exploiting a Variable Valve Timing & Lift Intelligent (VVTL-i) system|
|Output:||Max Power 141 KW at 7800 rpm |
Max Torque 181 Nm at 6800 rpm
|Performance:||0-100 km/h 5.2 seconds |
0-160 km/h 13.2 seconds
Max Speed 241 km/h (150 mph)
|Transmission/Drive:||6-speed, close ratio, constant mesh helical gears and open differential.|
|Consumption:||Combined Fuel consumption 8.8 /100 km |
CO² emissions 208 g/km
|Brakes: Front:||Cross-drilled brake discs|
|Brakes: Rear:||Cross-drilled brake discs|
|Wheels:||7-spoke ultra lightweight forged alloy wheels|
|Suspension:||Fully independent suspension utilising unequal length wishbones. Bilstein mono-tube dampers with coaxial Eibach coil springs. Front anti-roll bar.|
|Price:||RRP Elise R (excluding dealer delivery and statutory government charges ) $94,990|