Road test: 2015 Lotus Elise S

Getting misty-eyed about the updated great British sports car.

The latest Lotus Elise S is more than 200kg heavier than its original incarnation, but has an upgraded interior. Courtesy Jack Hammond
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Before long, the sheer thrill of driving will be a distant memory. There are laws being formulated in Europe and the United States that will pave the way for autonomous driving, and while no one can put a date on it, you can pretty much guarantee that within the next 20 to 30 years, your role behind the wheel will gradually be eroded and replaced by microchips, radar and Wi-Fi.

It’s already happening. Safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, mechanical systems such as satellite-guided transmissions, and cars that speak to each other via radar are already on the roads – and the roll-out of new tech is the focus of the Frankfurt motor show, which concludes this week. Imagine a smartphone on wheels, and you’ve glimpsed into the future of motoring. Sort of.

If this scares the living daylights out of you, then rest easy. There’s still some time to spend behind the wheel of proper little sports cars bereft of the sorts of electronics that drain the joy and numb your skills.

The Elise S is precisely the sort of car that turns futurists pale. Launched in the mid-1990s, the first-generation Elise was a masterstroke in lightweight engineering. It was based around a bonded and riveted aluminium chassis tub that was extremely stiff and strong, and powered by a rev-hungry in-line four-­cylinder engine mounted three inches behind the driver’s right shoulder. Almost every other major component was made using sheet, cast and extruded aluminium – and the entire car was clothed in a curvy glass-­fibre body that was light and strong. It made just 120hp, but it didn’t matter, because the entire car weighed about 720 kilograms, so didn’t need a whopping great V8 to make it go fast.

The Elise S you see here is the latest model to join the line-up, and shares much of that original lightweight design and engineering. It shares the same chassis design, and the new shape is a result of a massive redesign in 2008 and a facelift in 2011 – but it’s still a glass-fibre body. It’s a far more appealing shape than the original, and remains a head-turner on the road.

At 924kg, the S is more than 200kg heavier than the first-generation Elise. To counter that, Lotus has fitted a 1.8L four-­cylinder engine that it sources from Toyota and force-feeds with a Magnuson supercharger. With 217hp and 250Nm on tap, the Elise S is a potent road and track weapon.

The door apertures are small, the sills are wide and the car sits extremely low, so getting in is tricky. Once you’ve mastered the routine of one leg in first, then your backside, head and other leg, the cockpit feels reasonably roomy. If you’ve never driven an Elise before, the sparse cabin and exposed aluminium will come as a shock, but for the Elise faithful, the modern car is brimming with luxury. There are carpets for a start; air-conditioning is ­standard on all GCC-spec cars; and the power windows, push-­button starter, USB port, 12-volt socket, water bottle and separate cup holder (fashioned from extruded aluminium and leather) are conveniences that make the Elise a far more usable car than ever before.

The engine note is distant and not overbearing, and the slick manual gearbox is short, direct and precise. Lotus has worked on the feel and throw of the shift, and has used low-friction cables to help make this better than in the past, and it has certainly worked. First gear is reasonably long, and second will see you through 100kph. Hook up a decent launch and a swift shift, and you should see 100kph in about 4.5 seconds, which is approximately the same as the snappy little Alfa Romeo 4C.

Where the Elise S really excels is in ride and handling. A lack of power steering means some heft is required to spin the tiller at low speeds, but the pay-off is tactile, precise and sensitive steering when it matters on the road. Nothing feels as good as an Elise does to steer, and nothing gives you the same sort of feedback from the front end. The chassis is well-balanced, and you’re able to carry far more speed through bends than you may imagine. The seats, which at first seem to lack enough thigh support, offer loads of lateral support when you’re pushing the car over twisty roads.

The Elise is clearly not the fastest car on the road, but the fact that you can drive it flat-out most of the time makes it one of the most engaging driver’s cars on the market today. You could drive a Porsche Cayman or Alfa 4C, or you could spend your cash on something with a V8 and the curb weight of a bus. But real drivers know that the Elise remains one of the best cars you can buy, and a true flag-bearer of British sports-car heritage.

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