As the Lotus Elise celebrates its 25th birthday, we pitch the original Series 1 against the latest Cup 250 version and see how the iconic, lightweight sports car has evolved
A quarter of a century is a long time in the world of motoring, the past 25 years seeing more technological developments with a switch towards electrification. Just ask Lotus – it knows exactly how far the industry has moved on, given that it’s working furtively on development of its 1,973bhp, £2million-plus all-electric hypercar, the Evija. And – shock horror – an SUV.
But the manufacturer owes all that it is now to a car that’s celebrating its 25th birthday in 2020, a model that saved the British brand’s finances when it was close to extinction: the Elise.
Lotus has arguably – and successfully – navigated more troubled waters recently when it comes to its financial health and its custodians, but in the mid-nineties it still wasn’t exactly flush, so the arrival of a small, lightweight two-seat roadster that stayed true to founder Colin Chapman’s principles was just what the brand needed.
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Look back through history and there are high watermarks in the automotive industry where the right product came at the right time for the brands that built them, and the Elise is most definitely on that list.
Since its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1995, the Elise has aged incredibly well. As the early Series 1 car we’re using for this feature skulks into the car park at Lotus’s Hethel HQ in Norfolk, fresh from its MoT that morning, the Lotus Racing Green Elise still looks like a UFO today.
Elise Series 1
|Model:||Lotus Elise Series 1|
|Price:||£18,950 in 1996 (c£36k today)|
It’s so small, even by Elise standards, and looks so perfectly formed and neatly proportioned that, from 10 paces away, it’s almost as if you could reach out and pick the Lotus up.
The Matchbox-car dimensions are reinforced when I try to fold myself through the tiny aperture between the canvas roof and the high, wide sill that’s a result of the car’s clever aluminium construction.
It’s not the most elegant manoeuvre (the car was originally destined to be an open-sided roadster you’d step into like the Elise-based 340R, but it was decided to add doors further down the development road), but once I’m ensconced in the Elise’s cosy cabin the driving position feels right instantly.
You sit ever so slightly reclined on a minimally padded seat millimetres higher than the chassis itself, your legs outstretched to the pedals and your arms resting with a gentle flex in them gripping the delightfully simple, narrow-diameter steering wheel. With the facia devoid of buttons – cruise control was reserved for high-end luxury saloons back in the mid-nineties, while the only form of in-car entertainment is an old-school head unit slotted into the dashboard – this is something that links it to the other car we’ve assembled to show how the Elise has developed, a current Cup 250 model.
Sports cars are often known for their ergonomic compromises, and while there are some in the original Elise, they’re minor, and compared with the competition in 1995, Lotus got the basics right and the rest fell into place.
The chassis is at the root of the car’s brilliance. In the early to mid-nineties aluminium was still a material reserved for aircraft; basically, few car manufacturers had worked out how to utilise the strength and lightweight properties of aluminium, until Lotus’s chief engineer, Richard Rackham, and the rest of his team developed a ‘tub’-type structure made of extruded sections of aluminium (a groundbreaking process in the automotive industry at the time) riveted and bonded together. Pick a car on sale today and there’s a high chance that it will feature some form of extruded aluminium component somewhere in its construction, that’s how revolutionary the Elise was not only for Lotus, but for the industry as a whole.
This approach meant the Series 1 Elise was light – early cars weighed around 725kg – and stiff, so the all-round double wishbone suspension had a superbly stable platform to work from.
Lightness is in Lotus’s DNA, but so too in its road cars is a supple suspension set-up. A lack of mass means its cars don’t have to be stiffly sprung but can be closely damped, and the original Elise is the perfect exponent of this philosophy. It only takes 50 yards behind the wheel to realise the genius behind the car’s set-up.
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Following Lotus’s director of attributes and product integrity, Gavan Kershaw, out of the gates and down Potash Lane where the Hethel factory is located, the bumpy, twisting, undulating roads are the perfect development ground for cars like the Elise, and 25 years after its debut, time hasn’t dulled how impressive it is. The delicacy in how it reacts to bumps and your inputs is simply wonderful. No new car on sale in 2020 responds like an original Elise – except maybe a modern-day Elise, that is.
We’re following a circuitous route Kershaw has plotted local to Hethel. In no more than 25 miles a mix of roads that put the focus on steering precision and feel, body control, stability and ride comfort on a blend of tarmac that tests primary and secondary ride, and cruising refinement (yes, really) highlights why Lotus cars drive so brilliantly. With tarmac like this on your doorstep, it’s no surprise the Elise suits British B-roads. The unassisted steering ripples with messages relayed back through the rack from those relatively skinny 185-section front tyres. It’s reassuring communication rather than unnerving movement.
The Elise turns into corners with hardly any exertion. The set-up means it takes relatively little steering effort to point the low, stubby nose towards an apex, it’s so keen to turn once the steering is just off centre. It doesn’t require a lot of muscle and it’s not a taxing car to drive when it comes to the physical inputs required, even without power assistance for the steering or the brakes.
The latter offer massive feel, too. Earlier Elises run the special Metal Matrix Composite (MMC) brake discs clamped by two-piston AP Racing calipers at the front. These discs are lighter than later cast iron rotors and offer superb feel, with a solid pedal under your right foot that’s backed up by great progression and good bite. It’s yet another weapon in the Series 1’s arsenal that allows you to tune the attitude of the Lotus and how you drive it.
With such a light front end given the mid-mounted engine’s location, trailing the brakes into a corner helps the front tyres bite, and if you can just get the car tucked in on the cusp of rotation, it’s a small side step of your right foot over to the throttle to jump on the accelerator early. You can do this because the Elise feels superbly planted on the tarmac, and with a modest power output you don’t have to worry too much about it sliding. These sensations are true no matter whether you’re driving on road, or on track.
In true Lotus fashion, the engine was sourced from elsewhere. The firm has form with this, using Coventry Climax, Renault and Ford-sourced motors in the past, so it stood to reason the Elise should do the same. Besides, using a mass-produced motor would help keep the complexity and the cost down, to £18,950 when it went on sale in 1996.
That engine is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder Rover K Series unit that produced 118bhp in this standard S1. Not a lot by modern standards, but the lack of weight meant a 0-60mph time of 5.8 seconds, so it’s far from slow. Today, it’s agricultural, but it connects you to the car and the driving experience. After the K Series has settled to a subdued idle, you feel gentle vibrations in your back.
With just over 10,000 miles on the clock this cared-for example is still keen to rev, though, snorting through its factory-official Janspeed sports exhaust to give it just a little more presence.
The vibrations and percussion through the bulkhead get more pronounced as the revs rise, and because this is now a classic car it feels like abuse to really hammer it, especially given the K Series’ known reliability foibles. But treated correctly and with some modern fixes it’s dependable enough, and when the Elise was new the motor didn’t weigh a lot given the power it produced.
While 165Nm of torque might sound modest, it’s plenty to fire the car out of a corner, and you can drive around using the engine’s punch, snicking up and down the five-speed gearbox, again, all thanks to that lack of mass.
Elise 250 Cup
|Model:||Lotus Elise Cup 250|
Fast forward 25 years and the sensations a contemporary Elise delivers are incredibly similar to the original model. That’s because the basic chassis remains unchanged, highlighting how Lotus hit the bullseye with it all those years ago.
The structure is still stiff enough, and while dimensions might have grown to the point where this most modern of Elises, the Cup 250, feels larger on the road, it owes everything to its grandfather.
The Cup 250 is a focused car. The price has risen to the point that, costing £49,595, it’s more than twice what the original Elise went on sale for (a base-spec Elise Sport 220, which is more the successor to the standard S1 still costs £41,695).
Still, this fastest, most hardcore Elise shows off just how far the model line has come over the past quarter of a century, but how much it’s retained, too.
The engine is a Toyota-sourced supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder, so the concept is similar to the Series 1. It’s just that with 245bhp and 250Nm of torque, while the weight has also increased to 932kg – still incredibly light by modern standards given that the Elise now benefits from safety kit such as ESC, ABS and creature comforts like air-con and electric windows – performance is bordering on supercar standards, with the 0-62mph sprint taking 3.9 seconds, rather than simply being just a quick sports car.
The Cup 250’s rather more senior nature compared with the S1 means its suspension is firmer, the track-focused tyres’ sidewalls are stiffer and the compound stickier. There’s more adhesion derived from clever aerodynamics to go with the increased mechanical grip from the set-up and wider rubber, while the engine is sharper and punchier than the S1’s K Series motor.
However, the car delivers the same addictive sensations as its ancestor, it’s only that you need to be travelling at what feels like much higher velocity to really get an appreciation for the Cup 250’s ability.
Of course, even at normal road speeds the steering is so pure. The brakes are actually a retrograde step in feel compared with the S1’s unassisted MMC set-up, but on stone cold roads in November, blanketed with a thin film of moisture and greasy leaves, the reassurance of having ABS in the Cup 250 is welcome.
Following Kershaw in his raucously loud Evora GT410 Sport through a section of his test route that really puts the car’s body control in the spotlight, over larger, rolling undulations that are also peppered with high-frequency bumps, the Cup 250 gets better the faster I travel and the harder I push it.
Its suspension damping and composure are sublime, to the point where with daylight between all four wheels and the tarmac over a crest, the car still lands with a plush feel and is never anything less than stable. In some respects it’s a more immediate car than the S1; the way it reacts to bumps and significantly less slop in its gear linkage – the wonderful exposed mechanism at the base of the six-speed manual box’s gearlever is an enticing window to the mechanicals that make the car what it is – are two big indicators.
But while this is clear, it’s the family resemblance that shines brightest. Over the same stretches of tortuous road that punish the chassis, despite the Cup 250’s slightly more highly strung nature, the two cars react in common.
As I relatively silkily and gracefully tackle the bumps, cambers and undulations in the most modern Lotus, I can see the emerald green nose of the S1 bobbing around in my door mirrors (a common part between the two cars, along with the beautifully engineered slab of aluminium for the door hinges), with just a few seconds’ delay before it reacts in unison to the road like the Cup.
Traction is great, but as the road straightens and smooths, the 250 easily exerts its performance advantage. The supercharged Toyota engine has incredible flexibility, so you don’t have to work the six-speed manual’s short throw too much, but downshifting with a blip of the throttle and whoop of the supercharger from behind your head, the performance takes a step forward.
It’s linear, but the thump is impressive, the engine cannoning into its rev limiter before I snatch another gear with a clack-clack from the exposed-pivot mechanism.
It’s a wonderfully immersive driving experience that’s (mostly) free from the adjustable modes that so many modern performance cars offer, and the Elise highlights that if you get the set-up right then there’s no need for these variable settings. It’s uncorrupted by technology, which is yet another thing that links these two cars, despite there being quarter of a century between them.
On the Lotus test track at Hethel the traits experienced on the road are amplified at higher speeds. It’s cold, there’s standing water and the Cup 250 is on lightly cut Yokohama Advan Sport A052 tyres, but there’s still plenty of grip and every tiny bit of weight transfer and shifting of balance is signalled to the driver, so it rarely feels like you’re remote from the Elise.
With softer suspension, plus narrower and less extreme front tyres, the Series 1 feels even clearer. It’s like your ears burst as you get into it and start driving, such is the extra layer of feedback you get at the less than flat-out speeds the conditions enforce on our track time.
In the wet, the ability to modulate those MMC brakes as a result of the feel they provide really is key. You know exactly when one of the front wheels is on the cusp of locking up, and it’s easy to just bleed away some pressure on the middle pedal to keep the flow smooth.
My takeaway is that even in 2020, so many years after the Elise arrived, the construction, the Lotus ethos and the experience the car provides are still relevant and still so addictive, and it doesn’t matter which incarnation of the model you’re driving.
Lotus has got grand plans for its future, and given the technology it has under development, and the models it’s targeting to broaden its future line-up, it’ll be fascinating to see where this iconic brand ends up in another 25 years – and with Chinese owners Geely bankrolling the future, the signs are positive.
Keen to try a lightweight sports car? Read about our Best track day cars here…
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