Have you changed much in 22 years? What was your mobile phone like in 1996? Was your TV 2cm thick yet large enough to block out the sun 22 years ago? Neither was mine.
In 1996, to crack a 0–100km/h time in 4.7 seconds required something like a Ferrari F355, while these days a practical and affordable Ford hatchback is a tenth faster.
Times have certainly changed, and from an engineering aspect, the motoring industry has undergone rapid change as well. Sure, not as quickly as the humble mobile phone or giant TVs, but when you consider the amount of economic goals, safety legislation, performance and efficiency requirements, and aesthetic trends that modern cars need to fulfil, when a piece of motoring engineering can stand the test of time for over 20 years, it’s worth celebrating.
Which brings us to the Lotus Elise. In 1996, Lotus announced its new sports car: a diminutive and lightweight roadster called the Elise. It was to be built on an aluminium platform that was literally glued together. Yes, glued together. No bolts, no welds, not even a cable tie, just glue. Here was a tiny 725kg sports car that could sprint to 100km/h in 5.8 seconds, embarrass even the most super of supercars through the twisty stuff, and it’s held together by the same stuff that failed to keep a two-dimensional version of Elle McPherson’s bikini-clad figure attached to the back of my school folder. Impossible.
Yet here we are 22 years later, and that same glued-together platform is the basis of Lotus’s current crop of performance cars, including our very own Elise Sport 220. But we’ll get to that newer car later.
Mark Williamson took delivery of his 1998 Series 1 Elise back in 2000. Since then, he has made a few minor yet popular modifications to exaggerate the Elise’s addictive characteristics, while still keeping the core characteristics that make this such an engaging car to drive.
Whereas many Series 1 Elises have experienced heart transplants – having newer Toyota or Honda engines replace the standard unit – Mark’s Elise is still powered by its original 88kW 1.8-litre K-series Rover engine. These engines have an, ah, interesting reputation for reliability. Although, both Mark and the guys at Lotus specialist, Simply Sports Cars, inform me that the only real engine issues occur when the engine receives unnecessary modifications, or unrealistic expectations of power are expected and extracted from the unit.
From a driving perspective, the K-series doesn’t feel as smooth or fluid as similar vintage twin-cam four pots from, say, Honda or Nissan, but in the Series 1 Elise, the K-series fills the car with an almost old-school charm. It certainly doesn’t provide a ‘throw you back in the seat and rearrange your internal organs’ style of power delivery – needing revs to really get the light Elise moving – but once it’s on the boil, its raspy top-end urge is hugely enjoyable.
If you’ve never driven an Elise, find a way to make it happen (legally, of course). Nothing feels like it. There’s just a visceral connectivity that comes with lightweight performance cars. And while a Mazda MX-5 or even the similar in layout Alfa Romeo 4C feel wonderful from the driver’s seat, the Elise provides an even more unique feel and experience.
There’s a weight to the way the Series 1 Elise steers, handles and brakes – all requiring effort and conviction to extract the best from the car. But there’s also a delicacy that’s required of these inputs. If you approach the controls with aggression, the car is quickly unbalanced and upset, but be patient and smooth and the little Elise rewards.
Two decades on and the similarities are obvious. Think AC/DC’s Back in Black compared to AC/DC’s Black Ice. Yes, there’s been change and the newer version is obvious, but the core DNA hasn’t changed. The Series 3 has an immense familiarity to the way it steers and drives, but it’s just more accurate, defined and tighter in the way it goes about its business. The newer car isn’t so much an improvement from a sheer driver-satisfaction point of view, but it’s clearly an evolution of the same overall philosophy.
But what has evolved? Well, the biggest change from the Series 1 has been the power plant. Driving the Series 3 is a 162kW supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota-sourced engine. With twice the power (and in some circumstances, possibly twice the reliability of the old Rover engine), the new engine doesn’t need to be as wrung out as the Series 1. But floor it to redline in the Series 3, and the extra muscle becomes immediately apparent.
Many traditionalists still love the hard-working Rover unit, but it’s impossible to ignore how much difference progress has made when it comes to what powers the Elise.
The other changes 20 years of development have seen are not necessarily improvements over the original car, but are necessities of either its extra pace or current safety legislation. While the Series 3 is a couple of hundred kilos heavier than the Series 1, considering that the Series 3 has that supercharged engine and six-speed gearbox, airbags, electronic traction control, beefed-up suspension, bigger and heavier brakes, fatter tyres, and a noticeably better build quality and fit and finish, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the newer Elise isn’t far heavier.
There are also the obvious changes to the overall appearance, although I’m not sure if they’re for the better. It may be nostalgia talking, but personally I prefer the diminutive and more friendly appearance of the Series 1. The Series 3 is a great-looking car and often mistaken for far more expensive metal, yet I can’t help but feel Lotus got it right the first time round. They are clearly siblings, but the Series 1’s bodywork just seems to shrink-wrap itself around that aluminium core with less fuss.
In 1998, nothing like the Elise existed. Anything that was as raw, incredibly focussed and such a pure driving machine was few and far between. Even now, the only other cars that really offer this level of stripped-out unapologetic race car for the road are generally also from Lotus.
The base philosophy of the Elise hasn’t changed in 20 years, but honestly, this is a good thing and it’s refreshing. Compared to other performance car nameplates that get bigger, faster, heavier, more tech laden, more luxurious, and with more derivatives, the Elise is still probably the truest sports car money can buy and extremely close to the design fundamentals of the Series 1. It’s a real testament to the original design.
Personally, I like Lotus’s old stuff just as much as its new stuff.
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