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Lotus Elise

 

Most car manufacturers follow a fairly conservative approach when developing new models; they have focus groups and marketing departments to tell them what the modern motorist really wants, which in most cases seems to be airbags, greater space and the ability to survive 60 MPH head-on collisions (presumably because at some point they see themselves driving into another vehicle at such a speed.) The end result of this is, of course, a dramatic increase in vehicle mass. Cars such as the Volkswagen Golf have almost doubled in their kerb weight over the past twenty years.

 

There is another way, however. Forget the cupholders. Forget staying dry during a heavy burst of rain. Forget even the possibility of making a dignified exit from your vehicle after parking it in a public place. All of these piffling annoyances have been made irrelevant by the fact that you are sitting behind the wheel of one of the very few modern automotive icons – the Lotus Elise – which has earned its place on The List by being both the antithesis of the modern production car and the purest expression of modern performance automotive engineering.

 

Conceived in 1994 and eventually released in 1996, the Elise represented a return to Lotus’ roots of performance through light weight, following the demise of the talented but unprofitable front wheel drive Elan M100. It utilises the traditional Lotus glass fibre body, but instead of being hung over a steel backbone chassis, in the Elise it is attached to a bonded aluminium structure that weighs only 65 KGs. This, together with the lightweight K Series engine, enables a kerb weight that is around half of that of many modern sports cars, benefiting both efficiency and performance.

 

The interior resembles that of a race car; there are no extraneous switches or dials, and even the stereo seems a bit incongruous, like it was placed there as an afterthought when someone at Lotus suddenly realised, at the eleventh hour, that people may enjoy listening to music while they drive. Not that they can, though; at speed the engine, wind and tyre noise combine with innumerable rattles to create a cacophony that only the most powerful of stereos will be able to overcome.

 

You sit very low by modern standards, the narrow seats and the wide sills, which restrict entry, suggest that this is not a car for those whose eating habits veer towards the deep fried. Twist the key and the modest 1.8 litre K series engine barks into life unpromisingly (unless you have one of the high performance derivatives, or an aftermarket exhaust.) Wait for it to warm up, though, then gun it up to the rev limiter and you will be rewarded with rapid acceleration, even from the standard 118BHP car.

 

But it’s when you encounter a series of testing corners that the Elise comes alive, and you begin to understand the superlatives heaped on it over the years. There is a level of communication from the unassisted steering that is difficult to comprehend if you have been brought up on a diet of lardy saloons and hot hatches. On a modern high performance Audi, for example, you turn the wheel, there is a slight increase in weighting, then you’re heading towards the apex. You may feel changes in pitch and yaw, but this information will be coming to you through the motion of the car and your own sense of balance. The steering tells you about as much about what the vehicle is doing as a Playstation wheel does when you’re playing Grand Turismo.

 

In the Elise, on the contrary, the steering wheel communicates through minute changes in weighting and feel, exactly what is going on beneath the tyres’ contact patches, and it does this in such a detailed way that you never feel like you are fighting the car. Don’t think that it is completely benign, though; drive it beyond your own abilities and it won’t be long before you’re viewing a rapidly approaching hedge through the rear screen. Driving an Elise quickly requires you to be smooth with your inputs; mistakes that you could easily get away with in many cars will be punished harshly in the Lotus, especially in the wet.

 

But this is the key to the car’s success, and its position on The List; the Elise will always be the aficionado’s choice, its uncompromising handling and almost ascetic rejection of all luxuries ensuring that it will never fall into the hands of the proverbial hairdresser.





 
 

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