Simplify then add lightness

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The latest version of Lotus’s evergreen Elise takes the company’s motto to new extremes

The motoring world has made much of the unenviable task faced by Land Rover designers in defining the shape and specification of the car to replace the much loved Defender. When you’re dealing with an icon – for once the word is valid – almost anything you do is going to end up getting a kicking from someone. So spare a thought, too, for the team that, even as we speak, has gone to work on the no less daunting task of replacing the Lotus Elise. The car was always scheduled to arrive in 2020 – which turns out to be good news, because this means there’s enough time for the money and design direction mandated by Lotus’s new Chinese owner Geely to have an effect.

This is the same company that has turned Volvo, which had previously been owned by Ford and produced a range of engaging also-rans, into a company that produced state-of-the-art models fully competitive with the best in the class. Just because it’s been able to work wonders for a mid-sized manufacturer of SUVs, saloons and estates, there is no guarantee it will be able to do the same for the minuscule Norfolk concern. But if Geely has the sense to give Lotus and its charismatic boss Jean-Marc Gales their head, then the company founded by Colin Chapman all those years ago will have a brighter future than many thought possible.

I spoke to Gales quite recently, albeit before the Geely deal was announced, and he was refreshingly forthcoming on the subject of the new Elise. Don’t expect a revolution, he said, the new car will be conceptually very similar to the old, but made with the benefit of almost a quarter of a century’s progress. So it will still be ultra-light, still a mid-engined two-seater powered by both normally aspirated and forced induction engines, though the latter will likely be turbo- rather than supercharged. Gales told me his two top priorities for the car were lightness and handling in that order, which I found rather reassuring. But he accepted to broaden its appeal it would also have to be quieter, more comfortable, practical and more dignified to exit and enter.

PARING IT BACK

Lotus still has three years to get the new car right. And in part at least that’s why we have this car, the new Elise Sprint, which plugs the gap nicely. It’s good to see the Sprint name back in use on a Lotus; the last was an Elan that went out of production 44 years ago. And it’s appropriate, too, because the Sprint title doesn’t refer to any great hike in horsepower – indeed it’s available with either the standard 1.6-litre normally aspirated engine or its meaty supercharged 1.8-litre stablemate (the 220, pictured) – but a typically thorough and considered weight reduction programme.

Some changes are common to all Elises including a new front clamshell with larger apertures (and therefore less material) and a new rear transom with single rather than double rear light clusters. Combined with a rear diffuser now made from aluminium, these amount to a useful 9kg saving. An open-gate gearshift knocks off another kilo. But far bigger savings – 26kg in all – are available for those who take a deep breath and fork out £5000 for the Sprint specification.

This is made up from the fitment of forged alloy wheels (which save 5kg), a carbon-fibre roll bar and engine cover complete with a polycarbonate rear screen (6kg), carbon seats (6kg) and a lithium-ion battery (9kg). Such savings would be welcome in a two-tonne Mercedes S-class, but the Elise Sprint doesn’t even weigh one tonne. Lotus will tell you it actually weighs less than 800kg. And it does. Sort of.

Manufacturers with customers who regard mass as important have for years been doing their best to make their cars seem as light as possible on paper. This includes quoting a ‘dry’ weight for a car with no oil, water or petrol, let alone a driver. Ferrari did it and McLaren followed suit, though both now declare the basis on which their weights are calculated and also publish more traditional kerb weights. So when Lotus says the Elise weighs 798kg it means an Elise without so much as a drop of fluid in its windscreen washer bottle. Moreover, to get it under the 800kg mark it has deemed the roof to be a no-cost option, just so its 6kg mass doesn’t need to be included in the figure. Just think how light it would be if it had a no-cost option engine and gearbox too…

Personally I don’t think Lotus needs to indulge in such smoke and mirrors antics, particularly as all the wet bits in an Elise add up to so little that the car in a form you can actually drive still weighs only 830kg in Sprint configuration.

The car I tried had the standard 132bhp 1.6-litre Toyota engine and is therefore the lightest Lotus you have been able to buy in a very long time. Lotus has also taken the opportunity to allow the doors to open a little wider and, if you choose the optional carbon covers, drop the sills a touch so the not always simple business of getting in and out (particularly with the roof up) has been eased a touch. Once installed behind the wheel you’ll notice the car has a new instrument pack with much clearer, more attractive dials. And it is very welcome.

As has been the case for a long time with low-powered Elises, there is a right and a wrong way to go about driving it. With the Sprint, this trait is accentuated. Because it’s a Lotus with a promising new badge (and if you have access to a test track), there’s a temptation to hurl it around on lap one and discover there’s not that much grip, that it understeers too much and lacks both the power and limited-slip differential required to execute convincing slides at the exit. You need to adjust your focus, and accept that in these days when cars are getting ever more heavy and powerful, here is one that does precisely the reverse.

AGILITY AND GRIP

The good news is that if you drive the Elise Sprint the way it wants to be driven, you don’t even need to be on a track. The far better news is that when you do this, the car is simply fabulous. The secret is not to go lobbing it around, but treat it as the precision instrument it is. Here the pleasure comes not from power and slides, but feel and finesse. Because it is so light the Sprint needs just tiny 175-section front tyres, which provide a level of feel that makes almost all other sports car seem like you’re driving them wearing oven mitts. The brakes are phenomenal considering how tiny the contact patches of the front tyres are, but in fact it’s almost always better not to lose the speed in the first place but guide the car quickly into the apex, trusting the steering to warn you of any incipient loss of grip, and the agility of the chassis to address the issue instantly and without drama. For purists who are not concerned with lap times or even going particularly fast, but just want to relish how a properly engineered super-lightweight car can feel, the Sprint is superb.

But it could be better still. People will want to drive theirs on track, and however you drive it there is still too much understeer in corners both quick and slow. In the absence of other evidence to the contrary, the culprit is clear: with a car this light and packing so little power you absolutely do not need a 225-section rear tyre, especially when that’s fully five sections fatter than those up front. It affects the car’s on-the-limit balance and, when I said as much to Gales, he did not deny it. That said there is a ‘Cup’ specification Elise, too – and those looking to spend a significant proportion of their time on track should consider it seriously.

It’s interesting to check back in with the Elise in the autumn of its life, especially in its most pared-back form. And the truth is that, for a certain sort of person who just wants to experience driving in its purest form, it still stacks up. Of course you could buy an Ariel or a Caterham for similar money and these are wonderful cars too. But nothing since the original Elan has combined such keen responses with that small sliver of civility required to make it something more than purely a toy. It explains why the Elise has survived so long, why no one has made a convincing rival in that time and why it represents such a hideously hard act to follow. I wish them the best of luck with it.

FACTFILE

Lotus Elise Sprint

Price £37,300 Engine 1.6 litres, 4 cylinders Power[email protected] Torque 118lb [email protected] Weight 798kg (dry), 830kg (kerb) Power to weight 159bhp per tonne Transmission six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 0-60mph6.2sec Top speed 127mph Economy 44.8mpg CO2 149g/km