Great Expectations

Is the Elise the car to bring Lotus back from the brink? Mark Hughes reports

Lotus. A company in financial peril, its continued existence the subject of heated speculation, its last major new model withdrawn from production after less than two years, the remainder of its output based on a 20-year-old design from the drawing board of its founding genius and impetus, now 14 years dead. Hardly the ideal backdrop to the launch of a new sports car.

Yet, from it all has emerged a car which encapsulates everything that has ever been great about Lotus, a car which takes the company back to its original principles of lightness, cutting edge technology and pure driving thrills. A car which doesn't merely honour the Lotus tradition, but actually advances it.

When you look at the Elise, don't think smaller, sharper MGF. Despite sharing a powerplant Rover's 1.8-litre version of the K-series and a mid-engine/two-seat layout, the cars could hardly be more different in character. Think instead modern Lotus 7 and you'll be getting closer. A kerb weight of just 690 kg tells you two essential truths: it's down-to-the-bone in concept and it's clever in execution (the comparable Renault Spider is over 200 kg heavier).

The heart of this package is a chassis constructed from extruded aluminium (squeezed out into shape like toothpaste from a tube) by Hydro Aluminium Structures, bonded together by a special epoxy resin. A steel subframe at the rear carries the mid, transversely-mounted K-series which is the conventional version, not the more powerful VVC (all of which are being used to feed the MGF VVC-hungry market). Extruded aluminium also features in details such as the suspension uprights onto which are bolted classic double wishbones all round. The ventilated brake discs are made from an aluminium/steel composite, a first for a road-going car and further pushing down the unsprung weight. Pedals and side intrusion bars in the doors are all fashioned from aluminium.

This is all clothed in a conventional glassfibre composite body, styled in-house by Julian Thomson. The front and rear body sections are removable, there's a soft-top which is fiddly to erect but which seals perfectly, and there's a removable perspex panel behind you which keeps buffeting to a minimum when in place. A hardtop option is due in a few months.

It's tiny in the flesh, with pert, pretty lines much more classical than the futuristic Renault Spider. Some of the detailing is perhaps a little over-fussy though, and it's not really until you step inside that its clarity of purpose becomes truly apparent. A bare aluminium floor emphasises the minimalist theme, a driver's seat which hugs the central transmission tunnel with a passenger seat fixed and set back tells you all you need to know about where the priorities lie. There's a simple heater but no radio.

The modern fuel-iniected Rover unit has somehow been made to sound like a bellowing, carburettor-hissing engine, adding to the flow of tactile sensations. It has only 118 bhp but a broad torque spread allied to the low weight and close gear ratios gives sub-6sec 0-60mph times and it never feels anything other than Caterham-quick as you sprint past traffic. The gearshift, though precise and with tiny movements, is not the best feature of the car thanks to some stiffness in the linkage and a clutch action that is not as quick as the shift.

Though it has little trouble accelerating if has even less stopping. The brakes are staggeringly effective. There's no ABS, just monster stopping power available well beyond any point at which you might be expecting the wheels to lock.

But even that's not the best bit. True to Lotus tradition, that comes as you hustle the car through the twists and turns. That's when you really revel in the fabulous feel and feedback of the non-assisted steering. Every contour of the road is relayed to your hands with a gentle, writhing sensation, every bit of cornering force gives a directly proportional change of load, though it's never heavy. And there's plenty of cornering force available. Unlike its over-tyred Renault Spider rival, which is all big grip and turn-in, its grip is well balanced against its power. Sufficiently so for you to get a feel for the balance of the chassis, which is one of mild oversteer. But forget visions of twitchy mid-engined responses: even though over 60 per cent of the weight is at the back, the overall lightness means that's still not very much so the slides never carry any real momentum. Furthermore, the traction is good enough to enable you to get back on the power and pull the car out of the slide, just as you would in a front-drive car.

Ride is fine once you're above 40 mph or so, but below that it's got a competition feel about it, its firmness accentuated by a harshness which suggests there's not much in the way of rubber bushings to interfere with the precision.

Which, of course, is exactly how it should be. This is the Lotus which has returned to the core values of the marque. The sort of car on which its great reputation was made, but brought right up to the minute. The sort of car which, hopefully, will be its future.