For CarBuyer’s youngest writer, driving the new Lotus Elise was more like a like a chance reunion with a long-ago flame – and the love has grown no dimmer
Photos: Jonathan Lim & Jaden Low
I’ve not been in this profession all that long, but to say that I’ve been presented with some incredible opportunities and experiences would be quite the understatement.
I’ll forever be thankful for the chance to travel overseas, and to be around some pretty unobtanium cars, but one of my most endearing memories of this industry didn’t come courtesy of a manufacturer, but rather from the grace of my extremely kind ex-boss (thanks, Joel!), who entrusted me the keys to his 2008 Lotus Elise for a day.
The year was 2015, I was merely a wet-behind-the-ears intern, and though I’ve always loved high performance driving, I’d never really had an opportunity to pilot what you might call a proper “drivers’ car”. Driving that Series 2 Elise was a revelation, for I’d never before experienced a machine that felt so alive, so overflowing with information and feedback and sensations. I was smitten before I even exited the carpark.
Fast forward to 2020 where I’m sitting inside the latest Elise, the Sport 220, and I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of deja vu – everything in here looks the same as what I remember, down to the lack of features (air-con, radio – that’s about it). What gives?
That’s because the Series 3, which is what the new car is, is more accurately an updated S2. Apart from larger air intakes, a larger rear diffuser and different head and taillight arrangements, the main body structure and interior is almost exactly carried over. Heck, the basic chassis isn’t far removed from the S1 Elise’s.
If anything proves the validity of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” though, it’s probably the S3 Elise, because it continues to be the purest distillation of what driving is truly about.
We start with the controls – seats, pedals, tiny steering wheel, all perfectly aligned; seating position comfortable despite the steering column’s non-adjustability. To the left, the highlight of the sparse cabin: a tall, ball-topped gearlever, just a hand’s span away from the steering wheel.
Now that Ferrari and Lambo have gone two pedal-only, Lotus is the last remaining bastion of the ASMR euphoria that is a solid clack-clack gearshift.
The exposed shift linkages of the six-speed gearbox are a thing of industrial and mechanical beauty in the way they look, and a tactile beauty in the way they operate. The gates are tightly spaced and crisply defined, there’s no slop in the movement, and the whole contraption feels so robust, it’s like the entire shift mechanism was hewn from a solid billet of aluminium. A SAR-21’s bolt is less satisfying to rack than this.
Next, the engine. The Elise Sport 220 is powered by a supercharged 1.8-litre “2ZR-FE” Toyota engine with 220hp and 250Nm of torque, a significant upgrade from the naturally-aspirated 136hp units of early S3s and the S2 I drove. Bang the shifts home as hard as you dare and you could potentially see 100km/h flash up in just 4.6 seconds.
Disappointingly, there isn’t much supercharger whine (in fact the whole aural experience is a bit flat), but you do feel its physical effects, possessing a tractability and sense of swelling, deep-chested surge that make the Elise’s engine feel bigger than it actually is.
Driving the S2, I didn’t think the car needed more power, so I was expecting to find the Sport 220’s extra 84 horses intimidating. Happily that is not so, as the weighty throttle pedal makes the Elise’s reserves easy to modulate, and the linear power delivery never threatens to overwhelm its dynamic balance.
Intimidating too are the Elise’s hardcore looks and diminutive size (you sit below the door handles of even the smallest crossovers), but it’s actually really undemanding to drive. The clutch has some heft to it, but the biting point is well defined; the steering, though power unassisted, can be turned even if your arms are toothpick-sized, and the comfort – oh the comfort.
The Elise’s sports seats look as thick and cosseting as a cardboard sheet, but they’re supremely comfortable, with excellent lumbar support. And the suspension is so keyed into the road surface, it always compresses and damps precisely right amount, without any secondary movement to the body.
Even over manhole covers, humps, or MRT construction zones that look like the surface of the moon, the Elise never allows your head to be bobbled, nor your spine to be jolted or thumped by impacts underfoot. Driving the Elise up to, in, and around Malaysia really wouldn’t be much hardship.
As we mentioned when we reviewed the Alpine A110, we can thank the Elise’s light weight for that (just 924kg, 170kg less than the already-lithe Alpine), as lower mass makes tight body control possible with a softer overall setup.
In addition to comfort, such supple suspension that flows with every dip and bump in the road makes for roadholding that’s lizard-like in its surefootedness. Grip is practically unbreakable in the dry, and you’re never, ever left waiting for the car to catch up to your inputs. You set the intensity, the pace of going down the road, and however ferocious your appetite for corners, you can be damn well sure the Elise’s is bigger. This is the golden standard by which all suspension setups should aspire to.
Phenomenal as the suspension is though, the star of the Elise-shaped package is its steering: so direct and communicative, you wouldn’t get more feedback if you ran your hands along the tarmac directly.
It writhes gently within your hands at every undulation, and while cornering, weighs up almost telepathically clearly to let you know when the front tyres have reached their limit. If you push more, it quickly goes light to let you know you’ve overstepped the mark, but never in a way that disrupts the overall balance.
It’s so sensitive, it allows you to make constant micro-adjustments, so you’re only ever subtly nudging, caressing the car through the corner, no manhandling required. Physical feedback like this is what reminds you that you’re piloting an actual machine, a homogeny of thousands of parts working together in harmony, rather than the anonymous appliance that new cars increasingly feel like.
The Elise is unique among new cars in that it has no true rivals. The Alpine comes closest in spirit, but it’s still something of a midpoint between the Elise and Porsche 718 pair.
The French car takes the hard work out of driving fast. A little bit softer, a bit higher, a bit roly-er, cajoling you into taking things just a notch easier. The Elise meanwhile, is more hunkered down, its responses more synaptic; not as friendly but not punishing either. You sweat for it more, but that just makes the results more electrifying. To use a clichéd reference, the Alpine is like a sashimi chef’s knife, sharp and controllable, but the Elise’s millimetric scalpel-like precision is on a different level altogether.
The Elise experience is an unfiltered one; driving in its purest form. Perhaps even more so than karts because those are uncomfortable, you can’t concentrate solely on the interaction between your hands, feet, bum, tyres, and road, without worrying about the pain on your body.
Sure, the issue of daily ease-of-use will never swing in the Elise’s favour, but then again, it can bring you to higher highs. In that regard, the Alpine makes for a far less inconvenient daily, the Elise a more thrilling toy.
And for me? Well before this test drive, I wasn’t sure if the Elise would live up to memory. But relationship experts all say that the second date is the most important because you get to know each other better, and if this second fling with the Elise has shown anything, it’s that everyone should experience a blooming Lotus at least once in their life.
Lotus Elise Sport 220
|Engine||1,798cc, inline 4, supercharged|
|Power||220hp at 6800rpm|
|Torque||250Nm at 4600rpm|
|VES Band/Fuel Efficiency||C2 / 7.7 L/100km|
|Price||S$210,000 without COE|