Currently reading: First and last: tracing the evolution of the Lotus Elise
The 1996 Elise embodied everything that made us all fall in love with Lotus. A quarter of a century later, its time is up – but not for the usual reason of declining ability
Andrew Frankel Autocar
News
11 mins read
21 February 2021

How extraordinary is it that these two little sports cars, one pretty and delicate, the other more pugnacious and purposeful, span a third of the entire production history of Lotus Cars?

It’s extraordinary for me, because I remember the beginning so well: a secret road trip right at the start of 1996 (it might even have been the end of 1995) with a talented young chassis developer called Matt Becker (now chief engineer of vehicle attribute engineering at Aston Martin) and an amazing new Lotus.

It’s also extraordinary because if you look at Lotus 25 years before the Elise was born, you will find that its model range included the original Elan and Europa, which feel like ancient history. And 25 years before that, Lotus didn’t exist.

So there was only ever going to be one place to drive them: the Hethel test track on which both were developed, outside the factory in which both were built. But what, exactly, do we have here?

The blue Elise is one of the last: a run-out special called the Sport 240 Final Edition. These days there’s no such thing as an entry-level Elise, the normally aspirated 1.6-litre car having been discontinued in 2018. There are just two: the Sport 220, costing £41,496, and the track-day-oriented Cup 250 for £49,595.

That sounds a lot, considering the first Elise went on sale in 1996 for £18,950, but not when you consider the additional 100bhp of even the Sport 220 and the fact that £18,950 back then is roughly £37,000 today.

The Sport 240 is priced at £45,500 and production is limited only by the number of people who order one before the autumn, when, as we’ve already reported, the Elise and its Exige and Evora siblings will die to make way for a new sports car known today only as the Type 131.

As its name suggests, this latest and last Elise offers 240bhp from its supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota engine, which is essentially double that of the S1 Elise parked next to it, whose naturally aspirated Rover engine is just 2cc smaller. Of course, there were far more powerful K-series S1 and S2 Elises, but we wanted the bookends for this story, which meant a car that was early, standard and original, right down to its unique metal-matrix-composite (MMC) disc brakes (of which more in a minute).

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There are all sorts of options you can add on your Sport 240 to hoist its price northwards, but the standard proposition comprises not only that 23bhp hike from the Elise 220 but also ultra-light, forged, 10-spoke alloy wheels; a new TFT instrument display; and a new steering wheel.

There are, of course, Final Edition plaques scattered around and bespoke colours, but otherwise and in mechanical terms, the car is standard. Commensurate upgrades to the Exige are available too.

The S1 Elise now looks from another era. The shape conceived for it by Julian Thomson is more rounded, cleaner and has elements of the Ferrari Dino 246GT, whose owners include none other than, er, Julian Thomson. The S3 shape has a stack more presence and looks modern enough to be brand new, even though it differs little to the S2 shape that was launched 20 years ago. It’s what’s called timeless design. I can’t decide which I prefer because (to me, at least, and for entirely different reasons) both are gorgeous.

I drive the old car first. I’m not sure why; perhaps because it has been a couple of decades and I’m itching to find out whether the feel of the thing is as I remember it to be. Happily, the car is cosmetically excellent and mechanically perfect, so there’s no trying to second-guess what it might have felt like when new. Best of all (and save a sports exhaust that adds no power and slightly later Bilstein dampers in place of the original Koni set), it’s absolutely factory standard. Just as it was the day it first poked its prow out of this place in early 1998.

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It’s an easy car to fall into and comfortable once you’re there. The driving position and pedal arrangement are near perfect, too. But there are certain aspects to it that wouldn’t be acceptable today: it’s extremely difficult to depart on a wet day because the footwells are so slippery and not even the most seasoned professional could erect its roof in a rainstorm without ending up as wet as if they had just lain in the bath.

I’m itching to get out there, and so is the little Lotus. With those genius MMC brakes, which work on the principle of adherent rather than abrasive friction and therefore last almost forever, swapping material from pad to disc and back again, it weighs just 725kg, making it more than 20% lighter than the Sport 240. The K-series starts with that enthusiastic bark of old, the gearlever slots into place with the same old slightly imprecise action and we’re off.

At once it seems quick, crisp, eager and together. Even before we’re up to speed, the steering is writhing gently in my hands, flooding my fingers with information and my brain with the happiest of memories. The track is flooded too, but that appears to deter the Elise not at all.

It still feels quick enough, pleasant and purposeful performance spread across a surprisingly wide rev band. Lotuses have never been about straight-line speed anyway, their powertrains perpetually cast in supporting roles to their chassis, and this one is more than adequate. But that chassis… oh my goodness.

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It communicates with its own kind of hyper-reality. In terms of the way it feels, it offers ultra-high definition in an increasingly low-resolution world. You think and then it acts instantly, accurately and without question. It doesn’t really have a handling balance, because you can make it do anything you like: steady-state understeer, exquisite wheel-twitching neutrality or sideways as Mk2 Ford Escort on gravel: the choice is yours.

Rotten weather obviously helps you skid about in a not very powerful, mid-engined car without a limited-slip differential because the one thing that it doesn’t want to do is drift, but even here there are options. Nail the throttle and it will fruitlessly spin the power away, but coax it rather than goad it, feed it measured, gentle stabs of torque, and then you will see this old Elise at its acrobatic, balletic and brilliant best.

The Sport 240 is a more serious proposition. It feels far more solid and better put together (because it is) and wildly easier to live with. Indeed, this latter aspect may not be spoken about much, but it’s probably the area in which the Elise has evolved most over the years and is most responsible for its unusual longevity.

It’s fast, too, spinning its wheels, skipping over the puddles and instantly giving me far more to think about than the old car. But I love this powertrain. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I love the application of this powertrain in this car. It feels as appropriate to an early-21st-century Lotus as did the K-series to one from the late 20th century.

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And its behaviour? It still leaves the shots for you to call. Unlike its grandfather, this Elise has safety systems that I could leave on, but what would be the point of that? There’s steady, stabilising understeer in the quick stuff, as you would hope; but in the Sport 240, there’s the power to cancel it towards the apex. If there’s a downside, it’s that the back moves more rapidly in slower turns, requiring just a little more care and precision to collect. But this is minutiae, really: neither car felt for a moment like it might continue to rotate when instructed otherwise.

Interestingly, that’s one thing Elises did do in the early days, resulting in plenty of unplanned interactions with the scenery, and I suspect that’s why this car now sports those Bilstein dampers.

So which is the better driving machine (or, indeed, the better Lotus, because those are one and the same)? The older car is more surprising, just to see how capable it remains even after a quarter of a century. It feels more delicate and agile, too, and for that you can thank the 206kg difference in their kerb weights. But the Sport 240 is a wildly easier car with which to live, obviously offers a completely different level of performance and loses remarkably little in terms of the purity of feel that is the hallmark of all great Lotuses.

I could extemporise further on their relative merits, but I would only conclude what you already know: cars this far apart in age aren’t strictly comparable. The S1 would be the one I would take to the pub and the Sport 240 the one I would choose for any kind of decent journey. One more lap? In the wet, the S1; in the dry, the Sport 240. It’s that close.

What’s more important, at least to me, is that they still feel closely related – one a direct development of the other. For what this means is that the character of the Elise has survived from first to last.

This isn’t a given: other great names are very different propositions today compared with what they first were, not just in terms of capability but also, more importantly, character. You only have to look at the BMW M3 to know it. Lotus has done a fine job preserving so much of what made the Elise such a transformative product. Just be in no doubt that that will be a walk in the park compared with the job of preserving it for another, but increasingly electrified, generation.

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But that’s another conversation for another time. For now, I would just like to salute the Elise and all those who kept it so good for so long. Make no mistake: when someone writes the final history of Lotus, it will be up there with the original Elite and Elan among the truest icons of the brand.

How to buy a used Elise

You need to be careful when buying a used Elise, because so many have had hard lives but can look better than they are, due to their aluminium chassis and glassfibre bodies.

Most importantly, look for accident damage. Plenty have been crashed and repairs are expensive and difficult, which makes some inclined to bodge.

The early K-series Rover engines aren’t as strong as their Toyota replacements but are actually quite reliable if maintained properly. However, head gasket failure is common, so look for oil in the water, often signalled by an emulsion under the radiator cap.

It’s crucial to ensure that the suspension is straight, uncorroded and correct in spec. If not, it at best won’t drive as an Elise should.

So it’s worth it even more than usual to get the right car with a complete history of fastidious owners. It may cost more at the outset but, in the long run, these are likely to be the best-value Elises to own and the most fun to drive.

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The best Elises

There have been more than 50 Elises if you include track cars, race cars, special editions and relations such as the 340R, 2-Eleven and Vauxhall VX220 – and that’s before you add all the Exiges. Here’s our pick of the mainstream versions.

1996 S1, £18,000: The original and still a real bargain to this day. Just remember that only the very early cars had those MMC brakes, because the supplier was unable to meet the demand.

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1999 S1 111S, £22,000: Fitted with a more powerful (143bhp) version of the Rover K-series engine with variable valve timing and a close-ratio gearbox. A bit quicker but no less pure.

2005 S2 111R, £23,000: Among the first Elises to feature the super-strong Toyota engine, tuned to give 189bhp. Properly powerful with appropriately scintillating performance.

2010 S3 1.6, £24,000: The lightest and most affordable of the modern mainstream Elises and, for those who don’t need enormous straight-line pace, a really delightful choice.

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2018 S3 CUP 250, £39,000: The most hardcore and powerful of the mainstream Elises, designed to satisfy the track-day market and fitted with stiff suspension and aerodynamic addenda.

Will the Elise ever return?

The Elise will probably return one day. The problem with such a car from a business perspective is that it offers the worst of both worlds: low volumes and low profit margins. An even bigger problem is how you create an electric Elise that people will want to buy. Tesla tried it and it didn’t work out too well. But a few years from now, when Lotus is on a sound financial footing and its rivals are electric too, things might look very different. Almost all of the best Lotuses have been small, simple and light, and that’s a heritage Hethel forgets at its peril.

Elise memory - Steve Cropley

My most enjoyable Elise moments came in 2007, while I was campaigning my first of two S1s in sprints and hillclimbs. This accessible level of motorsport provides a great reason for father and son to spend a whole day together. We double-drove and at times were 0.1sec apart. It was just a stock 1.8, but it went well enough to be a challenge and reacted well to some handling mods. It was also completely reliable and comfy on journeys to and from tracks – a vital point. And we sold it for the £11,000 we paid.

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Elise memory - Matt Prior

I’m unsure which variant I was driving, but I recall that it was a light, warm evening and near the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire border. I had driven home from the office and gone for a good test drive. It was my first time in an Elise, and I had never felt steering so good, with so much accuracy and feel but so little unwanted feedback. I owned a Caterham, but this was different. There was also the astonishing ride: pliant yet brilliantly controlled. Suddenly I knew what everyone had been going on about.

Elise memory - Andrew Frankel

My best Elise moment doesn’t even involve me driving it. It was for one of those ride-along stories we do from time to time. This one must have been at the end of 1995 or the start of 1996 (we ran the story in the 10 January issue), when I met a young chassis developer called Matt Becker (now the car development boss at Aston Martin) and went for a ride in the little Lotus. Even from the passenger seat, I could tell this was the Lotus we had been waiting for: light and lithe, simple yet advanced. It felt like a game-changer – and for once I was right.

READ MORE

Lotus confirms new sports car, end of Elise, Exige and Evora in 2021 

Electric Lotus SUV due in 2022 with 750bhp, 360-mile range 

Lotus Elise and Exige bow out with uprated Final Editions

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