Australian Caterham rival is fast and surprisingly comfortable

What is it?

This is the Elfin T5 roadster, a two-seat, light(ish) roadster. It’s Australia’s answer to the Caterham 7, Ariel Atom and Lotus 2-Eleven.

Don’t confuse the Elfin T5 with other Elfin models, the V8-powered MS8 Clubman and Streamliner. Elfin thought about bringing these to the UK a couple of years ago, when Walkinshaw Performance (which also owns Holden Special Vehicles) first took ownership of Elfin.

The other models remain on sale in Australia, but the Elfin T5 is meant to toe the British roadster line more closely; Elfin even hopes the T5 will find more sales in Britain than it finds in Australia.

In mechanical layout, certainly, the Elfin T5 is a lot like a traditional British roadster. Its chassis is a tubular steel spaceframe, the body is glass fibre, suspension is by double wishbones front and rear and the T5 is powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine (albeit turbocharged). It’s an Ecotec unit taken from the Pontiac Solstice/Opel GT, makes 260bhp and drives the rear wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox.

Unusually for this kind of car, however, the Elfin T5 has a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake and Elfin even claims that a bulky six-footer can get in and out with the hood up (and get comfortable inside).

There’s even hydraulic power steering. As well as meeting the trad roadster criteria, the Elfin T5 is intended to be a car that can be used pretty much daily.

What’s it like?

At 3409mm the Elfin T5 is around 300mm longer than a Caterham 7 and, at 1794mm, around 210mm wider and most of the extra dimensions are evident in the cabin, which is considerably roomier than a Caterham 7’s; there’s a even clutch foot rest. Fit and finish could be improved, but ours was a pre-production car – the interior’s quite pleasingly designed, but with more interior trim comes the obligation to screw it together adeptly.

It’s quick enough too. The Elfin T5 weighs around 750kg, depending on spec, which is heavy for a car of this type, but not in the overall scheme of things: around 345bhp per tonne is enough by most people’s standards.

So the Elfin T5 gets away from the line at quite a lick, and keeps on pulling. Its engine has a wide and strong powerband; it doesn’t make a great noise, but it’s refined enough.

The gearbox is adequate rather than outstanding, but that’s not unusual in this type of car either; it’s as good as a Lotus 2-Eleven’s.

And it handles. Owners can choose how their Elfin T5s are set up. Our test car was mostly road-biased, so there was a bit of roll and surprising compliance to the suspension. Body control’s still quite tight though and this seems an inherently well balanced and adjustable car. There’s no traction, stability control or ABS and, on a track, it responds quite well to being thrown around.

What’s not so great is the steering. The last Elfin we tried – an early MS8 before Walkinshaw had been properly involved in the development – steered with an alarmingly slow speed. If anything, the T5 moves things the other way. The assisted set-up turns in with alarming sharpness and the turning circle’s relatively tight too. It’s okay once you’ve turned in (at a little over two turns lock to lock it’s not dissimilar speed to a Caterham’s) but there’s little feedback and it’s overly abrupt on turn in.

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Should I buy one?

The Elfin T5 would certainly be an intriguing choice. The UK lightweight sports car market is very established, competitive and some might say saturated already, which will make life hard enough for the Elfin, so maybe it’s just as well it offers something that the others genuinely don’t: its ride is compliant and its interior is more habitable than most of the rest.

The Elfin T5 is not as sharp as anything that rolls out of Caterham or Ariel’s factories but maybe it doesn’t need to be: if I had one, there’d be times when it was cold and dark that I’d get into an Elfin but struggle to look at an Atom.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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Paul J 2 January 2009

Re: Elfin T5

It's as ugly as a trials car without the ground clearance.

touchwood 2 January 2009

Re: Elfin T5

It looks interesting, but it will all come down to price.

I still fancy a Caterham, but only really as a fine day vehicle. Lack of flexibilty in my joints due to age means I can't get in one with the hood up.

TegTypeR 2 January 2009

Re: Elfin T5

This car looks a lot more promising. The biggest issues with the MS8 was the looks, which are challenging to say the least. Where these sort of cars should look lithe and minimalist the MS8 looks bulky and contrived.

Now all the need to do is put the 5.7 in to this chassis.......