From £43,5008

New range-topping Elise gets what it needs to excel on a circuit

The Elise was probably Lotus’s last exceptionally good idea.

Since 1994, it has had some highly commendable follow-ups – the Lotus Evora, the Lotus Exige S, the 2-Eleven – but the Lotus Elise, a tiny opus of angular glassfibre and aluminium, was surely its most recent, most unadulterated and unarguable light-bulb moment.

Elise’s glassfibre body panels are mounted to an extruded aluminium platform, and are given all-round double wishbone suspension and a four-cylinder engine

That is reflected in the split of the manufacturer’s sales volume, in the public perception of the car (for most, it simply is Lotus in the way a Seven is Caterham) and in the model’s fundamentally unchanged nature in 20 years of production.

Some would argue that last point is a product of the firm’s permanently tight budget. Lotus, in turn, would remind us that the Elise has been altered significantly in that time.

Both, of course, are partly true. The Series 1, powered by a Rover K-series engine, was soufflé light and endearing to the point of cute.

The Series 2, reputedly the first Lotus to be designed on a computer, was part-funded on GM’s dollar to grow the necessary crash structures. It spawned a sister car – the well-regarded Vauxhall VX220 – and received Toyota engines for the first time.

This was also the first Elise to be sold in the US and the first to get a supercharged version. Which brings us neatly to the Series 3 and the subject of this road test: the Cup 250.

Advertisement
Back to top

Built to replace the Cup 220, the 250 is claimed by Lotus to be the fastest production Elise yet. The extra speed comes courtesy of a 26bhp gain, as well as a Lotus-appropriate tightening of the kerb weight belt.

The car generates real downforce and is reportedly four seconds quicker around the Hethel test track than the model it supersedes.

It’s also £45,600, making it the best part of £10k more expensive than the naturally aspirated entry-level Elise and a direct rival for everything from a Porsche 718 Boxster to a Caterham Seven 620S.

What car new buying red 335

DESIGN & STYLING

Lotus Elise Cup 250 rear

At its core, the Lotus Elise remains unaltered.

If the extruded and bonded aluminium chassis sounds old hat in a brave new world of mass-produced carbonfibre, think again.

Elise’s roof is neater-looking than a Caterham’s bedraggled hood, but in a downpour I’d rather have the Seven’s to struggle with

The car’s platform may be 20 years old, but the ingenuity, low weight and outright strength of its spine is beyond doubt. To it, the double wishbone suspension and mid-mounted transverse engine are bolted.

The identity of those components has changed over time. The Cup 250 – like the 220 before it – gets Bilstein gas dampers, Eibach coaxial coil springs and an adjustable anti-roll bar at the front.

That’s a familiar mix. Unfamiliar are new front wheels with 195-section tyres in place of the 175s used on the rest of the range (including the track-only Cup R).

It gets more serious Yokohama Advan A048 rubber, too. Behind them are AP twin-piston calipers on 288mm ventilated discs.

Pushing the body down onto the wheels is a bodykit derived from the Cup R and delivering the same 66kg of downforce at 100mph. The supplementary trim, which can be made from carbonfibre components if you choose, is the 250’s main point of visual differentiation from the normally elfin Elise.

A new front splitter and side sills broaden the stance, but it is the colossal spoiler and diffuser combination at the back that provide the real race-car gristle.

Providing the race-car shove is a new, higher-output version of the supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine still found aboard the Elise Sport 220.

It is based on the Toyota 2ZR-FE lump, with direct fuel injection and variable valve timing, but in Lotus’s hands it earns a charge-cooled Magnuson R900 compressor and bespoke software management.

The result, kitted out with a new supercharger pulley and high-flow fuel pump, has 243bhp at 7200rpm – a 26bhp gain over the 220 – although the same 184lb ft of torque arrives a little earlier, at 3500rpm.

To help it to a claimed 261bhp per tonne, the engineers have hoovered yet more mass from the Elise.

Notably, a lithium ion battery slashes 10kg, the carbonfibre seats 6kg and those forged alloy wheels an additional 1.5kg.

There’s also no hard-top roof to haul about the place (unless you’ve optioned it) and the Carbon Aero Pack cuts another 10kg for an unladen weight quoted at 921kg. Brimmed with fuel, the car tipped our scales at 930kg. 

INTERIOR

Lotus Elise Cup 250 interior

If the Cup’s exterior shows the marginal gain of a little expenditure, the Lotus Elise’s cabin has long reminded buyers that Lotus’s purse strings are drawn tighter than a hangman’s noose.

Bare bones, the interior is unchanged. So the sills are huge, the plastics questionable, the creaks inevitable and the build quality still not what you’d expect of a £45k car.

Bigger-boned drivers will recognise the brilliance of the Elise’s cabin. The seat is comfortable and unrestrictive and there’s plenty of leg room

Its likeable elements are consistent, too: the exposed, wilfully spartan tub, the low-slung seating position, the tiny steering wheel, the sensation that nothing is extraneous.

But after 20 years, the charm has worn thinner than ever. There’s still nowhere convenient to put anything (although an optional cupholder is coming) nor any real pleasure to be drawn from sitting in the car other than the visceral experience of going quickly.

The 250 does come with several advantages. First among them are the carbonfibre-backed seats, which are both an eyeful and adequately comfortable for buckets designed to keep you from spilling out into the neighbouring footwell.

The Alcantara trim, too, although underused – it’s on the pews and door cards – is predictably pleasant.

Less nice is the fabric roof’s continued capacity for stubbornness – whether taking it off or putting it on again – and its willingness to allow both water and excessive noise to leak into the cabin.

The jettisoning of the hard-top is understandable (the Elise is generally a more enjoyable thing when it’s open to the sky), but you do tend to miss the more permanent roof when faced with a sopping wet motorway.

Also rejected from the flagship model’s kit list is the stereo. That isn’t a colossal loss from the spec sheet for anyone au fait with Lotus’s soul-sapping faculty for picking up static like a Chinese radio satellite – but the fitment of something Bluetooth-furnished (as the optional ‘infotainment’ is reputed to be) would at least soften the Elise’s unflinching 20th century aura.

While the Cup 250 doesn’t come with a stereo and our test car wasn’t equipped with the optional infotainment, our Evora long-term test car has revealed what is possible once Lotus eventually accepts that a fully functioning multimedia system is an essential part of most buyers’ requirements for a motor car.

Its Alpine system is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it covers the basics well enough and lifts the perception of cabin-based friendliness by about eight rungs.

The Elise deserves to be cut a little slack, though. After all, rival companies such as Caterham and Ariel don’t concern themselves with Bluetooth or speaker placement.

However, if Lotus wants its roadster to flaunt a much higher degree of usability than the standard track day selection — and it does — then it’s necessary for the brand to take note of the seriousness with which Porsche regards all things touchscreen.

And if that bar seems set unfairly high, Lotus needs to seriously reconsider the sticker price that puts the Elise Cup 250 in direct competition with the all-new Porsche 718 Cayman.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.8-litre Lotus Elise Cup 250 engine

Toyota’s high-revving 2ZR-FE 1.8-litre engine is becoming at once an asset and a vulnerability for the Elise. It’s still a fine powerplant in many ways: characterful, dramatic and fast-revving, and none the worse on any of those fronts for being supercharged.

However, it is notably short on torque compared with the latest direct-injection, turbocharged engines. And what that means is, even with forced induction in the mix, you must work the motor hard to get this car, allegedly the fastest Elise yet made, to feel like it’s living up to its billing.

The beauty of having great brakes and a relatively low kerb weight is that they simply don’t fade

It may not come as a surprise that we failed to match Lotus’s official acceleration claim of 3.9sec to 60mph, but the margin by which we missed it does throw this car’s status as the shining performance starlet of Elise history into some doubt.

Our fastest one-way run was 4.6sec to 60mph – on a bone-dry surface, after plenty of practice, with oversight from the manufacturer and with very little wheelspin troubling the sticky 225-section A048 rear tyres.

That 100mph comes up in just under 12 seconds makes the Cup 250 quicker than the 718 Boxster and Alfa Romeo 4C by our numbers, but slower than a Zenos E10 S. And only over about the last 1500rpm of the rev range does the Cup 250 really feel any more urgent than other supercharged Elises we’ve tried – and then not by much.

Wringing out the four-cylinder motor for all its worth is absolutely no chore; quite the reverse, mostly.

The manual gearchange linkage continues to be somewhat limp and doesn’t deliver the most reassuring positivity when you rush through an upshift, but you can still swap cogs quickly and effectively enough.

And as long as you keep the engine spinning beyond 5500rpm, there’s just enough wind in the Elise’s sails to make it feel strong and purposeful. Let the crank speed drop much below that and your rate of acceleration can seem a bit gentle, so if in doubt, you plump for plenty of revs. And at those revs, the overlay of combustion crackle and distant supercharger whine is a distinctive aural highlight.

The braking performance is outstanding: from 70mph, it’ll come to rest in barely more than 40 metres, which even a Porsche 911 GT3 would struggle to match and a lightweight Caterham or Zenos, with no ABS to call upon, would improve upon only in a perfectly executed stop.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lotus Elise Cup 250 cornering

If you think that this talk of lap times, larger front tyres and Cup suspension has given the Cup 250 a different character from less aggressive Elise models, you’d be right.

For the most part, Elises are delicate cars to drive, with light, ultra-accurate and rarely corrupted steering and a ride that’s scarcely credible for a lightweight sports car. The Cup is prepared to sacrifice some of that for lap times.

With warmed tyres, there’s barely a hint of the Elise’s tail stepping out on the exit of the hairpin — rare indeed for a performance car

Part of that is due to the springs and dampers and adjustable anti-roll bar, no doubt, but we strongly suspect the Yokohama tyres and their new-found width at the front are equally responsible.

The basic Elise themes are still there: it’s light and feels it, and it’s agile, but on the road, part of what makes the Elise so Elisey has given way to heavier steering.

It’s still feelsome and accurate – perhaps even more so than usual – but it’s also heavy, almost fearsomely so at parking speeds, and it gets knocked around by lumps and cambers far more than in any other Elise.

The ride, too, is firmer, more brittle and more attacked by cambers on the kind of road that lesser Elises shimmy down with their wheels deftly and quickly nudging up into the wheel arches.

The Elise has road poise to spare, of course, and despite the hunkering down the chassis receives here, it’s still a vastly more habitable, mature car than the 4C. But it has been designed with the track in mind.

And it’s on track that it really comes alive. It generates terrific cornering forces, so the steering’s heft doesn’t disappear at speed. It remains heavy wherever you are.

But the balance is spot on, there’s less initial understeer than an Elise usually dishes out and the warnings it gives you that grip is about to run out are telegraphed supremely well.

The Cup 250 is all about the dry circuit, and we didn’t test it on the newly laid and reopened (and, at the moment, far too grippy) wet circuit at MIRA.

In the dry, though, you’re looking at a car with such prodigious track performance that it’s 0.2sec quicker around our own Dunlop handling circuit configuration than a Caterham Seven 620S - despite being at a big disadvantage to the Seven on power-to-weight ratio.

Yes, the S is the softer, more approachable version of the 620, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still a 610kg car that has 310bhp.

True, the Elise generates loads of lateral grip — 1.2g — but the real reason it’s so fast is that it’s quick to change direction, has bags of traction because of where the engine is and has an exceptional braking system.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lotus Elise Cup 250

The Lotus Elise has a reputation for being slightly pricier than its output, finish, size and sophistication arguably warrant and the Cup 250 hardly alters that view.

The £45,600 starting price includes VAT, but not other on-the-road costs – and if you want air-con, carpets, sound insulation and a stereo, plus the Carbon Aero Pack, you can immediately add £6250 to the cost.

You’ve bought the Cup, so you might as well go the whole hog. Have harnesses, a quick-release steering wheel and the rest of the track options

North of £50k makes the 718 Boxster S a genuine rival, as it does the 4C, BMW M2 and an entry-level Jaguar F-Type.

In a host of tangible ways, the 250 doesn’t measure up to this level of competition. Its tactile performance is the differentiating factor, but here the opposition is no less fierce: the Seven 620S and E10 R offer even more palpable speed for a lower initial outlay.

Neither rival has Lotus’s badge or its broad heritage, but both are similarly resistant to depreciation and light enough to make their efficiency more or less consistent with the combined 37.7mpg claimed for the Cup 250.

Track use dropped that to 15.4mpg, making it a little more thirsty than the 21.4mpg we recorded for the 620S this year. 

What car new buying red 335

VERDICT

4 star Lotus Elise Cup 250

In its 20th year, the Lotus Elise remains very special.

What it does seems simple, yet nothing does it better. It’s more usable than a Caterham but much purer and more involving than any volume sports car; it’s also executed with typical dynamic brilliance, and a material finish that, although imperfect, is still significantly better than the UK cottage and kit car industries can produce.

An enduring, brilliant sporting legend — but an increasingly expensive one

So while the Elise was the sweet spot for those wanting true sporting thrills without the usual compromises in 1996, by and large it still is – at a price.

What the Cup 250 symbolises is the pressure that has been felt by Lotus to develop the car over two decades and the yolk that the ageing Elise carries to support a company.

The idea of a version of this car priced so close to £50,000 should have set alarm bells ringing at Lotus – and it confirms to us that the heart and soul of the Elise’s appeal must remain an affordable price.

Is a £30k Elise Sport sufficiently affordable in 2016 – or a £36,500 Elise Sport 220? To us, it’s questionable.

As a result the Elise Cup 250 manages to outsprint the Zenos E10 R and the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider in our top five, but lags behind close rival the Caterham 620S and the prodigious Ariel Nomad Supercharged.

What car new buying red 335

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Lotus Elise Cup 250 First drives