Supercharged Elise delivers serious pace and spellbinding handling. For this money, no other roadster is as special to drive

What is it?

In its 16th year of production and still going strong, the Lotus Elise now richly deserves recognition as one of Britain’s all-time sporting greats. But its reputation hasn’t been delivered on exquisite handling alone; giant-killing performance has, for most of the car’s life, also been a big part of the mystique. And since the 2011 model year revision and the demise of Elise R and SC, it’s been a missing part.

But not now that Hethel’s released its new ‘S’ version of its junior two-seater. Using a Toyota 1.8-litre ‘2ZR-FE’ engine force-fed by a Magnuson supercharger, the new Elise S develops 217bhp at 6800rpm – the same maximum power figure as the fizzy old ‘SC’. But it also produces much more torque than the last fast Elise: 184lb ft at 4600rpm, up from 156lb ft at 5000rpm. And this from a car that still weighs plenty less than a tonne, even with fluids on board.

What’s it like?

The transformation of the basic ‘Series III’ Elise’s performance is pronounced. While the 1.6-litre car takes almost 19 seconds to get 100mph from a standing start, the Elise S does it in little more than 11 seconds. 62mph comes up in 4.6; and while that’s almost a second sooner than it does in Porsche’s more powerful, more expensive new Boxster, it’s also quicker than the ‘991’ 911 Carrera we road-tester earlier this year. Welcome back, David: you have been missed.

This latest Elise seems to want for nothing in terms of accelerative pace. We discovered as much in a first test of the car conducted at Lotus’ own circuit at Hethel. No road driving was possible, so observations about the car’s road ride will have to wait. But we can report that extra power and grip hasn’t blunted the Elise’s dynamic responses in the slightest.

That engine catches in undramatic fashion when you thumb the starter button. There’s a little supercharger whine when you flick the dainty right-hand pedal, but none of the evil crackle-and-pop audio fireworks that the old ‘SC’ supplied. So it’s perhaps a less characterful engine we’re dealing with this time around, and reaches a generous but much less frantic peak power output than the old car did, as it screamed away at 8000rpm.

Pin the accelerator from lower crank speeds, however, and you’ll soon appreciate the extra torque. The new engine not only hits its loftier torque peak 400rpm earlier than the old one, it also produces much more twist throughout the entirety of the usable rev range. Flat out at 3000rpm, for example – where the 1.6-litre Elise is producing 111lb ft and the old 1.8-litre SC 125lb ft – the new Elise S surfs forward on a swell of 166lb ft.

Which means that, in any of its first four gears, the car will tear out of corners and down straights with a ferocity that’s really only been known to Lotus’ Exige and 2-Eleven owners until now. Fully extend the car and you’ll be beyond 100mph, with the wind whistling just above and around your head, before there’s any noticeable let-up in your rate of acceleration. On the road or on a trackday, hot hatches and most sports coupes would be easy meat.

And still, even endowed with that speed, it’s not the impression of the Elise S’ outright performance that stays with you. Sixteen years after Artioli’s grand-daughter donated her name, it’s the same perfect poise with which this car glides around a corner that sets it apart.

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It’s that incredible, tender chassis balance; the wonderfully informative, totally uncorrupted steering; those serious levels of grip and body control to tap into when you’re carving a smooth, fast line; and most of all, the uncommon amicability and trustworthiness of the car’s responses, at and beyond the limit, that really distinguish it.

This is a mid-engined roadster to take unbelievable liberties with. Its lightness and simplicity allow it to take lap after lap of flat-out track pace without so much as overheating a brake disc – a rare quality at the more affordable end of the performance market. And when your appetite for speed and precision is satisfied, it’s a car you can chuck into a tight bend on a trailing throttle without a second thought of a spin; that will grip at its front wheels, and slip from its rears, with benign predictability. That last bit hasn’t always been such a convincing part of the Elise’s dynamic repertoire; it’s taken time to make the car so controllable on the limit, as anyone who’s ever run out of steering lock while correcting a skid in a ‘Series I’ Elise will confirm.

But, with this new Elise S, you’ll have no such problems. The car’s extra power and torque makes the rear-end as mobile, and the handling as three-dimensional, as you’d ever want it to be. But only if you want it to be.

Should I buy one?

Thirty-six thousand pounds sounds a lot to ask for any Elise – mostly because of this car’s lengthy history, and the fact that we all remember when you could buy one for twenty.

But by 2012 standards, it makes this car competitively priced next to the new Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4 28i and the Nissan 370Z Roadster. Now, as ever, Elise buyers have to accept a compromise on material quality, refinement and usability relative to those rivals. But no longer do they have to compromise one jot on performance – and certainly not on handling purity.

Lotus Elise S

Price: £36,200; 0-62mph: 4.6sec; Top speed: 145mph; Economy: 37.5mpg; CO2: 175g/km (combined); Kerb weight: 924kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1798cc, supercharged, petrol; Installation: Mid, transverse, RWD; Power: 217bhp at 6800rpm; Torque: 184lb ft at 4600rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual

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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.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Evo_ermine 3 May 2012

Re: Lotus Elise S

xopher78 wrote:
Why on earth didn't the Toyoburu project agree to use this Toyota engine, and not the asthmatic Suburu one?

The Boxer engine allows the CoG to be lower.
xopher78 3 May 2012

Re: Lotus Elise S

Why on earth didn't the Toyoburu project agree to use this Toyota engine, and not the asthmatic Suburu one?

TBC 3 May 2012

Re: Lotus Elise S

Why is it that people automatically assume that a specialist wants to market their products against main stream rivals. They only really make sense when offering a unique experience, something that main stream rarely, if ever, can achieve as they have to appeal to a broader market (to sell sufficient volumes). The Elise has survived because it offers something different,

Colin Chapman broke Lotus when he tried to move it upmarket. Dany Bahar will do the same if he continues with his 5-model plan.