2018 Lotus Elise Sprint Review – Preview Drive
Paul Horrell’s 2018 Lotus Elise Sprint Review with specs, performance, ride and handling, safety, verdict and score.
In a nutshell: The Lotus Elise is as relevant now as it was in 1996. Other cars have gotten heavier and more refined. So has this – but only very, very slightly. It rewards its driver with pure and profound sensations. Don’t confuse minimalism with a lack of sophistication.
2018 Lotus Elise Sprint
PRICE from approx $80,000+ORC WARRANTY 3 years/unlimited km ENGINE 1.6L petrol or 1.8 supercharged petrol POWER 100kW at 6800rpm, 162kW at 6800rpm TORQUE 160Nm at 4400rpm 250Nm at 4600rpm TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual DRIVE rear-wheel drive DIMENSIONS 3824mm (L), 1719mm (W EXC MIRRORS), 1117mm (H) TURNING CIRCLE N/A TOWING WEIGHT 0kg KERB WEIGHT 830kg-904kg SEATS 2 SPARE No THIRST 6.3-7.5 L/100km combined cycle FUEL petrol
THE LOTUS ELISE was a revolution when it came out, combining a clever and strong aluminium structure with light glassfibre panels. These cradle a mass-produced engine that’s capable of amazing performance because of the car’s light weight. That lightness and the renowned talents of Lotus engineers also together bestow transcendent cornering and braking.
Since launch it’s had an engine change from the Rover K-series – remember Rover? – to a Toyota 1.6 (Elise Sport), or a Toyota 1.8 with Lotus’ own supercharger installation (Elise Sport 220 because 162kW is roughly 220 horsepower). It’s been given a restyled skin too. Almost everything else has remained constant.
For this year it’s on its fourth iteration of the body work, though this time it’s just a facelift and bum tuck. The new nose looks better integrated and has more neatly finished grilles. At the back we see single large lamp units with smaller inner counterparts.
Also new is a lovely exposed metal gear gate. The new body is lighter than the old by 9kg, but the main change this year are a pair of cars called Elise Sprint and Elise Sprint 220. They shave a further 26kg from their Sport counterparts, with lighter wheels, carbonfibre-shelled seats, some carbonfibre panels and a featherweight lithium ion 12V battery. The unblown Sprint is just 830kg, and the one with 162kW only 878kg fuelled and ready to go. That’s a very satisfactory power-to-weight ratio, resulting in an 0-100km/h time of 4.5 seconds.
What’s the interior like?
Basic. If you don’t find an elegance in its simplicity, walk away now. The Elise proudly bares its aluminium structure. The metal floor, cross-dash rail and sills aren’t some faux garnish like on a German luxury-sportster. They’re the actual car. The upper sills do wear a garnish to stop scratches and keep down noise, but you can have that in carbonfibre if you pay.
You sit low, snug in a little racing seat. Legs point straightahead, arms resting on a small grippy wheel. You’re low to the road and you address the car in a meaningful embrace. It all means business.
You won’t find buttons on the steering wheel or fancy electronic controls or menus. Each one knob or button does one thing, and there aren’t many things to do. A/C is an option, a stereo-bluetooth unit too. You do get lights, wipers, electric windows(!), plus sport and defeat modes for the stability system. That’s about yer lot.
Pride of place in the cabin now goes to that lovely exposed gearshift. It’s a thing of beauty, and a joy to use.
An accessory lightweight cupholder is available, and you can wedge a few little bits’n’bobs along the dash rail. The boot will fit a couple of bags, quite large ones as the volume is 112 litres, but they’ll need to be squashy because the opening is small and the shape awkward. It’s behind the engine and over the exhaust so they’ll get warmed.
What’s it like on the road?
Other cars can summon these sorts of forces, in accelerating, cornering or braking. Very very few can match the intimacy of driving the Elise.
The steering is peerless. The small wheel actually needs relatively big hand movements, because it’s unassisted. By its unpowered nakedness, it gives you secrets. You can read the road, and know what forces the tyres are developing. As the car starts to move into its default understeer, the wheel rim goes light. If the surface gets slippery or the nose goes light over a crest, the wheel tells your hands.
Sharp like a chef’s knife, the steering traces your line with pinpoint accuracy. It doesn’t much get bounced around by bumps either. A lift of the throttle will cancel the understeer, and then getting back on the power gives a clean exit because traction is abundant.
I also tried it on a track, as owners will. This section was on the track-biased tyre option, as opposed to the standard tyre I’d used on the road. It’s a Yokohama Advan 048 set, with the same rear dimensions as the road tyres, but wider front footprint. The result is clearly less understeer, as well as more grip overall. You feel the car working hard for you, and it’s always tidy. I drove with the ESP and traction system mostly in the ‘sport’ position. Turning it off doesn’t speed things up much. There’s no limited-slip differential, only an electronic system that brakes the inside rear wheel, so the Elise doesn’t want to do drifts. Drive neatly and enjoy the communication.
By the way, you can do this for hours. The Elise is so light that its appetite for tyres and brakes is extremely frugal.
On a track you want the 220 engine. On the road, the base motor might be fine. There’s a joy to be had from flogging it to the red-line. It’s almost a lost pleasure to be in a sports car without a turbocharger. Press the accelerator of the Elise, and you’ll be greeted with an exact and immediate response.
That said, it’s pretty feeble on mid-range pull. The peak power of 100kW is at 6600rpm and the limit comes very soon after at 7000rpm. So you have to be paying attention to be in the right gear all the time. The engine gets more urgent towards the red-line and acceleration isn’t at all bad: it covers 0-100km/h is 6.3 seconds, and by that time you are already in third gear. If you’re driving a road you know well, it’s satisfying to wring the very most out of this keen little engine and use the right gear for each bend. But if you don’t know about the next corner, you can sometimes find yourself lost for torque, a gear too high.
The supercharged car is a different thing. You can use the whole rpm range, and the surge towards the red-line is borderline violent, so you’re glad of the change-up warning lights. It takes 4.5 seconds to reach 100km/h. Thanks to generous torque at lower engine speeds, you can drive it in a gear higher than the unsupercharged car and still make a swift departure from any corner. And still none of the dim-witted lag of a turbo-engine. Touch the throttle and this Elise, too, wakes up immediately. Plus your ears are caressed by the 220’s rich baritone exhaust – the pipe and silencer are renewed for this year.
Other touchpoints live up to the engine and chassis. Thanks to the gear linkage’s confection of exposed levers and pivots, this year’s Elises have a delightful and emphatic mechanical handshake when you shift. The brakes also summon big forces with surgical precision.
You will be driving the Elise with the canvas roof stowed. It’s noisy with it on: a cacophony of intake boom and tyre noise. Those sounds escape when the roof is off. But it’s a turbulent cockpit. A Mazda MX-5 manages the flow of air past your head much more sweetly.
What about the safety features?
The accepted minimum, and not much else. The driver and passenger get frontal airbags. Traction control and ESP keep a rein on skids. That’s about the lot. There are no official crash-test results for the Elise. But they have had many very high-speed racing accidents. It’s clear they have a strong structure that can protect the driver in a hit into a barrier from any angle. The biggest potential weakness is the lowness, and the possibility of running under a truck deck.
Why would you buy one?
Because you want to get to the very essence of driving. To have the ability to be quick around a track, yet in a car that also feels sensationally vivid at road speeds. To feel part of one of the great motorsport heritages. To have a car you can tinker with, using proven mechanics. To do all this at a bargain price.