Do you, or should you have a Lotus in your life?
From an old Holden to a modern Lotus… should you focus on creature comforts or the joy of driving when choosing a car?
I learnt to drive in a HZ Holden, with a 5.0-litre V8. The sound, with its twin exhaust, was so intoxicating. I always knew I was going to enjoy driving, visualised from an early age whilst playing obsessively with my matchbox cars.
This first driving experience etched a pathway deep in my subconscious, ignited many times over as I’ve explored more and more driving experiences. Like many of you, I want to enjoy my driving.
Even so practical needs often dictate our car buying choices. It may be important to you to have arm chair comfort, whilst carrying the kids and their mates to the sporting match, with enough gadgetry to ensure you don’t get lost and can complete a teleconference before you get to the field. But is all this getting in the way of the driving experience?
Perhaps on another day we can debate what makes the perfect car, but right now I want to know; Would you consider a car that offered not much more than the joy of driving?
A few years back I decided life was too short to drive bad cars and I had to put my money where my mouth was. My objective was a pure, engaging and fun driving experience. The choice was clear.
Colin Chapman was long gone by the time the Lotus Elise was conceived in 1994, but the Elise recaptured the essence of his philosophy of “make simple, then add lightness” and was an instant success when first sold in 1996, rebirthing the company Colin had founded.
A transverse, mid-engined, rear wheel drive roadster, the first production release Elise (Series 1) had a 1.8 litre Rover power plant (K series) and weighed only 723kgs. The result was a light and nimble 121kW/kg. It achieved 0-60mph (0-100kph) in 5.5 seconds, proving also that you don’t need a big engine for great performance. Handling poise and tenacious grip though is what it would become most renowned for, and its unique styling made most impressionable boys (and girls) weak at the knees.
It was innovative too, with its extruded bonded aluminium chassis providing strength and stiffness and on which the suspension and fibreglass composite panels are attached. A recipe that still applies today to the current models, built in Hethal (UK), largely by hand.
Other variants of the Elise were released in the late ’90s, most with improved performance specs. Then, in 2000, Lotus released an aggressive, track focused, hardtop model called the Exige. Sharing the same chassis as the Elise, the interior was essentially the same, but the Exige got the Very High Performance Derivative (VHPD) of the K-series (providing an extra 53kW) and a host of other hard core modifications. Essentially a road registered race car.
Now you know a little about the history, let’s take a look at what’s in the current line-up:
Series 3 Elise and Exige models are much more refined than their predecessors, but that’s not to say they’ve gone soft. Lotus remains true to its core principles, continuing to offer a pure driving experience. Although production of the new Exige in 2012 heralded an uncharacteristic change for Lotus – still using the Elise platform, they puffed out the body work and widened the wheel base to fit a much larger power plant.
The ride in both is firm and taut. Around town you can get a bit of ‘tram tracking’, where bumps in the road redirect your steering. There’s no power steering, so parking will take a little muscle, especially in the heavier Exige. The sills are slightly lower, but you will still need to contort your body into a pretzel to get in. Once inside the cabin there’s not much to see. It’s as sparse as the original, yet purposeful and tactile. You should also expect a full aural experience when you drive one of these cars. The engine sits just a few inches behind your eardrum and its noise competes with creaks from the chassis, stones hitting the under-tray and the tyres scuffing the road surface.
Okay, let’s face it. You don’t buy a Lotus for the latest high-tech in-car bling, or for creature comforts. Nor do you buy them for taking the kids and their mates to the sporting match, unless you plan on making several trips.
And, well, I’m sure you can come up with a million reasons not to have one. So why would anyone buy one?
For all their flaws, all is forgiven as soon as you get out on the open, twisty roads. In fact, many on the list of cons are in fact pros, when you accept it’s all a part of the visceral experience.
Just imagine, sitting low to the ground, the world flashes past, even at low speed. Constant feedback through your arms, and your butt, engross your senses. You discover that the car responds to your every input. You look eagerly for the next corner because you can’t believe just how well planted it felt in the last. It’s as if you can feel every pebble on the surface, every change in the camber, every ounce of friction between the tyres and the road.
Lots of Lotus enthusiasts take their cars to the track to fully exploit this race pedigree handling and performance, but models sold today are also very easy to drive and very easy to live with day to day.
The base model is the Elise Sport 1.6 litre, with the ever reliable Toyota 1ZR-FE engine, as used in the Corolla. Modern day compliance is largely responsible for a weight increase, with this model now at 860kgs. Power output is 100kW and 160Nm. That’s 117.4kW/kg, taking 6.5 seconds for 0-100km. Yes, slower in a straight line than the original, but you don’t need high performance to enjoy this car. It’s not inconceivable to drive it every day to and from work, to pick up the milk on your way home (you won’t fit much more in it anyway), and then find an excuse every weekend to visit your aunt in the country. Priced from $74,990 there are cheaper sports cars, but none of them are as unique, or come close to the pure driving experience.
If you want more thrills there’s the Elise Sport 220, with a supercharged 2ZR-FE power plant, delivering an impressive 162.5kW and 250Nm. This may not sound like much, but at only a smidge over 900kg the power to weight ratio is 180kW/kg, propelling you 0-100 in 4.6 seconds. For all the same reasons, this too is a very easy car to live with day to day, with the advantage of additional, instantly available power. It takes the experience to whole new level, especially if you want to explore the limits as a race day hero. All this extra oomph costs an extra $10k over the base model.
Squeezing in a 3.5 litre 2GE-FE with a supercharger strapped to it, the current model Sport 350 delivers supercar performance of 258kW and 400Nm, 229kW/kg, and a blisteringly fast 0-100km of 3.8 seconds. But, just like previous models, the power output is only one component of an overall performance package.
You get a choice of driving mode (DRIVE, SPORT or RACE), with different default settings for the electronic wizardry. Handling and grip, already rivalled, is taken to the next level with the Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) system that learns the grip of each wheel to maintain traction in RACE mode. Excellent AP Racing brakes are standard and you’ll be very grateful for that if you’re brave enough to get to the top speed of 274kph. So is this a race car? Some would say so. It is a very serious, hard core, compromising and exciting performance vehicle. A bargain at a starting price of $134,500. Other cars of this calibre, such as Porsche, have much higher price tags. Can you use it as a daily commute? Yes of course. If you love it as much as I do.
So you don’t want to spend that sort of money on a new Lotus, but want the driving experience? Well it might surprise you to hear that you can acquire a second hand Elise with low kays and in great condition for between $40k and $50k. Lotus owners are usually enthusiasts, so you’ll be buying a well looked after future classic with good resale value. Best of all, your fridge will always have milk. You’ll find excuses to go to the supermarket often, via a long and windy route, just for the joy of driving.