Driving a go-kart is something of an acquired taste. You sit on a dinner tray, a few inches off the ground. You get a steering wheel, an engine, four tiny tyres, rudimentary suspension and . . . that’s it. At speed, the forces of acceleration, de-acceleration and lateral G’s are unfiltered, and vicious. Nannies have been jailed for shaking babies less violently. But if you love to drive, a go-kart unleashes a flood of adrenalin-crazed endorphins that makes it hurt so good. After haring around in a go-kart, driving a ‘normal’ car feels like, um, nothing.
I’m sorry, did I say go-kart? I meant to say ‘Lotus Elise.’ Read the above paragraph again, substituting the word ‘Elise’ for ‘go-kart.’ The differences between the two are both obvious and unimportant: size, doors, roof, gearbox and top end. The similarities are startling. Ride height low enough to scare a limbo dancer. A tiny engine with a narrow but brutally effective power band. Steering and suspension so direct you wonder where the machine ends and your nervous system begins. Put it all together and you’ve got a road car that you can drive like a go-kart, using your entire body to aim the machine with zero-delay, laser-guided precision.
Cornering is its forte. One sharp corner in an Elise and you’re hooked. A serious speed merchant can exploit the Elise’s sublime, sweet-handling chassis and slide the car around a bend with one finger. Mere mortals can enjoy the car’s talents just as much by keeping everything smooth and steady. Fast in, fast out. Shake it all about. Get into a rhythm down your favourite road, and you’ll believe a man can fly. If you enjoy driving fast for the sheer bloody hell of it, the Elise is just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
There are only a few mechanical shortcomings that interfere with your pleasure. The engine note lacks charisma. A car this sensual deserves some kind of signature howl, to remind drivers and their audience that Major Fun is in the house. The brakes need more bite and feel; they’re effective rather than impressive. And the suspension crashes over potholes with so much force I checked the rear mirror for missing pieces. All that is nothing compared to the Elise’s feedback, poise and death grip on the tarmac. Even an MPV-driving school-run-Mommy could extract maximum pleasure from every one of the Elise’s 120 horses.
Wait! Don’t laugh. I know that’s less horsepower than an entry level Honda Accord. But the fibreglass Elise is a featherweight: only 750 kgs. Provided you don’t have a large lunch, the Lotus’ superb power-to-weight ratio means you can mix it with the big boys. The sprint from zero to sixty takes 5.8 seconds—less than half a second behind a Porsche Carrera. Besides, when your butt’s two feet off the ground, anything more than a walking pace feels fast. Sixty feels like 100. One hundred feels like . . . you’d be lucky, mate. The Elise tops out at 118. And very nice it is too.
Anyway, you get the point: the Lotus Elise is the finest road-legal driver’s car ever made. Now let’s look at the practical side . . .
There isn’t any. The Elise is a sports car from The Old School; the one with drafty classrooms, rock hard chairs and no AV equipment. In the relentless pursuit of weight reduction (and profit margins), Lotus has equipped the Elise with bugger all. There’s a decent heater . . . and that’s it. The radio is a small, fiddly thing that can’t compete with the engine at full chat or the wind at cruising speed. Carpets? Central locking? No chance. Boot space? What kind of handbag does the lady carry? Fuel or temperature gauges? We don’t need no stinking gauges! Where other manufacturers woo buyers with creature comforts and hi-tech toys, Lotus offers you a Zen rock garden and dares you to complain.
Purists wouldn’t. Why would they? But there’s no getting around the fact that the Elise is too damn small. In fact, unless you’re supple, there’s simply no getting into the Elise. Period. I’m serious. Anyone who can’t do the Yoga position known as ‘the bow’ should not attempt to post themselves into the four foot slot between the Elise’s roof and doorsill without their chiropractor’s number teed-up for speed dial. Middle-aged extraction is equally perilous and inelegant. You don’t sit in the thing as much as wear it.
There’s only one solution: put the roof in the boot and stand on the seats. Much has been written about the difficulty of convincing the Elise to go topless, and all of it’s wrong. Once you slip the canvas tabs off the end of the flying buttresses, removing the canvas and rubber and metal and mesh thingy is easy. Replacing it is the bitch. A teenager losing his virginity would have an easier time figuring out which bit goes where, and what you’re supposed to to do with it when its in place. But even that (the Elise’s roof) gets easier after a little practice—and a phone call or two to Lotus’ PR department.
By far greatest sacrifice demanded by the Elise’s design is the driver’s proximity to the pavement. It’s like sitting in the second row in a cinema. If there’s a car in front of you, there’s a LOT of car in front of you. A proper truck appears no less epic than Moby Dick. Combined with a cramped cabin, it’s enough to make you feel like a five-year-old. Die-hard drivers who suffer from even mild claustrophobia will not be well pleased.
The rest will. The Elise is a genuine classic that does both Lotus and its discerning (if rabid) owners proud. The car’s ergonomic limitations mean the Elise is really only viable daily transport for slim-line twenty or thirty somethings in a hurry. The rest of us can and should view the Elise as a weekend or track day toy. As such, it’s the best car money can buy. Despite the obvious styling cues—a pastiche of every supercar cliché ever made—the Lotus Elise is not a miniature Ferrari. Oh, no. It’s a lot better than that.