The Lotus Elise is the automotive equivalent of Marcel Breuer’s B40 tubular steel chair; technologically innovative, utterly pared down and, it has to be said, not exactly a paragon of ergonomic excellence. And yet each persists. Breuer’s chair is now entering its 84th year of production, while the Elise, seen here in freshly face-lifted, second generation form, was first introduced in 1996. In automotive terms, that’s approaching senior citizenship.
Like the chair, the Elise demands certain compromises of its user; the former on account of an aesthetic statement, the latter a dynamic one. There are comfier chairs; there are more comfortable cars. The tubular steel chair was created to synthesise new manufacturing technology with geometric form. The Lotus Elise, on the other hand, is built around a chassis and steering set-up that was designed to be the most responsive, accurate and entertaining available, short of a dedicated race car.
As a result, the Elise is one of the very best driver’s cars on the market. The unassisted steering keeps the car ultra-direct and sharp on the road, and the ultra-light aluminium chassis makes most of the relatively small 1.6 litre engine. Automotive minimalism is an all-embracing experience. The suspension is firm; potholes induce nerve-racking cracks that seem to echo around the cabin. Drive with gusto on rough country roads and there are so many squeaks, thumps, bangs and mechanical scamperings that it’s a little bit like a lock-in in a pet shop.
These discomforts reveal the chief caveat with the Elise; you need the roads. With some sprightly small cars there’s enough refinement to justify keeping them on the leash in the city for most of the time, with the occasional foray out into more interesting territories. With the Elise, the heavy steering and low, wide sills that are a struggle to get into make it a poor choice for the city dweller, and not really to be recommended for anyone who spends time on a motorway - this is not a relaxed cruiser. So unless the wide open roads of Spain, Scotland, Wales or countless other places where curves count more than speed, are on your doorstep, the Elise is probably not for you. Even more ideally, you’ll have ready access to a racetrack.
There are some practical upsides. That small Toyota engine offers brilliant fuel economy and emissions, with entirely adequate performance. The car is compact, tough and good looking and, above all, utterly true to the philosophy of functional lightness espoused by Lotus’s founder, Colin Chapman. However, the company is promising big things in the coming months, with industry suggestions that new models will be increasingly pitched at the luxury sports market, rather than the Spartan-minded enthusiasts who have carried the brand along to date. Whatever the outcome, we expect there to be a place for a lightweight sports machine in their line-up. It might be old, but the Elise still offers a benchmark to beat.