Charge your glasses and please be upstanding: the Lotus Elise is leaving the building. It’s the end of the road for one of the greatest sports cars ever.
Except… perhaps it isn’t. New Lotus managing director Matt Windle says he is open to selling the Elise tooling when production ends, which opens the possibility of it living on for years to come. And there’s a precedent, of course: Caterham Cars bought the rights to the Lotus Seven in 1973 and has manufactured its own much-loved Seven ever since.
Whatever happens, this will likely be the last Elise to wear a Lotus badge. After 25 years – since 1996, back when Damon Hill won the F1 World Championship and the Spice Girls released Wannabe – that feels like a big deal. How has it stayed so relevant for so long?
The Elise made its debut without clothes on. As former Lotus head of communications Patrick Peal recalls: “We decided to unveil the chassis first, complete with suspension, brakes and subframe. We wanted the world to fall in love with the Elise’s technology and the engineering, as well as with the actual car.”
This was the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show and the Elise was its main talking-point. Bonded aluminium construction, following the ‘Simplify, then add lightness’ mantra of Lotus founder Colin Chapman, helped towards a kerb weight of just 723kg – and endowed the car with brilliant handling. Rave reviews followed.
The intervening years saw the Elise evolve through three generations, spawning the hardcore Exige, skeletal 340R and upstart Vauxhall VX220 along the way. Yet it remains the benchmark for handling and sheer driving fun. One last drive to confirm can’t hurt, right?
There are actually two Final Editions: the Sport 240 (£45,500) and Cup 250 (£48,900). Mine is the softer option, with 240hp – up 20hp on the standard Elise Sport 220 – from a mid-mounted 1.8-litre engine.
Aside from a smattering of Final Edition stickers and a plaque, the most obvious upgrades are 10-spoke forged alloy wheels (each saves 0.5kg), a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a race car-style digital instrument cluster.
This particular Elise is also painted Azure Blue, one of the original launch colours from 1996. Other ‘heritage’ shades reintroduced for the Final Editions include Racing Green, as seen on the Frankfurt show stand.
Curvaceous, petite and pretty, the Elise is recognisably the same car launched a quarter of a century ago. Only its upswept rear diffuser, framing a squat oval tailpipe, proffers a hint of aggression.
Power has doubled since the 120hp S1 wowed the crowds, but weight has also crept up to 922kg. Thank bourgeois luxuries such as electric windows and carpets. It’s still some 200kg lighter than a basic Ford Fiesta, though, and more than a second quicker to 62mph than the original.
The stats, since you asked, are 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 147mph. However, the way the Lotus goes around corners is what matters most.
Brand new retro
The day dawns crisp and bright as I arrive in Stratford-upon-Avon for a final fling with the Elise. Job one is to remove and roll-up the roof – a simple, two-minute process – then stow it inside the small boot. The end result is more targa than a fully open roadster, but you’ll be glad of that fixed rear window when winter bites.
I hoist my hips over the wide sill and drop into the bucket seat. It feels snug, low-slung and emphatically special. The Alcantara-wrapped wheel is deliciously tactile, the exposed gear linkage a work of industrial art.
The view through the wraparound windscreen, over those voluptuous front wings, seems curiously retro – like a sports car designed decades before 1996. The DIN-sized Sony radio is pretty retro, too. Infotainment? Sorry Sir, the word hasn’t been invented yet.
Poised and precise
Within a few hundred yards, I remember why I love the Elise. Its unassisted steering feels instantly alive, its double wishbone suspension tip-toeing across the tarmac as only a lightweight car can.
Up your pace and it delivers a showcase in driving dynamics. It’s supple enough for British B-roads, hugely communicative and artfully balanced. With no limited-slip diff, there’s enough torque (181lb ft from 3,000rpm) to unstick the rear Yokohamas, while pressing the Sport button dials down the stability control for a degree of added slip. This isn’t a tyre-smoking hooligan, though; it’s far too poised and precise, even in racier Cup 250 spec, for that.
For me, the car’s modest footprint – shorter and narrower than a new Fiesta, too – is another real boon. On hedge-lined lanes, where a supercar driver would be anxiously clenching his buttocks, the little Lotus doesn’t pause for breath.
With its sublime chassis stealing the show, the supercharged four-cylinder Toyota engine inevitably feels like a supporting act. It’s linear and free-revving, then ferocious beyond 5,000rpm, but there’s not much aural excitement. Compared with the baritone roar of the Exige, it sounds a bit flat.
Still, your mind will be elsewhere: working the well-oiled gearshift – also from Toyota – and perfectly spaced pedals. The Elise isn’t a car you drive on auto-pilot, you’re in constant conversation with it. That limits its appeal as a daily-driver for many, particularly against more rounded rivals such as the Porsche 718 Boxster. But I’d gladly accept the challenge.
Ultimately, despite those carpets, the back-to-basics appeal of the Elise hasn’t changed. On roads crowded with obese SUVs and sterile EVs, it has arguably become more relevant. What a shame the Final Edition could be its curtain call. Here’s looking at you, Caterham…
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
0-62MPH: 4.5 seconds
TOP SPEED: 147mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 36.2mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 177g/km