Dan Trent: Light is right in the Lotus Elise S1

24th April 2017
dan_trent_headshot.jpg Dan Trent

I've just been driving the latest Lotus Elise – the lighter, less fussy Sprint with its impressive sub-800kg kerb-weight. OK, this symbolic figure comes in its 'motorsport dry' state and you'd need to add a tank of fuel before you could actually drive it. But according to Lotus it's still the lightest car homologated for sale in Europe and marks a welcome return to the minimalist, no-nonsense thrills of the original 1996 Elise. 


I'm not allowed to say how it goes yet. But, in the way of these things, driving it had me looking back to when there was even less to the Elise. Like when it first came out and weighed just 726kg. You can put that down to both customers' desire for the trimmings Lotus left out first time round and also the increasing demands of safety legislation that's added ABS, airbags, stability control and their associated control systems. That it's only put on 70kg over two decades remains impressive though.

You can buy your new Elise in naturally-aspirated form with a 1.6-litre Toyota engine with a modest 134bhp or a supercharged 1.8 with a more serious 217bhp. To my mind, the 1.6 is more honest to the original Elise recipe and accordingly, my classifieds browsing has eschewed the temptations of the more powerful versions, the many modified cars and the ones that have had Honda engine transplants or superchargers added. Nope, I've tried to find the purest (or should that be purist?) of the pure – an early 118bhp car with the basic 1.8-litre K-Series engine.

I drove one like this belonging to a friend of mine and its simplicity was utterly beguiling. The bare aluminium of the exposed bonded tub, the purity of the styling, the combination of stiff foundations and compliant suspension, meaningful steering feel… you can probably tell I was a fan. 118bhp might not sound like much but with so little weight to shift the basic Elise S1 is plenty fast enough and the physical embodiment of Lotus engineering and philosophy. 


My chosen car is a silver 1998 example with showing just 18,000 miles on the odometer. Look at the interior too – there's absolutely nothing to it! For full fundamentalist Elise fan points it's even got the MMC (metal matrix composite) brake discs early cars came with. OK, so these were at the limit of weight-saving and anything more than the performance of the 118bhp base car would overwhelm them. But that's pure Lotus – identifying a component where saving weight has real benefits (small reductions in unsprung weight have a disproportionately positive impact on handling and ride of course) and then investing in lightweight materials pared back to the absolute minimum required of the job at hand. OK, so the supplier couldn't keep pace with demand and Lotus later switched to conventional discs. But it's just one example of the engineering mindset that went into the original Elise and why a no-frills original is so appealing to me.

£19,995 is a fair chunk of money and this car would be one to savour and keep original rather than thrash on the track at every given opportunity. That's seemingly on the money for an S1 Elise though, and certainly not a massive premium for what looks to be a very original example of the car in its purest form. One to treasure and save for sunny days it's also, I'd wager, a safe place to put your money given all this car represents. If light is right it's a philosophy worth taking to extremes! 

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