Lotus Elise wins best sports car of last 25 years
There are some big anniversaries in 2023. You might have heard. It’s 80 years since 617 Squadron RAF Bomber Command (aka the Dam Busters) went bowling in the Ruhr Valley; 75 years since the birth of our great NHS; and 50 years since Concorde, beautiful Concorde, made its first transatlantic crossing in the record-breaking time of 3 hours, 32 minutes. Seismic events, all three of them – but the one we’re drawing your attention to right now is our own milestone: 25 years of PH.
Back in 1998, we began as a site for enthusiasts to discuss the weird and wonderful of the automotive world, and the strangest of topics popped up on the forum – Bird’s custard, anyone? Today we’ve become by far the largest online motoring community in the UK, and the go-to shop to buy and sell premium and interesting motors. Hopefully, along the way, we’ve managed to entertain you a bit as well. You have certainly returned the favour.
To help mark the occasion, you’ll likely recall that we’ve invited you to head to the ballot box over the next five months to cast a vote on five categories: sports cars, hot hatches, saloons, track cars and supercars, before we announce an overall victor at our big, 25th-anniversary bash at Bicester Heritage on August 12.
Well, the first category has been decided. And after more than 10,000 votes, it wasn’t even close: the Series One Lotus Elise took the crown buy a country mile. In fact, it received nearly twice the votes of the second-placed car, which, in case you’re wondering, was the Porsche 997 Carrera. (You can peruse the top 12 here.) The 997 is a great car, no doubting that, but the Elise is something exceptional. It has a purity that goes far beyond what even a great 911 can offer. It’s also the perfect car to kick off PH25, because its production ran for 25 years and, give or take a year or two, ran in parallel with our first quarter century.
What makes the Elise so special? So much that it’s difficult to know where to begin, really. It’s had every superlative bestowed upon it from the moment the first car was delivered in 1996, and the story of its birth forms part of the Lotus legend: you know, ‘The car that saved Lotus,’ an’ all that. But, like any good story, there’s no harm in retelling it.
Back in 1994, Lotus was living on its wits. It was in another financial mess after a missed opportunity with its previous entry-level sports car, the M100 Elan that arrived in 1989. The M100 wasn’t a bad car. It was pretty, and Lotus is said to have spent an unprecedented £37m developing it. When it arrived, the press wrote great things about how it went down the road, too, but it never really caught the imagination of buyers and failed to do the numbers Lotus had hoped.
Partly, that was because it had an Isuzu engine and partly because it was wrong-wheel drive. But its biggest challenge came from outside the factory gates. In the same year that the Elan was launched, Mazda sprung the MX-5 on the world; a car that was arguably closer to Lotus’s ethos than the new Lotus. The MX-5 was a few-frills, lightweight, proper little rear-wheel-drive sports car, and the world went bonkers for it. Meanwhile, Lotus sold just 4,700 Elans between 1989 and 1995. To put that into context for you, between 1989 and 1997, Mazda sold 431,000 MX-5s.
So when work began on the Elan’s replacement, Lotus went back to the drawing board and took a gamble. Instead of delivering a usable, everyday sports car like the MX-5, it decided to go completely the other way; back to its roots with something that followed Chapman’s famous mantra of ‘Simplify, then add lightness’. It produced a pared-back car that was focused solely on the joy of driving. Lotus’s chief engineer, Richard Rackham, developed the Elise around a lightweight, extruded and bonded aluminium chassis with a fibreglass body on top, which kept the car’s overall weight down to just 725kg. That made it a featherweight, even in the mid-90s.
At the same time, the tub was stiff, which made it the perfect platform for the suspension to do its job, and the strong chassis also gave the Elise effective crash protection. This pioneering process had the added advantage of keeping production costs down, so by the time the Elise made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1995, it went on sale with a list price of just £18,995.
The fibreglass body was designed by Julian Thomson, whose love of the Ferrari Dino inspired the Series One’s shape. You can see the Dino’s influence clearly in the form of the front wings, the cooling ducts running from the doors into the rear wings, and the curved windscreen that wraps around the driver. Meanwhile, the name comes via another legendary car maker. At the time, Lotus was owned by Romano Artioli, who also owned Bugatti, and he famously used his two-year-old granddaughter, Elisa, as his inspiration to christen it. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of how the Elise was born.
The 1.8-litre K-Series engine was bought in from Rover, which at launch had just 120hp, That was fine, because thanks to the car’s low weight it would still do 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds – but the car we’ve got hold of, which was kindly loaned to us by PHer Mark Tickle, is the later 111S. The 111S came out in 1999 and added variable valve control on the inlet valves, to flatten out the torque curve for more low-end shove, but it also pushed peak power to 145hp. To make the most of the extra oomph, the 111S also came with a closer-ratio five-speed manual, wider rear tyres and cross-drilled discs.
The Elise isn’t a car for long, straight roads. It needs corners to shine, and that’s why we made the pilgrimage to North Wales, in the foothills of Snowdonia. The dramatic scenery is a bonus, but it’s these kinds of roads that the Elise was born for – tight and twisting, with cambers and contours that bring out the best from a chassis made by the company with the Midas touch when it comes to set-up. And the joy of the Elise is that you can have fun at sensible speeds; even at 50mph the fizz and vibrancy that the Elise elicits is palpable. You could be doing twice that speed in a hypercar and, because you still wouldn’t be touching the sides of its potential, the intensity isn’t even close.
These days hypercars can really only be enjoyed fully on track, whereas the Elise is a car you can take out at any time, whenever the mood takes you – and it’s a blast. The rewards of revving it out and leaning on its relatively low grip are where the fun of a car is for me. When you’re living at the upper reaches of the rev limiter and hearing the tyres squealing as the tread blocks begin to scrub across the road, that’s when you and a car become one.
The little K-Series sat right behind your ears isn’t outright fast by modern standards, but who cares. It may have just 145hp but it responds immediately; it’s always in the starting blocks, ready to surge forward the minute you touch the throttle. And it may not be a classic Lotus engine, like the little twin-cam, but with this 111S’s Janspeed exhaust (a factory option along with the rear spoiler extension) rasping out the back, paired with the throatiness of the intake system, is all-consuming and blissful.
Moreover, because the Elise has so little mass, it’s like a featherweight fighter in the bends as well. It’s up on its toes, all nimble and eager to dart this way and that, chomping at the bit to take on the challenges of any British B road. But while the noise is pretty intense – there really is no effort to deal with NVH here – it’s not brutalising you with a stiff ride. The suspension is supple, which allows the Elise to flow over bumps and soak up the peaks and troughs in the road with ease.
Then there’s the steering. Oh my God, the steering. Unassisted, of course, so it’s as pure as can be. There are no electric motors or hydraulics to absorb the little sensations transmitted through from the tyres, so you feel it all happening beneath you. Every little surface change is a sensory experience; a live stream of information telling you what type of Tarmac you’re on and how the forces are building up in the sidewalls, so you know when the front tyres are reaching their limits.
At that point, those forces bleed away in your palms, making you aware instinctively that the Elise is about to push. It’s just such a pleasure to go back to this kind of purity behind the wheel of a car. It’s the same story with the unassisted brakes. The firm press required to stop the thing takes you by surprise to start with – so used as we are to powerful servo assistance – but once you’ve adjusted the natural action, the ability to feel the wheels on the cusp of locking is yet another string to the car’s bow.
Truthfully, of course, it was a terrible day when we filmed our video, with mist and rain making the driving a challenge as much as capturing the footage. Yet, despite all that, it was a delight. A real pleasure to be driving a car that you voted for in your droves that didn’t disappoint in the slightest. It’s a fantastic car, and a worthy winner in the first PH25 category. I can only thank everyone who voted for it – and Mark for lending us the car, of course – for getting it so spot on. Here’s hoping we did the best sports car of the last 25 years justice.
SPECIFICATION | LOTUS ELISE 111S
Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinder, naturally aspirated
Transmission: five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 145 @ 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 128 @ 4,500rpm
Top speed: 132mph
On sale: 1999-2001
Price new: £26,590
Price now: £18,000-£35,000
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