Alex Goy is a freelance motoring journalist who writes for the likes of Jalopnik, The Telegraph, Carfection, CNET, and DriveTribe.
The Lotus Elise is 24 years old. Old enough to drink in America, to have had a fairly decent career, to be married with kids, or to be deep into postgraduate studies. Over its lifespan it’s picked up a bunch of awards and found fans all over the world thanks to its mix of usability (you don’t have to slow for speed humps, for example), and entertaining handling, but after so long does it still stack up? To find out, a trip to somewhere a little different was in order: the Australian bush.
It’s unforgiving there. Hot, sticky, and covered in wildlife that needs swerving to avoid. Surely something a spry 24-year-old should have no trouble in dealing with.
The Elise of choice for the job is the 220 Sport, a 914kg, 220hp, featherweight. Its power comes from a 2.0-litre supercharged four pot mounted in the middle, and is fired to the rear wheels by a six-speed manual ‘box. It’s one of Louts’ entry level motors, not too hardcore, just potent enough to hit 62mph from rest in 4.2 seconds (if you’re super quick with the stick).
In theory, the old timer would be eaten by this place. Its roof folds away like a child’s tent, there are few mod cons, and getting in and out with the roof in place requires some mild gymnastics. The heat would cut through the cabin, melting the occupants, and its low stance would mean any lump or bump would supper a high speed escape from a dragon or whatever else lurks within the miles of trees.
Thing is, once you get used to clambering in and out of the thing it’s not the problem you think it might be. And, despite its thin-looking fabric roof, with the air con cranked to max the cabin stays as cool as you like. This means you can get on with the business of driving the thing.
Now, the Elise has some hardcore, more modern contemporaries. They come with big V6 motors, bigger angrier faces, and even bigger aero. In comparison it should feel like a toy, but it doesn’t. It excels BECAUSE it’s not aggressive. Where other cars in its class (and stable) can feel a little bumpy over the rough stuff, the Elise (benefitting from development on the nasty roads around Hethel) is far more composed. Ok, it’s not perfect – you’ll feel bigger lumps, and hear them – but it’s far more liveable. This is a good thing, because the roads in rural 'Straya are not great. Occasionally they’re baby’s arse smooth, sure, but considering they’re tree lined it’s no surprise that roots get all up under the asphalt and wreak havoc.
As well as being all lumpy, the roads are also impossibly slow. Australia dislikes speed the same way an infant dislikes green things. Any attempt at breaching the limit will result in telling off from an angry cop and ticket. Hidden cameras, hidden cars... the lot. So it’s not worth even thinking about speeding. This is, again, not a problem for the Elise. Because it’s not packing enough power to light up a continent, you can actually enjoy the grunt before meeting the limit. Throttle response is keen, and if you listen super carefully you’ll hear the supercharger let out a little, yet satisfying, whine. Stretch its legs and the whine gets deliciously louder with each slick shift (with exposed linkage - more of that sort of thing, please).
And while the roads can be bumpy, the Elise’s handling is perfectly suited for their undulations. The way it flows from corner to corner is simply magic. The steering is wonderfully weighted – at speed it’s not too heavy or too light. You get a bit of a workout at low speeds, but on the hoof it’s as though you’re a part of the machine. Eye an apex, turn in, glide over, power on, and repeat until you run out of corners. Or fuel. Which’ll take some time because the car’s so freaking light it doesn’t use much.
Now, in the case of road debris (or seeing a roadkill kangaroo too late) being a sports car might scupper the little Lotus that could. Except that’s nowhere near as low as you think it is, so you don’t have to worry about most inclines/hefty last moment roadkill.
So far it’s Lotus: lots, Australia: nil. But it’s not all smiles and light. Unlike most ageing entities, its still small and lithe, which means there’s naff all room inside. A misjudged gearshift can see you lovingly caressing your passenger’s knee, for example. If you want to pack anything more than a small weekend bag you’ll have to leave your passenger at home, doubly so if you want to stow the roof in the back. This means that if you get stuck in the bush for whatever reason you may struggle...
But, over its 24 years the Elise has changed (slowly) for the better. It’s easier to get in and out of, the roof might be faff but it’s nowhere near as irksome as the original car. Its motor comes with more power, and its handling has been tuned to reward rather than bite. Its only real downside is the price: over £44,000 before you start piling toys on board.
All told, if a human remained quite as accomplished for 24 years on the bounce they’d be celebrated, and the Elise should be too. It’s almost 100% Aussie bush-friendly as well.