The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
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Nicholas Frankl,
Senior Editor
European Bureau
The Auto Channel

It doesn’t happen very often these days that a new car creates such a storm of positive publicity from the normally lack lustre mass media, that all motoring hacks go into operation DRIVE. I.e. I must see what all the fuss is about. Well, that’s the situation I found myself in at the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier this month. On the phone to Norfolk (England) to see if the Lotus Press office had a new baby for me to borrow. Much to my amazement they did, and even better Alistair (the new PR boss) was happy for TACH Europe to have one to test in 10 days time. Please bear in mind that it normally takes anything from 2 weeks to 3 months to get even the most mundane of test vehicles. JOY to the world, even in the event of Damon not winning that weekend I knew I was going to smile for the next week or so with the thought of my up and coming adventure. The only "condition" being that of a factory visit and the related tube/train journey of 3hours+ to the middle of Her Majesties land, but a price I considered worthy of paying.

Lotus, as some of you may recall, enjoyed an incredible life under founder and guiding genius Colin Chapman. Created in the late fifties as an engineering company, Team Lotus went on to win 79 Grands Prix, and 7 constructors championships, taking the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi to the Drivers’ championships along the way. Chapman always at the leading edge of technology, some say ahead of it, eager to do not just what had never been done before, but what had never even been thought of before. It was ACBC who first bolted the rear suspension onto a stressed gearbox and although his cars became renowned for breaking (sometimes at the least opportune moments) Chapman changed the way Formula One went motor racing and indeed the whole world of motor sport. As far as he was concerned if the car didn’t break on the slowing down lap (and it frequently did), then it was over weight and over engineered. Some might cruelly suggest that he made his road cars with the same criteria, certainly they were light and fast the names Elan, Super 7 and Esprit have become part of car lingo culture.

The man may be gone and the racing team too, but Lotus, despite its own best efforts, is still making cars with character, panache and engineering brilliance, the way no other manufacturer has ever been able to emulate. The Esprit’s basic platform may be a bit long in the tooth, but now with the new V8 engine and over 350 bhp, the car has been reborn, (more of which I’ll be able to tell, when I’ve actually driven the thing, an event I’m told that will not be too far in the distance). But the main reason for all the fuss is not just that the British media are once again talking doom and gloom and the imminent closure of the company, wrong again I’m told! But because of their new baby that takes sports car design back from the overweight, 2 ton autobahn eating Goliath, and driving, back from the closeted, air conditioned, impact air bag friendly, crumple zone to good old fashioned FUN (remember that option)?

Yes, the Elise (named after Mr Artiolli’s grand daughter) is definitely driver friendly, very driver friendly in fact, so friendly and fun you’ll wish you’d met years ago and gone to the prom for a tango. We’re not talking any old prom queen here, this one weighs a mire 690 kg, ( incidentally that’s only 60kg more than a 4-man Bobsleigh) is powered by a 120bhp, 1.8 litre, 4 cylinder heart that will see the lady home at a top waltz of 126mph, dancing between 0 and 60 steps at 5.9 seconds and all the while flaunting a cheeky smile and almost nakedly curvaceous body. But vital statistics is not what this car is about, as with so many things in life, it’s not what you have under the bonnet but the way it’s used. Having toured the factory and seen the composite glass fibre VARI (vacuum-assisted resin injection) "clam shell" process that makes up the 6 body sections, that, and the bare aluminium chassis made by Hydro Aluminium in Denmark to Lotus design parameters. I began to get a rather special feeling about the whole place, my tour guide, James, had like many others around me been with the company since the early days, their belief in, and perseverance with the firm a testament to the power of the name and all it has stood for. After the tour came an unexpected surprise meeting with the boss. Mr Artiolli was in his office and keen to explain his side of the Lotus debacle that has seen the four main Directors marched off the premises in recent days. No, he assured me, the company was not going to be sold to the highest bidder and was about to be joined by a long term investing partner and yes the management were out to undermine and devalue the firm so as to attempt a management buyout at a later date, or so he alleged. Politics over, it was time to get testing, and to hear that my request to take the car out onto the hallowed terth (OK, tarmac) of the test track had been granted.

Out side the main doors sat a BRG (British racing green) Elise, the car appearing far more muscular than the press release pictures. The door, composite again, (but with an integrated side impact bar) slung open easily once I had pushed the button and pulled on the rubber pad affixed under the top edge of the air intake. The door does not open very wide, so this combined with the low roof, wide sill and very deep seating position makes a dignified entrance completely impossible, a bit like having Dumb and Dumber as guests of honour at your wedding if you like. Once you are in though, the feelings you get are of racing car dynamics, bare aluminium staring you in the face from the foot well up. The starkness of your surroundings only focuses more attention on what you do have. Two large white dials, a row of warning lights and a small LED display at the bottom of the rev counter all housed in one small binnacle. Any motor racing enthusiasts will immediately recognise the STACK logos, these dials are the car equivalent of a Rolex humming with electronic precision and jumping into life as you turn on the ignition, the orange needles beginning every trip at a perfect zero. Fire the little four-pot up and you realise this isn’t a supercar. Not in the V12 sense anyhow. The engine makes a raspish energetic buzz that tingles the senses but certainly doesn’t send shivers down your back. Mirrors and seat adjusted (manually of course), it’s time to hit the track. The barrier raised (like a border post entrance) I feel I’m entering the promised land (Peterson, Senna you name ‘em-they’ve all tested here) whoops time to stop dreaming as a V8 Esprit flies past and I gingerly make my first lap. Up to speed, this is not a difficult course, a long back straight with a cone chicane, to cut speed off and hopefully prevent impact with the brick wall that surrounds the perimeter, a sharpish long right hander a few gentle lefts and a roundabout that presents one with the best opportunity for turn-in understeer, mid-turn lift off and controllable oversteer. I.e. Having a bit of a go.

This car is quick. Not just in speed terms but in the way it reacts to driver inputs. Steering, braking and gearshifting all seem to conspire effortlessly to maximise your enjoyment, it’s a car you feel comfortable to go 90% in almost immediately and there’s none of that false sense of security nonsense here, a la 911’s of old and more recent 348’s, - if you do end up in the hedgerow it’ll be because you fluffed it, not the suspension designers. Initiation complete, it’s roof off and time to head south. The cloth cover and kevlar supports make for a pretty/functional roof, but don’t try assembling the various components if you value your nails. A wave to the security tower and I’m on the open road. Before my sprint to London, time first to stop by Ketteringham Hall, the real HQ of ACBC. No-one has ever built racing cars in such a fine setting, a country house set in hundreds of acres of gorgeous countryside, the outhouses constituting the various specialist machining/manufacturing facilities for the GT team. Photos, courtesy of Kodak’s latest digital DC50 camera, taken (as I hope you can see) under clear blue skies, and it’s back into the car for the run home.

Little did I suspect that what was to follow would rest in my memory in that special section not visited too often, namely, "Most Fab drives ever". Norfolk affords even the most lame duck of drivers a chance to really enjoy their respective machinery. The Lotus excels at being driven hard, fast and mean. There isn’t a red line on the rev counter and you don’t miss it. The engine winding up a lovely chorus to serenade you as traffic comes and goes, dispensed with supreme ease, the state of the art brakes combining with the Go-Kart dimensions allowing you to dive into and out of the smallest of gaps, almost unnoticed. This is the first car that I’ve driven that behaves in many ways like a 2-man Bobsleigh. What ? Has he gone mad? No, seriously the art to a fast descent in bob is to be as smooth as possible with the steering, not actually physically turning the runners but thinking it down the mountain. I found that after a series of fast open bends I had begun to do the same with Elise. Not reaching a turn and driving through it, but thinking ahead of it, reading the camber and allowing the car to follow its own path whilst all the time almost subconsciously making tiny adjustments to the small, perfectly weighted wheel. Given free reign such as this the Elise is a fantastically willing companion, talking all the while, telling you what’s going on both at the rear (driven end) and the front.

3 hours later I was at camp TACH. The European bureau anyhow. The car had run faultlessly, cruising on the motorway at a steady 90, occasionally nudging the limit of the engines powers, an indicated 126. The buffeting is not bad at all (with either the windows up or down), particularly considering you are absolutely aware of all your senses due to the lack of either a passenger to talk with or more importantly radio to listen to. Interestingly, traffic just doesn’t seem to be a problem, gaps open up and almost unwittingly you pounce into them, the car’s natural cheeky stance bringing smiles, not anger from fellow road users. Ignition off, I climb out of the aluminium tub that had proved a comfortable and immensely enjoyable home, and took a few steps back to admire the curves in the hazy street lights. Here was a machine I could really live with, sure, not in the same way as with a Merc or Honda Accord, but use nevertheless everyday and enjoy. And, before the cynics out there suggest some hours in the rain to sober me up, I tried that too. In fact deliberately going out in a thunderstorm to the nearest series of roundabouts and powersliding out time after time with total control and the broadest grin I can remember. I even drove the car into London rush hour traffic (to my father’s utter dismay) and sure enough got reversed into by a Willie in a VW Corrado. He didn’t see me -of course- and it was my fault for not carrying a red flag on top of the roof to raise it to his eyeline. Fortunately no damage, par a cracked number plate, was done, a testament to the flexibility of the composite construction.

YES, the Elise is a car that I actually would buy ( and I haven’t said that since the McLaren F1 test in June ’94), given the money (£19,000) and all the available choices up to maybe even a £50,000 threshold - and that’s a lot of assorted machinery. But when you consider the options and the fact that this car genuinely looks, and goes, like a £70,000 machine (as I was told on numerous occasions in London) plus offers real value for money in a no nonsense way, aligned with true cutting edge technology and one of the most famous names in the industry I for one am left with few doubts as to the unquantifiable success of the project. I think I will give Mr Artiolli a call, oh better still, I’ll get my name on the order books for the V6 engined version.