Climbing into a Lotus Elise is not easy. Nor is it something you can do with any kind of grace - drivers and passengers must clamber over a massive sill structure, and effectively drop their posterior into one of the deep bucket seats.
The payoff, as I’m discovering a few minutes later, is the kind of engaging drive you just don’t get anywhere else. The unassisted steering provides proper feedback, and by that I mean the wheel will actually kick and writhe around in your hands. Extreme, yes, but that’s the whole point - the Elise is driving in its purest and least filtered form.
In this age of turbochargers dominating the performance car world, a linear delivery means my brain is expecting a naturally-aspirated engine that’ll keep going until beyond 7000rpm, filling the cabin with a glorious induction bark. But the Elise Cup 250’s 1.8-litre Toyota lump is something arguably more unusual these days - it’s supercharged.
For the first few minutes, then, I’m finding myself instinctively leaving my shifts a little later, only to hit the sub-7000rpm rev limiter. No matter, as there’s plenty of aural drama being delivered to make up for the absence of high-RPM shenanigans. Plus, each gear shift is a thing of mechanical beauty, as you hear the satisfying clunks of the exposed gear linkage actuating. If only you could safely stare at it working away while driving.
The grip from the front end and the traction on the way out of corners is sublime, but there’s a caveat - the tarmac needs to be nice and smooth. Right now, it most certainly isn’t, and that’s a problem for the Cup 250.
The suspension has so little give, the car thumps over every imperfection in the road, and does at times feel nervous. The thin bucket seats aren’t what you’d call comfortable, either. Factor in the ever-present noise and you have a car you really know you’ve driven - it’s quite a workout, which is both a good and a bad thing. Tiring? Yes. Exciting? Absolutely.
The Elise, however, plus the Evora GT410 Sport and Exige 410 Sport I’m lined up to drive next, will soon be considered part of old Lotus. Hethel finds itself in a peculiar position right now, still persisting with an ageing, but still alluring line-up, while also preparing for the future. A future which includes a six-figure electric hypercar and an SUV.
A new Elise (along with other fresh sports cars) is part of the plan too, and time will tell if it ticks the same boxes as this one while being a touch more modern. This may be the third iteration of the sports car, but it is, in effect, the same underneath as the 1996 original.
The Evora is a much newer car, but having arrived in 2009, it’s not exactly a spring chicken, either. This is hammered home when you slide into the dated cockpit, faced with a cheap-looking double din head unit which acts as the inglorious centrepiece for this anachronistic space.
The GT410 and I don’t get off to the best of starts. The Mondeo indicator stalks and other Ford-sourced bits feel thoroughly out of place in an £85,900 car, and about 10 minutes into the drive, it’s clear the 4000rpm temporary rev limiter isn’t going to go away even though the car’s warm. Thankfully it’s an easy fix - someone from Lotus plugs in a laptop, and a few minutes later, the full 7000rpm limiter is unlocked.
It was worth the wait. Once in Sport mode, it’s hard to believe the snarling 3.5-litre V6 currently disturbing the peace in this bit of Oxfordshire is something that usually powers a Toyota Camry. As is the case with the Elise’s inline-four, it’s supercharged, giving a total output of 410bhp and a 0-60mph time of 3.9 seconds without sullying throttle response.
It feels fast and exciting, and that’s before you get to a decent set of corners. Once there, the Evora is a feisty little so-and-so, at least when its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s are cold. We’re talking understeer on the way in, followed by slip from the rear on the way out. With a bit of heat in them, the GT410 becomes an immovable object. Although it’s Lotus’ heaviest car (but hardly a porker at 1320kg), it changes direction beautifully, and rarely feels anything other than neutral.
Although the Evora has power assisted steering, feedback doesn’t suffer for it. All of the information, the aggressive kick-back, it’s still there - you just don’t feel the inadequacy of your biceps when manoeuvring the car at low speeds.
It’s still a stiff car. Firmer, I’d say, than probably most obvious rivals. Unlike the Elise, though, there’s a lot more finesse to the damping. That extra give in the Bilstein shocks means slightly more body roll, but the Evora’s double wishbone chassis always keeps everything in check.
Switching to the Exige evokes a feeling of Deja Vu from this morning’s Elise sampling. Difficult to get into, not much of an interior to speak of, and crucially, the same exposed gear linkage. While the original Exige may have merely been a more hardcore, fixed-roof Elise, the latest version is a little different. Instead of a dinky inline-four, it’s fitted with the same 410bhp Toyota V6 as the Evora, albeit with around 300kg less car to propel.
This is immediately clear as soon as you put your foot down - the Exige is viciously quick in a straight line, and even louder inside. It uses the same long gearing, so you will, for the most part, find yourself holding second or third. That’s a shame, as the gear-change is - as in all three Loti - a real joy.
We’re back to an unassisted steering setup here, and it pulls no punches. You almost have to fight with the wheel at times, such is the aggression.
The roid-raged Toyota V6 and this lightweight platform are one hell of a combination, with the Exige dancing through one especially demanding set of corners with particular poise. It’s extraordinarily capable, too; several times, I find myself getting back on the power earlier than I feel I should, only to realise it’s well within what the Exige can manage.
We won’t be troubling the limits of this thing today - we’d need a track for that, and not just because there’s so much grip and traction on offer. It’s firm, noisy and after around an hour behind the wheel, quite uncomfortable. As with the Elise, you’d be mad to buy one if it wasn’t primarily for use on track with only the odd bit of road use thrown in. But if you’re going to be taking it to the right places, damn, are you in for a treat.
All of these cars are special in their own way and show that for all the things that matter most to petrolheads - engagement, excitement, chassis finesse - Lotus is still in a league of its own. But if I were to pick one, it’d have to be the Evora.
It channels the spirit of the other two in a package that’s (just about) useable every day. Old Ford switchgear be damned: I still want one. Let’s hope the next one is just as successful at getting under your skin.