Ever since going around Brands Hatch in the passenger seat of an Elise Cup 220 (thanks Tom) and having one to myself for an hour on the road (thanks Bell & Colvill) I have had nothing but praise for the flagship Elise. Retaining a delicacy, nimbleness and precision beyond even the Exige V6 and offering the sweetest steering on sale today, I was left deeply impressed. It was that rarest of things – a genuinely track-focused car that works brilliantly on the roads. Having had the uninterrupted joy of five years with a faultless Elise Sports Racer, I think that once you’re an Elise owner, there’s a part of you that’s always an Elise owner. I only have to see another Nightfall Blue Sports Racer or worse, drive another Elise, to want one. Even with an Exige V6 in the garage, that never fully goes away. The drive in the Cup 220 had me seriously thinking about ordering one.
Fast forward 12 months and it’s another terrific Bell & Colvill trackday at Goodwood. Anyone unsure about trackdays should seriously consider one of these days. With only 5 cars allowed out on track at a time you’re a world away from your typical 30+ car mayhem. For much of the day it feels like having Goodwood all to yourself. It’s a glorious day weather-wise too and my own V6 Cup is in rude health, feeling outrageously fast for a street legal car. This is a tough act to follow for any car, even the ultimate Elise. We have to bear in mind that this is effectively a ‘back-to-back’ against a much more powerful (+100bhp) and expensive car (+£20k) that is also better suited to Goodwood’s fiendishly fast curves. With peak speeds here exceeding those you will see at Silverstone GP, Goodwood might not be the first place that comes to mind for an Elise but it is a great place to put the outrageous Cup aero parts to the test. In the interests of fairness, we also got the Cup 250 out on track with an Elise S1 to help us see how far the car has evolved and highlight the things that continue to make the Elise so special, 20 years on.
I can’t deny the thrill nor hide the grin that comes with being handed the keys to the fastest-ever Elise, especially having had a good look around it and taken in all the bespoke carbon aero parts gleaming in the sunshine. This is the car that has been driven any number of journalists, being an ex-press car, so it must have had a hard life. It’s in great condition inside and out, so if it has been driven like a rental you’d never know it. Climbing in, I’m immediately struck by how tight and well put together everything feels. Perhaps Lotus take extra care with preparing press cars, as they should, or perhaps after 20 years of production they are finally getting the hang of it, as you’d hope! This car has the optional leather pack and air-con so it isn’t the ultimate lightweight spec but the leather sills feel positively plush and quite possibly worth the weight penalty. The wheel feels great in my hands, perfectly sized and placed, nicely sculpted for a natural, anatomical fit. I reach around in vain for the harness straps only to realise that there aren’t any. A set would perfectly compliment the interior, but a simple click of the inertia reel belt will have to do. Harnesses are still an option for the car and it’s definitely one I would tick. After an embarrassingly long fiddle with the immobilizer and starter button sequence, the 250 fires up with a fairly gruff cough before settling down to a quiet, even idle. General NVH is a step above the Exige Cup so I suspect there may be some sound deadening somewhere. All else is reassuringly familiar. I think these seats have a little more wriggle room in them compared to the Exige’s carbon race seats but it’s probably just be the lack of harness.
The engine is already nice and warm so there’s no need to spare the horses from the pitlane and we’re soon charging towards the challenging, double-apex right-hander at Madgwick. The Elise is feeling smooth, cleanly responsive and playful. The tyres could do with another lap though as the car struggles ever so slightly to hold the chosen line. You couldn’t call it full-blown understeer. It’s a sensation you would probably never even notice in a car with electric power steering. It’s more like a pre-understeer protest from the front tyres, an oh-so subtle weight change in the steering. Your sub-conscious reads these messages way before your conscious brain has noticed that you’ve made a tiny, instinctive steering correction. It’s barely possible to see at 2.08 in the video but more obvious at 2.36 through the first left-hander at St. Mary’s. The only other non-Elise based car that I have driven which offers similar levels of communication is a (similarly unassisted) Caterham Seven. Fortunately, it is a quality that can still be relished in the Exige V6 as it’s such a valuable tool on track and a hugely enjoyable feature on the road. It is still most clearly felt in the 220 Cup (or indeed the entry-level Elise Sport) but the 250 Cup lies somewhere between that and the Exige V6. Either way, we should treasure the fact that you can still enjoy steering of this calibre in a modern car. Steering feel is a critically endangered sensation in 2016, without cars like this we might soon forget what we were missing. Taking Madgwick a lap later is a very different experience. Just look how much tighter the line is at 3.38 while carrying a full 10mph faster. The front tyres bite hard and the car is immediately more responsive and obedient. The shades of understeer have vanished without trace, what’s more, you can feel all of the above. The steering would also like to have a word about my braking point and entry speed. It reckons that I could have braked a lot later and turned-in much faster. And so the dialog continues every lap, all day long. This is what makes an Elise, any Elise, so absorbing to drive, regardless of the laptime. It’s not the fastest steering rack in the world but it doesn’t need to be. The lack of mass and inherent response of the chassis makes it a very neat and tidy car on track. With both understeer and oversteer so well contained, steering corrections are few and far between.
However, there’s a surprise as I work through the gears on this exploratory out-lap. I wasn’t expecting it but the Exige gearbox is nicer. From memory there wasn’t much between them. In practice, the Exige 6 speed, at least in my car, is subjectively more precise and mechanical. You can feel metal things meshing together as you slice through the gates in the Exige. Less so the Elise. At no point was a gear missed or graunched and it is a purely subjective issue, but it lacks the texture and positivity of its big brother’s shift. To be fair, I remember a bit more precision with my own Elise’s gearbox too so perhaps this is a reflection of the car’s hard life. I’m convinced that care taken during the running-in phase is crucial to the quality of the gearshifts later on and this is something a press car was unlikely to have had. Keep an eye out for AU16 BBX in the magazines, it’s certainly been doing the rounds.
After a few laps bouncing off the limiter (something you will do a lot), it’s time to consider the revised, supercharged Toyota 2ZR-FE motor. It’s a fine four-pot this, and I say that as a loyal devotee of the screaming 8500rpm 2ZZ-GE unit. The relative lack of torque is immediately felt after the V6, as you might expect with 184lbs/ft filling a thumping great 295lbs/ft hole. At first you think about changing down a gear then, when you bump straight into the limiter, you realise that no, that was it. Once allowances have been made for, it’s time to assess it on its own merits. It pulls cleanly and evenly through the revs with effervescent eagerness, just like a Cup 220, until you reach 5500rpm and from there to the limiter there is a noticeable extra surge. I don’t remember previous car pulling with quite such enthusiasm into the limiter. Of course, I’d love it to run to 8500rpm, 7200rpm will always feel premature for anyone who loved the 2ZZ-GE, especially when it’s pulling with such zeal at 6800rpm and making peak power at the cut-out. Even with the shift lights blinking it feels unburstable and as keen as you are to spin higher. But the longing for more revs doesn’t last forever and you’re soon won over by this generation of Toyota four’s charms. It is definitely more torquey, more of the time than the old 2ZZ-GE screamer, so you’re going quicker by the time the top-end fireworks kick-in. In an era of mid-range torque it’s refreshing to drive a modern car with such vigour beyond 5500rpm. It will feel more exciting on the road like this and it works well on the track. Remember the days of keeping it in the powerband? You will. Yes, that does mean you have to be in the right gear to make the Elise fly. The hairy chested Exige is far more tolerant of your gear selection but there’s a more obvious feeling of satisfaction when you get it right in the Elise as a result. Even with the smaller pulley there’s not much supercharger whine until you get the revs past 5500, but there’s a bit more than you’ll notice in an Exige V6.
This Cup 250 has the standard, and very appealing, cannon of an exhaust protruding through the extravagant diffuser array. It’s part tail-pipe, part declaration of war. I would be reluctant to change the weaponized appearance but I suspect you could get it to make some more appropriately combative pops and bangs with a smaller silencer. That would add quite a lot to the car’s appeal on the road and be entirely in keeping with how it looks – predatory, extreme and sharp as Samurai steel. This, however, is completely at odds with how the car drives. Of course there’s an eagerness to change direction that you normally only find in flyweight track specials but this is not in any way a jagged-edged device. There is not a hint of malice in the chassis. Grip on the Yokohama A048s is major league but the car is always reassuring, predictable and benign up to and beyond limits that are not responsibly accessible on the road. You can certainly notice the lack of mass behind you compared to the Exige V6. As such, it has all of the front-end alacrity with none of the concerns about the rear axle. You can be completely fearless into corners that call for a confidence lift in the Exige. The normally scary-fast Fordwater curve is an absolute piece of cake. A gift wrapped ‘flat’ with a bow on top that comes with a smorgasbord of trajectories to choose between. In the Exige you better be sure of your turn-in point and you have to hold your nerve to keep your foot flat. Admittedly the turn-in speed is in excess of 130mph in the Exige but it focuses the mind every single lap. In the Elise, even at 120mph, it’s an absolute gimme. Lotus does claim more downforce than the Exige (66kg compared to something like 40kg at 100mph) and this is precisely the sort of corner where it will tell. It’s very reassuring and deeply impressive. So much so, that the traction control is quickly set to ‘off’ and stays ‘off’. Still a useful tool for the wet no doubt but it’s virtually redundant in the dry. I feel much the same way about a limited slip diff, which wasn’t missed at all. But not even the superior aero package makes up the time lost to the Exige’s bombastic V6 of course. By the time you reach the next right-hander (the corner known as ‘No Name’ before St. Mary’s) the Exige is showing 145mph+, the Elise somewhere around 130mph. However, despite the awkward issue of a fully spec’d new Elise 250 Cup being very close in price to a used Exige V6 Cup (if you can find one), this won’t remain a comparison between those two cars for much longer. Up ahead is Royal Bibs-ness in his 111S. ‘Ultimate’ Elise vs pokey S1? Game on. To be completely honest it took a bit longer than I had anticipated to reel him in. This is largely down to Bibs getting to know his way around Goodwood but also the impressive straight-line speed from the VVC K-series. He has proper Toyo R888R trackday rubber on too which helps but heck, the old timer is not hanging about. The various talents of the Cup 250 combine to overwhelm the S1 in the end but it’s a lesson not to underestimate an S1 and a vivid reminder of how capable the basic Elise recipe remains.
After a good play about with the balance of the car (8.55 onwards) it’s really the tyres on the Cup 250 that differentiate it most from the Cup 220. Anyone familiar with the four cylinder S2 Exiges will know the feeling all too well. A048s feel like hard compound slicks. They are simply amazing trackday boots that feel like they will never wear out with only 920kg on top of them. Indeed they looked unmarked at the end of the day at Goodwood. The key difference to the Cup 220 and its 175 section front tyres, is that the 250 now wears 195s (an inch wider each side). As a result, grip is prodigious both laterally and in the braking zones, allowing you to brake laughably late. Literally. Any brake markers set for the Exige quickly become redundant. Sure, there’s less speed to scrub off but the 250 sheds velocity like it’s just been driven into treacle. A short, firm brake is usually more than enough with a note-to-self to brake later next time round. The tyres generate so much grip it feels like there’s never enough power to overwhelm the rears. As such, you can use the throttle like a switch – one marked ‘add grip’. All it seems to do is generate even more face-bending tenacity. For dishing out slices of humble pie on trackdays, the extra resistance to understeer is where it’s at but I would imagine that it comes at a price for enjoyment on the road. I totally get why Lotus have done it, this car is even more of a giant killer now and the grip levels do feel really well balanced front-to-rear. But, as with the V6 Cup, it’s going to nonchalantly shrug off any attempts at cornering quickly on the road and suggest that you might head for the nearest track so it can show you what it can really do. Cornering limits on the public road will be anti-social to say the least. If you’re experiencing either over or understeer on the road you might want to have a quiet word with yourself. I felt the Cup 220 was beautifully set up for British B-roads. I can’t confirm if this is still the case with the 250 but I think it’s highly likely, given that spring rates and dampers remain unchanged. This is a good thing, they were so well judged it made a mockery of the trend towards electronically adjustable set-ups. It might also mean that you can enjoy a best of both worlds by buying another set of wheels and fitting 175s to the front for road use, keeping your 195 section A048s even more fresh for the track…
And so to the elephant in the garage and the reason that Cup 250s are likely to remain a rarity on UK roads, along with the outstanding Cup 220 – the somewhat elephantine price. No question, the best part of £50k is very punchy for an Elise, however good. In isolation it is a car of rare ability and appeal. It’s also one of those special cars that can rejuvenate even the most jaded drivers and for those used to 1500kg sports cars, it can still be a revelation. The issue is the proximity to the already legendary Exige V6, which now offers the magnetically attractive Sport 350 package starting at just over £55k. So Cup 250 buyers are going to be the most committed and dedicated of purists, even among Lotus owners. If you’re thinking about one yourself and go for the Cup 250 you’ll win my eternal respect and admiration, even if I doubt my own ability to resist the lure of the Sport 350 given the same choice. The picture is less clear when you take into account the overall cost of ownership, particularly for those planning on doing a lot of trackdays. Once yours, the Elise offers endless laps, driving as hard as you like, for very little cost in terms of consumables. You can also keep the cost usefully under £50k if you go easy on the options but how could you not tick the box for the carbon aero pack? Just for reference, the £4k price gets you front splitter, side barge boards, huge rear diffuser, rear wing and 155kg of downforce at top speed. For comparison, Nissan will charge you £4k for a carbon wing all on its own and Porsche claim 110kg of downforce for the 991 GT3 at 186mph.
Those that do take the plunge will be getting the car that still most clearly defines the Lotus approach to going fast. More often than not, a light, four-cylinder engine has been central to that. Lotus should always keep a Cup 250 at Hethel for their own reference, just so they never lose their way. It’s a four-wheeled celebration of what Lotus do so well and today, around Goodwood, there’s not much I’d swap it for. The Cup 250 is a precision instrument, the purest of driver’s cars and a true Lotus. But a read through the spec sheet suggests something else too. 243bhp? Sub-950kg? 195 section front tyres? AO48s? The numbers all look very familiar. It looks to me like the Cup 250 is, in many ways, a continuation of a car that will surely go down as one of the greatest to leave the factory gates at Hethel. And it isn’t even an Elise. Always wanted a brand new S2 Exige 240S? It might not have a roof scoop but that car’s irrepressible spirit is alive and well in the Elise Cup 250.
Many thanks again to Bell & Colvill for the time in the car.