THE ART OF LIGHT

In the 20 years since its launch, the Lotus Elise has become faster but also heavier. Now the weight reversal begins in earnest, with the simple but brilliant Cup 250

by henry catchpole
PHOTOGRAPHY by DEAN SMITH

Ahhh Caffeine, that elixir of wakefulness. In its small shot glass, a morning espresso looks like a miniature Guinness, with thick cream settled atop dark liquid. Picking it up between thumb and forefinger, the smell alone seems to prickle the mind into alertness. Sip the hot liquid and as the beautiful aromatic bitterness courses through your taste buds, so the last shackles of sleep are cast off almost in an instant. The world suddenly pulls into sharper focus. Muscles feel poised, nerves energised and your flow of consciousness turns from a trickle into a torrent. Wonderful.

What, you are probably wondering, has this to do with the Lotus Elise. Well, it occurred to me (perhaps after one too many visits to the altar of Arabica) that the automotive equivalent of caffeine is lightness. Bear with me. Caffeine, whether you get it from a coffee in the morning or a slim can of saccharine stickiness late at night, affects your whole being. Likewise, lightness tangibly affects the whole attitude of a car. Acceleration, braking, cornering, efficiency; all are given a lift when you strip out weight. Add power to a car and you will only influence one parameter positively – it’s like eating protein, which will help muscle growth but do little to affect your concentration. But add lightness, to use the Chapman idiom, and you infuse the entire machine with myriad performance benefits. Even better, unlike caffeine, lightness doesn’t wear off – the buzz remains every time you get behind the wheel. It’s the ethereal must-have ingredient for any pure drivers’ car.

And of course, if you have to pick a car company for which lightness is the leitmotif, then Lotus is still the one that springs to mind. In recent years, however, this accolade has begun to look a little less well deserved, with the kerb weight of an Elise straying ever further from its original late-’90s headline figure of 731kg. The Elise Cup 220 that this new Cup 250 replaces had crept up to 952kg. Admittedly, some of the additional weight was inevitable or simply beyond the control of the engineers in Hethel. Airbags were not a feature of that original car, for example, and while supercharging brings more power, inevitably it also brings some weighty hardware. Likewise more aero, bigger wheels, wider tyres and larger brakes all add performance, but generally at some cost on the weighbridge.

However, when Jean-Marc Gales arrived as CEO at Lotus in 2014, he also perceived areas where weight had snuck in unnecessarily. He demanded that an Elise be stripped down and every component scrutinised to see if it was doing the best possible job (not just in terms of weight, but also cost and efficiency of construction). I suspect we will see more evidence of this approach in the future, but the general weight-watching drive within the company has already yielded results in the car you see here. The headline savings for the Cup 250 come in the form of a smaller lithium-ion battery (10kg), lighter forged alloy wheels (1.5kg) and carbonfibre seats (6kg). However, other things such as the deletion of the engine beautification cover (1kg) and a redesign of the engine air-intake duct (1kg) arguably highlight Lotus and Gales’ attention to detail even more readily. Overall, 21kg has been shaved off compared to the Cup 220, and a further 10kg can be consigned to the ether if you spec the aero kit in carbonfibre (as it is here).

Driving across to Wales in the Elise Cup 250 early on a sunny May morning, all the requisite sensations of a lightweight car are very much in evidence. The car is alive and constantly reactive to inputs. I’m not travelling that quickly, yet there is delight in the deftness with which the Elise tackles roundabouts. It’s not flighty, but the whole car changes direction without any protest. You think, it does.
There are of course downsides, too. For a start, I’m not sure I could hear a radio even if there was one, because the bare aluminium tub combined with near-slick tyres transmits a lot of road noise into the cabin. And while you’re sheltered from the elements with the roof up, you are nonetheless very acoustically aware of the wind. If our car weren’t fitted with the (sacrilegious, but secretly welcome) option of air conditioning, I would be gently simmering in the heat of the summer sun, too. But somehow these inconveniences all add to the experience of driving, even enhance it due to the extra layers of information being relayed. I think it’s nice to feel that little bit closer to the environment you’re driving through – especially when you reach roads and views as good as those in the Elan Valley.  

It’s all very beautiful as we climb a deserted single-track road. The bluebells are in their last hurrah and my peripheral vision is azure in hue as the banks blur past. Meanwhile the sun filtering through the tall trees is throwing a keyboard of shadows across the road. The nature of the sightlines means that it’s a series of short sprints between corners and once again the lack of mass means the Elise responds eagerly to every throttle input. The flyweight gearshift fits the lightweight theme, too, the aluminium lever flicking easily through its throw, making a slightly clattery noise as it goes.

It’s a shame that the engine isn’t more characterful. There is a hint of supercharger whine and the overall sound isn’t unpleasant. Likewise, the way the 1.8-litre Toyota unit delivers its 243bhp and 184lb ft is linear and incredibly effective, but I do yearn for some of the old spirit of a VHPD K-series. A bit more crescendo to the delivery, a smidgen more bark to the soundtrack.

Leaning heavily on the brakes is probably the most obvious indication of a car’s mass or lack thereof. As always in Elises, there is a slightly annoying loose bit of travel at the top of the brake pedal before you meet any proper resistance, but the actual retardation once the pads bite the 288mm discs is addictively strong and you never feel like you’re in danger of triggering the ABS. I’m not one for particularly late braking on the road, but the way the Cup 250 inspires confidence means you will inevitably brake later and harder and still feel safely within your personal acceptable margins.

I was preparing to write something about the Elise not being the right car for lots of aero addenda, with the Exige being the one more suited to the ‘track refugee’ look. But when I park it up in the sunshine on the mighty Claerwen dam with the roof off, wider tyres filling the arches, splitter and diffuser drawing it closer to the ground, the Cup 250 looks fantastic. Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking there’s something of the mid-’60s Targa Florio cars about it.

After a brief pause to enjoy the warmth, we head off back down towards the Garreg Ddu dam and then on to the beautiful Ystwyth valley. Some cars do a very good job of giving the impression of lightness, but it is a road like the one that runs along this valley that will eventually pull back the curtain on the charade. Body control will eventually be lost as mass can be contained no longer. Conversely, this is the sort of road that lets a good lightweight shine. The way that the Elise tackles the bumps and even occasional yumps with such aplomb, never crashing through its travel yet remaining supple enough for the tyres to retain constant contact, is something only a lightweight car could manage. Even over a vicious jump that I fear might be the little Lotus’s undoing as it kicks up the rear, it rejoins the tarmac with the soft sensation of a tired head sinking into a plump hotel pillow.

A few times I have to recalibrate, upping my own expectations of the speed that is comfortably possible through a section of bumpy bends. The Elise is hardly ever deflected from its line and has surprising amounts of travel to lean on. Although it feels busy underneath you as its suspension deals with the rapid-fire lumps of the B4574, there is an overriding sense of composure. It’s like a dancer with feet working overtime while the core keeps the topline perfectly still.

If there were one thing I would change, it would be the tyres. When I drove the Cup S last year, it was wearing Yokohama’s Neova rubber. Now, however, Lotus has upgraded the tyres to the distinctive tread of the Yokohama A048. The result must surely account for a large proportion of the four-second improvement in lap time around the Hethel test track, but I think it prioritises grip over adjustability just a little too much. Even on the Neovas it was a car for clean lines rather than constant adjustment, but there was just a bit more malleability. On the tenacious A048s there is almost no unsticking the 250 on the road. When I do find the limits during a few repeated runs for Dean Smith’s Nikon, the breakaway is thankfully progressive and well telegraphed, but due to the high lateral G you are pushing when it happens, it’s not something that feels especially comfortable on the road.

Better to keep things just below the limit and revel in the fact that the modest kerb weight means the Elise’s steering can do without any power assistance. You are never in any doubt about how much load is on the sidewalls of the front tyres. The small steering wheel is constantly busy, moving with the cambers and bumps, letting you know exactly what the front wheels are dealing with. It doesn’t feel like a fight, or even distracting – it’s just background information that you assimilate through your hands and almost unconsciously use to inform other inputs. With more load through the corners, the smaller, busier movements diminish and the weighting of the wheel comes to the fore as you feel how hard you’re pushing the Yokohama rubber on that outside front wheel.

The steering is matched by the three aluminium pieces of sculpture hanging in the footwell. Pedal position is one of those things that should be so simple, yet is rarely done well. In the Elise there is room so that your feet don’t feel cramped, but the spacing is such that you can move across the three quickly and efficiently.

It helps when the sun’s out, you’re in a deserted mid-week Wales and you’ve got one of your best friends taking the photographs, but I loved driving the Cup 250. In my eyes it’s not quite the best Elise there’s ever been, but according to Lotus it is the quickest. In order to get nearer to the former accolade, I would risk sacrificing the latter boast and run the car on marginally less aggressive tyres; trackday addicts might disagree.

Yes, lighter cars exist, but you’re into the much more compromised world of Caterhams and Atoms. What the Elise remains a shining example of are the benefits that those unshackled, low-inertia, buoyant sensations that lightweight brings to the thrill of driving. And it would be great to see other manufacturers trying to produce something in the sub-1000kg bracket. Alfa should be applauded for trying with the 4C, but I want to see Porsche, BMW, Mercedes et al being a bit radical (no pun intended) and having a go, too. Let’s see Ford bring its hot hatches back below the ton. Come on designers, have a coffee and then pick up a pencil.

Lotus Elise Cup 250

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1798cc, supercharged
CO2175g/km
Power243bhp @ 7200rpm
Torque 184lb ft @ 3500-5000rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, adjustable anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, adjustable anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated and cross-drilled discs, 288mm front and rear, ABS
Wheels 16in front, 17in rear
Tyres 195/50 ZR16 front, 225/45 ZR17 rear
Weight 931kg
Power-to-weight265bhp/ton
0-60mph 3.9sec (claimed)
Top speed 154mph (claimed)
Price £45,600
On sale Now

evo rating:
★★★★★

‘The whole car changes direction without protest’

‘Although it feels busy underneath you, there is an overriding sense of composure’