WHAT'S IN a design? Is it a thing that by any other name would sell as well? Or is it the name that persuades us, floated on a cloud of marketing and driven by the wind of universal approbation? In other words, would the Lotus Elise be the success it is, and such a clear Millennium Product choice, were it not spawned by that famous name?
As one who normally abjures sports cars, and for whom the pinnacle of automotive design is probably the Massey Ferguson 35 tractor, I should never have thought to answer with such an emphatic "Yes". This car is something different. As with the original Land Rover, they've got it right first time and it has that same rare combination of radical innovation and instant familiarity. It's a happy, cheeky, cheerful, graceful animal of a car, and it goes like whip.
Good design is the expression of engineering imagination through perfect unity of style and function. Looks are very important, but they are only a part of the process which began, with the Elise, where it should - from the bottom up. The extruded aluminium chassis (bonded rather than welded) is an inspiring example of using all the potential of the material - playing to its strengths - rather than thinking of it as a substitute for something else, such as steel. In the attractively Spartan cabin, the chassis is exposed, not just because it would cost or weigh more to cover it, but as a positive style feature. It works because of the unity inherent in the very conception of this car, which makes most others look like blocks of Lego.
And feel like it. Once you've got in - and any woman who can manage that in a tight skirt gets the coveted Millennium Contortionist Award - the firm seats are surprisingly comfortable, even for the chronic back sufferer. At 60mph it feels like 120mph and at 120mph (yes, we did) you laugh aloud. It goes through corners like a rattlesnake, which Lotus attribute to their outstanding suspension, but there's clearly a giant magnet built into the test track. It's not a difficult car to drive, but it's not so easy that you don't notice you're driving. It is a driver's car whose ways you must learn and respect.
Just as it takes an outstanding gymnast to make somersaults look effortless, so it takes outstanding design to make something as apparently simple as this. What you leave out is as important as what you put in; the barely noticeable lips beneath the front grill have all the aerodynamic function of a full-blown ugly spoiler.
Engineers at Lotus are not stylists, but the two breeds have produced the marriage between engineering and design that is at the heart of this car's success. Instead of the usual compromise, each is essential to the other, and there is nothing in the car that does not work for both. The result is not only an instant automotive classic, but a lesson in how to imagine.
The Lotus Elise costs pounds 21,700. Lotus can be contacted on 01953 608547; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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