Road Test: Lotus 2-eleven

Track-day cars offer the performance of a race car with enough softer features to make you feel comfortable. John Simister takes the best of the breed for a spin


Specifications

Model: Lotus 2-Eleven
Price: £39,995
Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, supercharger, 255bhp at 8,000rpm, 179lb ft at 7,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 150mph, 0-60 in 3.8sec, fuel consumption and equipment not quoted

It's a toy. You can play with its suspension settings, you can play with the angle of its rear wing, and you can play at being a racetrack hero. The Lotus 2-Eleven is the purest, most extreme mutant of the Lotus Elise gene, and driving it ought to be a compulsory part of training for all new drivers. A whole generation may otherwise never experience the true feel of driving, the balance of forces and efforts filtered out in most modern cars by a screen of artificially weighted power steering, over-servoed brakes, sophisticated stability systems and an overriding need (as perceived by the carmakers) never to ask too much of a driver. Like nothing else on sale today, the Lotus puts you back in the picture, relaxed, unintimidated but awash in good information.

The Lotus 2-Eleven is a trackday car but, unlike some other examples of this specialised breed of pleasure machine, it's entirely happy on the road. For the driver to be in a similar emotional state requires a helmet, or goggles at least: the 2-Eleven has no windscreen of any consequence and you don't want stones, insects or discarded cigarette ends from non-company-owned vehicles meeting your eyes.

There are no doors, either, so you have to hop athletically over the side. Nor are there heater, hood or luggage space; if you're away overnight, it's a bag between your passenger's feet and a towel to mop up the seats after overnight dew. The interior trim, such as it is, is suitably weatherproof.

Track-day cars are becoming more popular, allowing car nuts to hone their skills and feel their thrills away from speed cameras and disapproving eyes. There's a bit of racing-driver fantasy going on here, but despite its sports-racer looks the Lotus is created to a slightly different brief. Nick Adams, engineer at the specialist Lotus Sport arm that is behind the 2-Eleven, explains the difference:

"A race car sacrifices all for performance. It sacrifices driveability and long-term reliability, and it's pin-sharp so an ace can get the best out of it while the rest of us are intimidated.

"A track-day car, conversely, is more accessible to the average driver. It encourages you to drive faster and better, but it tells you when you're pushing your luck. It has features to make you feel happier, such as a normal throttle response, brake feel and gearshift. It has anti-lock brakes, albeit with late activation, and they work properly from cold. It gives the performance of a racing car without the sharp edges."

The 2-Eleven uses a supercharged version of the 1.8-litre Toyota engine fitted to today's regular Elises. The Exige, a harder-edged, closed-roof Elise variant, also uses the supercharged engine, but not with quite the feisty 255bhp that erupts from the 2-Eleven at 8,000rpm. This power, allied to vigorous pulling ability from low speeds and the car's weight of just 745kg, makes for extraordinary performance with surprising fuel efficiency. Given the right venue the Lotus can reach a blustery 150mph, pass 60mph in 3.8 seconds and – most impressive of all – requires just 3.1 seconds to accelerate from 30 to 50mph in the fourth of its six gears. It's bombastic, with the sound effects to match.

There are actually two versions of the 2-Eleven, both costing £39,995. One is for track days only, with a rear wing adjustable to create between 60 and 80kg of downforce; six-point harnesses; a bigger front spoiler; seats with better lateral support; and a minimum of lighting. The road version has a smaller, fixed, 60kg downforce rear wing that doesn't overlap the body sides; ProBax seats, which are better for the spine over long distances; proper lighting; and simpler harnesses that can be released with one finger, as required by law.

On the track, it takes just seconds to discover how so much thrust and so little weight feel in combination. Acceleration in the track-day car is instant and insistent, the whining supercharger making it available right across the speed range. That much I expected, but discovering the ease with which I entered corners at seemingly racing-car speeds, confident the front tyres would bite because the steering was telling me absolutely everything, was like having scales lifted from previously unseeing eyes.

It gets better. The 2-Eleven is designed for mild understeer when cornering at a steady speed. But apply more power once you're in a corner, and you can feel the tail ease out into the beginnings of a drift. Try harder and it will drift more, which you can balance precisely against an adjustment of steering in an utterly absorbing way. The Lotus gives you plenty of warning if you're pushing it too far. There's no fear here, and that's the crucial difference between this car and other extreme quasi-racers. This Lotus is the perfect tool for learning how a car behaves; it does exactly what you want it to do, when you want it to do it. It has an electronic stability system, but that's linked directly to sensors that simply measure the difference between front and rear wheel speeds. The bigger the difference, the bigger the powerslide allowed. And when you get really good, you can get your 2-Eleven into a long, glorious slide and alter the degree of drift by turning the adjustment knob mid-bend.

I didn't get to that stage, but I did also try the road version on the track. It powerslides more easily, and its road-friendly seats don't hold you so well in the corners. But the trade-off is that you can take it for Sunday-morning jaunts along your favourite lanes, and it's as tractable and fuss-free as any family hatchback when you trundle through villages or get caught in traffic.

And, of course, you can drive it to and from your track day.

The rivals

Ariel Atom £29,287

A supercharged, 275bhp Honda Civic Type R engine powers this skeletal, open-wheeled two-seater. It weighs 500kg; 0-60 takes 3.4 seconds. Helmet sensible, wetsuit desirable.

Caterham CSR 260 £37,000

This wider, tougher Caterham with racecar-like suspension has a bespoke 2.3-litre Cosworth engine that flings it to 60mph in a startling 3.1 seconds. Bravery essential.

Radical SR4 £35,263

The latest version of an established track-day special, this Radical has a 1.2-litre, 190bhp Kawasaki Powertec superbike engine and weighs 450kg. Road kit includes hand brake...

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