Motoring: The Verdict - Noisy but nice

Loud, cramped but loads of fun - readers test the Lotus Elise. By Michael Booth. Photographs by Teena Taylor

OK, I admit it. There is absolutely no reason for us to be testing the Lotus Elise this week. This radical mid-engined, two-seater has been around for a couple of years now, but with some cars, you simply don't need an excuse.

I've dearly wanted to try an Elise since it was first revealed in all its Tarmac-hugging, bug-eyed, rip-snorting glory. And if the reaction of our testers when I rang to tell them what they'd be driving is anything to go by, the Elise features prominently on many others' wish lists, too.

The Elise epitomises the design principles of the founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman. Lightness was always his goal, and with a 118bhp Rover K series engine bolted onto a feather-weight but very rigid spaceframe chassis (extruded anodised aluminium bonded with epoxy glue, if you please) the Elise weighs just under 730kg (compared to 1,404kg for a 7 series BMW ). With that kind of power-to-weight ratio its purpose is clear: this is a car fresh from the devil's drawing board, with sheer hoolie fun in mind.

Which might explain why it's so bloody difficult to get into. To create a car with this much speed and agility necessitates compromise. Two more Mars bars and a bag of chips and I'd be too big to squeeze into the Elise. And I'm no fatty, honest.

Once inside there are no frills either. No carpets, no air con, no electric windows, no glove box - in fact, it's very similar to a Formula Ford single-seater. On the move the sensation is almost identical, too. The Elise is fairly loud and not especially comfy, the ride and slender bucket seats are also firm, though your spine doesn't suffer quite as much as in the even more spartan Caterham 7.

But with steering almost too fast for the human mind to react to (well, this human's mind at least), wondrous brakes, the grip of a Titan, and a short-throw gear lever for super-quick changes, the Elise more than compensates for its discomforts with simply the finest driving available for the money (pounds 21,100). It isn't blisteringly quick in a straight line (top speed 126mph), but it will outhandle anything this side of a Ferrari 355 over the twisty bits (and it'll give one of those a fright, too).

And the Elise has the looks to match its performance. The body is sculpted and curved to within an inch of its life, while its mid-engined layout lends it a purposeful mini-supercar stance. This is also one of the best-built Lotuses ever. Now that's a comparative term, rather like saying Paddy Ashdown is the most successful Liberal leader for 20 years (Lotus used to stand for Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious, by the way), but it's nice to know there's a chance it will last a few years.

Doubtless there have been plenty of City whizz kids who've bought an Elise on its looks and soon tired of the noise and impracticality (there's barely room for a share certificate in the storage space behind the passenger's head), and I would never think of buying one other than as a third car. But I would love to have an Elise to use on high days and holidays so, if you're not using it, and if the weather's nice, I was wondering would anyone like to lend me theirs?.

Emma Newman, 28, insurance clerk, from Romford, Essex. Currently drives a Ford Fiesta

Though she struggled with the gear box (particularly fifth gear) and had problems depressing the clutch fully, Emma thoroughly enjoyed her spin in the Elise. "I like a flash little number," she said. "The performance is very impressive, you get a real buzz from it, but it doesn't feel all that stable. This is probably a man's car, though - I'd be quite surprised to see a woman in one." The Elise didn't score highly on practicality. "I'd worry about taking it shopping in case it got scratched or someone stole it, and it'd be very difficult to use it to its full potential where I live. I'd worry about getting caught speeding."

Ian Leach, 31, City analyst, from Romford, Essex. Currently drives a Renault 19

Ian had long been impressed by Elises he'd seen and ours more than lived up to expectations: "It's breathtaking to look at. It has a bit more finesse than a Porsche. But price-wise it's not totally out of reach. There's not much give in any of the controls and the suspension feels like it's been set up for a race track. It feels like a real sports car, but it's not uncomfortable and it's very easy and quiet to drive at low speeds. The ride is actually better than my car but there's rather more feel through the steering than I would like. The top speed isn't that great, but that's not what this car is about, it's about sheer driving pleasure. You can enjoy it even at low speeds."

Ruth Wrigley, 37, managing editor of `The Big Breakfast', from east London. Currently drives a Mercedes 190

"I can't stand it!" said Ruth after a couple of minutes at the wheel. "But then this isn't my sort of car. I like something that's comfortable that you just sit in and go. This takes much more concentration, it's too much hard work, hard gearbox, hard seat, hard ride, heavy steering. It looks squashed. It is easier to drive than I thought. I'd expected to be frightened driving it, and it does feel more solid than I'd thought, like a German car almost. When you lie back it feels like you're in a video game. But you certainly couldn't wear a skirt in it, not unless you wanted to give the neighbours a cheap thrill when you're climbing in."

Stephen Pryke, 44, lecturer, from Loughton, Essex. Currently carless

"This certainly wouldn't be practical for my life, perhaps as a third car maybe," said Stephen. "It's a car for someone who wants to make a statement, a man's car. I think I could enjoy a reasonably good love life with a car like this! The road holding is very reassuring; the gear change is delightful; the steering very positive. It seems to take you round corners itself, and it likes lots of revs - it doesn't like you changing gear too early. I was expecting bad visibility but it's fine. The one thing that is a shame is the interior which isn't as interesting as the outside, it's a bit too simple. It's a pity there isn't much storage space either - you couldn't really go away for a weekend in it."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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