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Road Tests

Lotus Elise

The new, sylph-like SC from Lotus is a revelation – much more than a plaything and maybe even the most appealing model in the breed's history

Price: £32,550
Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, supercharger, 220bhp at 8,000rpm, 156lb ft at 5,300rpm, mid-mounted
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear wheel drive
Performance: 150mph, 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, 33.0mpg official average, CO2 202g/km

How should a sports car be in 2008? Is the very notion an outdated self-indulgence – an irresponsible use of dwindling resources in the pursuit of mere pleasure (like a holiday flight, for example)? Or can it be a joy with a practical use – a car to fulfil a transport need while making you feel fantastic?

Look at the credentials of the Lotus Elise you see here, and you'll think it surely provides the answer. An Elise has never been about brute power barely contained within a slinky shell, leaving global-warming corridors wherever it goes. Nor has it been about size, weight, presence and manhood. An Elise is small, ultra-light, efficient, delicate to drive and subtle in its responses, but with a sharp focus that makes nearly every other car feel as though you're driving it in winter mitts and Wellington boots.

As a plaything, an Elise is ideal. But maybe it could be something more. The best fast road cars don't major on power but torque or pulling ability. Were you to use an Elise for the drive to the office as well as at weekends, you might tire of the need to work the standard car's engine hard. To be able to trickle through traffic, then power away with a single flex of the ankle, though, would make you love it all the more.

Recently I drove a Lotus Exige S. This is the mini-Ferrari of the Elise family, a clan which in its 11 years of existence has spawned mutants such as the near-naked 340R, the 2-Eleven trackday semi-racer and the visually challenged Europa coupé. The Exige is broadly a solid-roofed Elise with a harder dynamic edge and, crucially, a supercharger for the 1.8-litre Toyota engine it otherwise shares with the Elise.

It moves with bombastic enthusiasm, its power delivery a rush of energy from tickover to 8,000rpm. It's vibrant, intoxicating, but you can see practically nothing behind you because there's a big intercooler behind your head. This renders the Exige a nerve-racking drive at night.

What we need, then, is an Elise with Exige S power and a proper view aft. And that is exactly what we have here, in what is potentially the most appealing Elise in the breed's history. The engine has a new supercharger installation, built into the inlet manifold. There is no intercooler, which means the Exige-matching 220bhp represents the limit of the engine's potential. Any more and it would blow itself up, whereas with an intercooler to keep the intake air colder, it can be wound up almost to 300bhp. So this Elise has 100bhp more than the 1997 original. It has a little more weight, too – the engine is heavier, there are two airbags and the whole car is more civilised – but it's still a sylph at 870kg. As the ultimate Elise, it calls to mind memories of the Lotus Elan Sprint, the high-power version of the original 1960s/70s Elan which still occupies a top-five placing in the list of cars I'd most like to add to my collection.

It might even have been good to call this new car an Elise Sprint, but Lotus tried that with a tuned-up Elise a decade back; it was bullied out of the idea by Mercedes-Benz, which thought the public might confuse the fast Elise with a Sprinter van. I hope shame is still felt in Stuttgart, for Sprint (like GT) is a generic label, used by Triumph, Alfa Romeo and others. And even as I write this, news arrives that Lotus has released a limited-edition Exige Sprint. Today's company is a bolder one.

As it should be, having reinvigorated its engineering division which carries out contract research and development for most of the major car companies; having revealed the shape of its forthcoming mid-size GT car; and having built far more Elises than were ever planned. I'm sitting in an Elise SC next to the man who is more surprised by this last fact than anyone. Dave Minter developed the original Elise, then left to engineer the cars of Ascari and Caterham. He recently rejoined Lotus to develop Elise derivatives, and the SC is the first designed by Lotus to comply with legislation in every world market.

You identify the SC from the outside by its large single exhaust pipe, a subtly different rear spoi-ler and slightly wider wheels. Inside, like all the latest Elises and Exiges, it has a new instrument cluster with white figures on black, a neater information display and even a service indicator. The dashboard is finished in soft-touch black, and comfortable ProBax seats are standard.

We've removed the roof, rolled it up and put it in the surprisingly voluminous boot. Now, the moment of truth: will this be Elise nirvana, the perfect blend of Lotus attributes all in one car? It moves off with the usual blend of liquid motion and high-definition feedback through steering and seat of pants, and then I press the accelerator hard. The engine, until now ambling at just 2,000rpm or so, delivers a shove in the back I've never felt in an Elise before.

A rich whine from the supercharger overlays the deepening exhaust note and, while not loud, the Elise takes on a strong voice. It's a revelation. I can overtake without the need to wring the engine through the gears, yet, if I do, it becomes even faster. I can trickle down to town speeds and know there's instant response to squirt through a gap. The six-speed gearchange is quick, smooth and precise, but I don't need to use it all the time.

On open, fast bends the Elise feels thrillingly alive but always stable. It flicks through curves as if inertia had been outlawed. But the real test comes in some tight, slippery mountain roads, where the wheels just grip and grip. Then, with each bend's exit, I squeeze the accelerator and feel the tail move out just the right amount. The engine's torque lets me take most of the bends in third gear, where a regular Elise would demand a downshift, so it's an easier drive as well as a faster one.

In the end the Elise SC neither feels nor is as quick as the Exige S, owing to their different torque-against-engine-speed graphs and a softer accelerator response, but it's still as quick as you could reasonably want and it's a lot easier to live with. It promised to be the ultimate Elise, and it is.

The Rivals

Audi TT Roadster 3.2 V6 Quattro: £31,635

A contrary approach to a sports car, but the handsome, heavy Audi goes well and has great road-holding with its four-wheel drive. Feels clumsy next to Lotus.

Caterham CSR Cosworth 200: £31,000

Opposite extreme here, with this new-generation, larger Caterham and its Cosworth engine. For those truly committed to a pure driving experience above all else.

Honda S2000 GT: £27,952

A "conventional" sports car with front engine and rear wheel drive. The engine is a madly revving, screaming thing, and the driving experience is far short of Lotus's.