Do not forget the Lotus Elise. In all the fuss surrounding Lotus, its Bahar-driven celebrity glitter and fanciful future model range, everyone has been overlooking the Elise. It is Lotus's core model, has been since back in 1996 when the original car was launched and remains so today.
Staying largely true to its purist remit, the Elise is a featherweight in the sportscar world. Weighing in at 924kg its extruded, bonded aluminium structure remains central to the car, defining its dynamics as much as its overall packaging. Let's not deny it; the Elise isn't an easy car to get into — if easier than its hard-topped Exige relative. Leave the removable fabric contraption that Lotus passes off as a roof on the Elise and there's an art to entry and exit. Getting out particularly. All the more reason to leave the roof off if you can bear the sun.
Do so and you'll want the air-conditioning on; yup, the Elise features such niceties these days. Sure, it weighs a bit more to have chilled air, but then what price comfort? Lotus's lightweight mantra is fine in its drizzly, cool UK home, but it doesn't work quite so well here in the Middle East. So be damned with any additional weight that cooled air brings, especially as this 2012 S model has more than enough power to deal with it.
That's plentiful power in Lotus terms. In any other sportscar the 220bhp output of the supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine might be considered lacking. It's a new unit for 2012 too, giving the Elise range a muscular choice since emissions restrictions killed off the old S. Amusingly, it's said to be the same basic unit as in the Toyota Prius, only the supercharger and cast liners in the aluminium block (to prevent distortion under the Exige S's higher stresses) mean it's an entirely different proposition. If you care, consumption is 7.5 litres-per-100km on the combined cycle. We don't.
What does matter is the performance — the Elise S's supercharged unit giving it a 0-100kph time of 4.6 seconds, maxing out at 234kph. Quick enough, but then it's never been about raw speed in the Elise, more about what you can do with it.
The new S is subtly different in its delivery over its predecessor, most notably as its torque output has swollen from 210 to 250Nm. That peak arrives some 400rpm lower than in the old car too, at 4,600rpm, making the S feel less frenetic and rev-happy than it once did. That translates to more useable performance more of the time, even when limited to Lotus's test track. After a few laps in the new Exige S with its significantly mightier output the Elise S still feels quick, very quick, its ability to keep accelerating helped greatly by its lack of bulk. The delivery is particularly linear, the rise to that peak torque steady and the drop off slow.
It's not often you'll feel the need to wait for the second or third light on the dash to glow, demanding an upshift, as the engine works best when short-shifting before maximum power at 6,800rpm. Around 6,000rpm is its sweet spot for changing up, allowing the next gear to delve back into the torque band as it swells. It's particularly notable out of corners, where the greater muscle increases the exit speed — and overall enjoyment. The gear shift itself remains the weakest point in the driving experience, it lacking the trigger-like accuracy of the best manual gearboxes, though it's not so bad as to seriously lessen the fun to be had behind the wheel.
Where the Elise S still retains the ability to shock is not so much its performance, but agility, which never ceases to amaze. The steering is key, the wheel writhing playfully in your hands, filtering out excesses yet delivering the sort of precision and communication that's pretty much unrivalled among any of its competition. That faithful, quick and information-rich steering is backed up by a chassis that remains a benchmark for adjustability yet also user-friendliness. The Elise S is immensely enjoyable and never frightening. That you're always so aware of where the limits are — or how much you're over them — defines the Elise, whether it's this S, or the naturally aspirated 1.6-litre alternative.
The new model gains a greater degree of usability, the engine's flexibility dictating that, even if overall the Elise S, like everything Lotus produces off its basic architecture, remains a compromise due to its packaging. A wonderful compromise though, and Lotus shouldn't forget that.