Lotus has always adhered to the philosophy that less is more, and at first glance the 2008 Elise SC appears to be no exception.
Hip high and weighing just six pounds more than a ton of feathers, the Elise SC is by far the lightest sports car available from a major manufacturer (other than the standard Elise) and makes two-seat convertibles like the Mazda Miata and Porsche Boxster look like SUVs in comparison.
Short and wide, the Elise has a widemouthed, big-eyed face combined with the figure of Kim Kardashian to make for a car that looks a lot like, well, Kim Kardashian. It is as if a Manx dune buggy had relations with a Corvette back in the swinging 1970s, and the offspring turned out to be just as much fun as that sounds.
Like all cars made by the Malaysian-owned British-based automaker, Lotus drapes a composite fiberglass body over an aluminum platform that looks more like the tub of a racing car than what’s under your Yaris.
With room for little more than a low-profile double-wishbone suspension and duffle-bag-size trunk behind the midmounted engine, Lotus reserves just enough space in the middle to perfectly position a driver and passenger, focusing most of its attention on the one behind the steering wheel.
It's a small wheel at that, leather-trimmed, and supplied by Momo who somehow manages to hide an airbag inside the tiny hub. Behind the spokes is a simple instrument binnacle with just two dials for speed and RPM, and not much bigger than one you'd see on the other side of a motorcycle's handlebars.
The rest of the interior continues a minimalist theme that would make Howard Roark proud, with much of the aluminum exposed between a few splashes of charcoal-colored soft-touch trim.
Lotus does find a spot to install a Pioneer stereo, which looks like it was picked up from Best Buy on the way to work, as well as what may be the only factory-installed iPod holder that actually works. Nothing more than a simple foam sheath tucked into the dashboard -- and looking like the result of a six-pack’s worth of jury-rigging in the machine shop -- it is the perfect solution for a car that inspires the kind of driving that would normally toss your tunes onto the tarmac.
Getting yourself into the Elise SC is a snap, too, as long as the top is off. The large targa-style opening allows for an easy step into a seat with a surprising amount of legroom. With the manually installed cloth roof in place, it's more like sneaking into your bedroom window after curfew; this car lives for the sun.
Sitting as low down as you do in the Elise SC, the front fenders at chin level, the road quickly becomes very familiar. The experience is more street luge than $54,500 automobile. For 2008, the sensation is exaggerated by paper-thin ProBax seating which comes as standard equipment, and offers a lot more than meets the eye, or so we were told.
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Carmakers sometimes make outlandish claims about their products, and in the briefing Lotus held before letting us loose on the mountain roads outside of Pala, Calif., the engineer on hand tossed us a doozy. Not only did he explain that the seats were anatomically designed to position you so that your skeleton carries more of your body’s weight, rather than the muscle and fat of your backside, but that the result of this is better blood circulation delivering more oxygen to your brain which can increase your concentration.
Take that, La-Z-Boy.
While there weren’t any blood pressure monitors or electrodes attached as I attacked the scribble of asphalt trimming the ragged edges of Palomar Mountain, there was also not one ache or pain at the end of the day.
As far as brain activity is concerned, all I know for sure is that I managed to keep the Elise SC from sailing off any unguarded hairpin turns into thousands of feet of oblivion, and I wasn't exactly treating the ride as if I were driving mom to church. After seven hours behind the wheel, I felt ready for 70 more.
And more is what the Elise SC is all about.
While the 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine in the standard Elise makes 190 horsepower, the supercharged one in the SC (get it?) bumps that figure to 218 horses. Not much by supercar or even family car standards, but think of it this way; pound for pound the ultralight Elise SC is more powerful than a Ford Mustang with a honking 4.6 liter V-8.
The trip from 0 to 60 mph takes a scant 4.4 seconds. One hundred mph arrives in just 6.3 more, putting the Elise SC in the company of some serious players like the Chevy Corvette and BMW M3. On a road comprised of 90 degree turns and worse, the Elise SC has little trouble playing David to Goliaths like those.
Its unpowered steering feels connected not just directly to your hands, but to your will. The car responds to inputs before the thought to apply them even crosses your mind. If the Lotus is still not doing what you expect of it, you can manhandle it the rest of the way with absolutely none of the muted feedback you get from even the best high-tech-steering systems.
The fittingly small tires, 175 mm up front and 225 mm in the rear, grip until every single law of physics, including the ones the government still keeps secret, have been violated. Then, with none of the screechy waddle-roll that accompanies the last gasp of traction in every other road car in the world, the Elise SC just takes a quick hop a few inches to the side and resumes where you left off.
On a downhill stretch you might as well be skiing moguls.
Inches behind your head, the supercharger pressurizing the air into the Toyota-supplied engine howls like an F6 tornado, a rush of noise that transcends the minuscule proportions and humble origins of the power plant.
Coupled to a short-throw, six-speed gearbox that operates with bolt-action feel, if not precision, the flexible motor needs little more than third and fourth gears to move the Elise SC down nearly any road shorter than a freeway.
Slowing the Elise SC is as immediate as everything else it does, the cross-drilled brakes offering the feel of pressing the sole of your foot directly into the ground, Flintstones-style. What shocked me most at the end of the day was the discovery that the car I was driving was equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS).
Despite the world-class thrashing I gave it in my vain attempt to keep pace with the pack of far better drivers gunning their test cars in front of me, not once did I sense the annoying shudder of an ABS intervention. Either the representatives from Lotus are brilliant liars, or they have designed the finest ABS ever.
None of this is to say the Elise SC is perfect. Spend some quality time with it, and a couple of flaws quickly make their way to the surface. The fiberglass engine cover/trunk, for one, closes with the fit of a gym locker that's been slammed shut on its fair share of nerds, and that otherwise rewarding transmission tends to turn third to second gear shifts into third to fourths, if you're not paying attention.
As good of a package as this little Lotus is, you'd be hard-pressed to make it your daily driver. Everything about it is just a shade too bare and basic to hold up under seven-day-a-week duty. Unless you normally ride something with two wheels to work, the Elise SC will come across as a weekend whipping boy, not much more.
For the money, that's not such a bad thing. Short of dealing with frequent bouts of helmet hair and scraped knees, a purer driving experience is hard to find. Certainly not in one that comes with doors and a roof.
Could you ask for anything more?
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2008 LOTUS ELISE SC
Base Price: $54,500
Type: Mid-engine, two-passenger coupe
Engine: 1.8-liter supercharged inline-4 cylinder
Power: 218 hp, 156 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual
MPG: 20 city/26 hwy
0-60 mph: 4.4 sec
What do you think of the Elise SC?
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