First drive: Lotus Elise

The Lotus Elise really has come of age. For years the British sports car manufacturer has been extolling the virtues of low weight, and for 14 years its iconic roadster has been a shining example to the rest of the industry of how to improve fuel economy by keeping your eyes fixed on the scales.

Determined to keep its best-selling product ahead of the chasing pack, Lotus has updated the Elise with the intention of reducing the car's environmental impact even further. The biggest change – aside from the styling – is under the bonnet of the entry-level Elise where the 134bhp 1.8-litre engine is replaced by a new 1.6-litre lump with much the same power, but emitting just 149g/km of CO2.

Like its predecessor, the 1.6 has been sourced from Toyota, and it comes with the Japanese manufacturer's latest tech, including a new Valvematic system which provides a better torque band, but is still capable of delivering 45mpg under the Elise's bonnet. Otherwise the range stays much the same as it was before; the Elise R retains the more powerful 190bhp 1.8-litre engine, and the SC model keeps the 218bhp supercharged version.

Every model gets the Lotus's styling tweaks though, which incorporate a new front clamshell, rear bumper, engine cover and all-in-one front headlight that include LED running lights. The result is a cleaner, prettier Elise although some may miss the aggressive edge that has disappeared in the manufacturer's polishing.

No such problems with the interior. Even sprinkled with the tinsel of the Touring Pack, the Elise is a spartan place to sit. The tiny cockpit exudes mechanical purpose, and though everything might not quite fit together like a Swiss watch, you always feel like you're being held in the rib cage of the car's metallic skeleton. That sensation is key to the Lotus charm, and the update has done nothing to detract from the simple pleasure of getting comfy on the ultra-firm seats and nudging that pretty nose out onto the road.

Almost immediately the new engine feels peppy and alert. Lotus has teased an attractively sharp note from the Toyota lump and, critically, there is plenty fun to be had winding the thing up to its 6800rpm redline. The new six-speed box is also an improvement on the previous five-speed manual; the change is tighter and feels better sprung even if you do occasionally find yourself selecting the wrong gear.

Curiously, the Elise's established talents take a little longer to shine through. Jump into the Lotus after a driving a conventional car and the heavy steering and rigid set-up makes the British roadster feel curiously inert at everyday speeds. But it doesn't take long – 20 minutes or so – and your driving style recalibrates to suit Lotus's sanctified approach to building sports cars.

Take the Elise by the scruff of the neck and it feeds your senses a sinewy stream of information. The lightweight roadster continues to do without power steering, and it comes alive at pace, dialling your hands directly into the relationship between tyres and tarmac. Every drop of extra speed teaches you something new about the car's capabilities, but, crucially, the Elise remains a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car that rewards the novice. Few will find the limits of the roadster's epic grip on the public road, but for those who do Lotus has engineered in sufficient understeer to make sure the Elise doesn't bite without warning.

None of this helps the Lotus to achieve its headline fuel consumption figures of course, and it takes tremendous willpower to rein in the Elise's natural exuberance and drive a little more conservatively. Fortunately there are few penalities for doing so. The ride quality in the little Lotus is still tuned to England's roads with such skill that it remains unparalleled in its class, and only the deepest potholes will reveal the rock-like rigidity beyond the dampers beguiling limits.

The new engine is easily flexible enough to push the 876kg Elise around the place at lower speeds, and though a fair bit more blustery than the competition, the Lotus cruises with good manners. Keep things sensible and sedate, and the Elise will easily return the kind of mpg figure you'd expect from a speedy supermini.

But where's the fun in that? Lotus may have been quick to see the advantages of combining its bantamweight best-seller with a frugal new engine, but in truth the environmental benefits are merely periphery to the purist ethos the roadster was built on. No one will deny the economic satisfaction of owning a sports car which doesn't require endless trips to the petrol station and saves some pennies on the road tax disc, but once the Elise has worked its way under your skin you'll be too busy clipping apexes and slipstreaming commuters to appreciate such trivialities.
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