Ho hum. Back to the UK again, this time just for a week. Some meetings in London, and a weekend off either side for a bit of pootling around. No continent-crossing this time. And hopefully not too bad on the weather front.
So, the perfect opportunity to try out one of those dream cars. I considered a Ferrari (too expensive) or a Boxster (but what if it was a disappointment like the BMW?) but in the end it just had to be the Lotus. Who could resist?
Before you start, check out this video clip which shows me messing about in the Lotus. What a top car! But who is the mystery blonde?...
If you'd like the higher-quality, full-screen, 3-minute video, you can get it from here - but be warned! It's 25Mb.
Tracking one down was tricky, and cost a bomb in international phone calls. But I found one in the end, which was waiting for me at Heathrow one stunningly sunny Saturday morning in September. Hotter than Hong Kong - I couldn't believe I was in England. And the car - everything you could dream of. Cute, gleaming and incredibly low and tiny. It looks very purposeful and I couldn't wait to give it a go, but first the rental man had to show me how to assemble and disassemble the roof: an unbelievably complex undertaking, involving fitting together no less than five bits with the help of - wait for it - an allen key. So, not the sort of car to get caught in a downpour in, then. Thank God for the terrific weather.
But practicality is not the point of this car. Having read the magazine reviews, I knew there was only the tiniest of boots behind the engine, so I had packed light - and thank God I did. I was astonished to find that my carry-on flight bag would not fit in the boot. It had to travel in the passenger seat.
Ah, the seats. Yes. Not exactly Range Rover style. They are two sculpted buckets with about half an inch of padding. Covered with leather, yes, but designed much more for lightness and bottom-gripping than for long-distance (or even medium-distance) comfort. Once you've managed to squeeze yourself in - no easy task for an overweight thirtysomething, especially with the roof on (the doors are only about a foot high, and the windows even smaller, so you're left with approximately an 18-inch gap) - you are right down inside this aluminium cocoon. Almost welded to the floor. The side beams are very high, which inspires confidence in its crash protection and no doubt was essential for the stiffness of the unique glued-together chassis. You cannot hang an arm out the window because the top of the door is about shoulder height. I'm amazed you can see out.
But none of that matters. Its for driving, not for cruising. Never mind the hopeless roof and numb bum, and who cares about the crap stereo? If you can't get in or out of it gracefully, well, stay in it. Just keep away from the motorways and have a terrific drive.
At the time the standard Elise had about 120bhp, and the VVC - I believe - something like 143bhp. But specialist tuners Bell & Colvill could soup it up for you. There are even hotter versions, apparently, but the sound of this 160bhp one was terrific - menacing, popping, and just behind your left ear - and the performance was more than adequate.
Never having driven such an awesome car before, I took it very easily for the first few miles, getting the measure of it. You drift along just inches above the tarmac, with that wonderful growl from behind you. People like it - if they can see you from up there. None of the anti-excess angst that greets an equivalent-cost BMW. The steering gives amazing amounts of feedback, partly because there is no power assistance involved (or needed); and the brakes are very heavy - is there no power assistance on those either? It's all to save weight, and it works - the performance is astonishing. Once you've got the feel of it and can let it rip, 0-60 is just a case of BLAT! in first gear, a second or so to change gear on the disappointingly rubbery 'box, then BLAT! in second gear as well. In these early gears, the throttle is more like a dimmer switch - you just press it as fast as you want to go: by the time you've got the pedal all the way down, it's time to change up. Amazing, and addictive. After that, I did it at every possible opportunity.
For numbers junkies, the 0-60mph time in the standard model (120-130bhp at the time?) is under six seconds; in this I think it was nearer to five if you're lucky with the gear change (in the middle of the video clip above, you can count just over five seconds between starting off and hitting the brakes - that was a 0-60). 0-100mph is also impossibly quick, but not if you've got a passenger to time it for you. And top speed was beyond UK roads - I only got up to 110mph or so, very briefly. This version has quite a power band - you need to be doing over 4000rpm before it'll really push hard - which means that top gear is approximately useless below 100mph. Good job, because the gearbox on this one was a bugger to get into top.
Astonishing. Of course, the grip and turn-in are remarkable. Being just Joe Soap and no racing driver, I'm sure I never approached its limits. A favourite and well-known piece of Cambridgeshire back road was something of a disappointment: no challenge at all to the Lotus's stupendous capabilities. There is just nothing you can safely do on the roads which will give it a hard time. Instead, just wind on some more power and feel those tyres bite harder.
Believe me, if you've never driven a serious sports car, it will do your head in.
My sister (the mystery blonde) made me laugh when she said she couldn't be doing with this car because it didn't have electric windows. I kicked her out into the rain. Not that it wasn't raining inside the car too...
I have never heard of anyone who uses an Elise for daily transport - you need to have a sensible car as well.
Oh, and my congratulations to one poor soul at the Lowndes Hotel in Belgravia for taking on the challenge of valet-parking this thing even though the roof was on (making ingress tricky for the unitiated) and he couldn't see the controls (map light hopeless). Brave chap.
No grace, no comfort, just insanely great fun. And (almost) everybody loves it, including me.
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