Lotus may be building a host of modern sports cars to keep up with the tarmac-shredding Joneses, but it isn't about to turn its back on the lightweight, no-nonsense track cars it's famed for. Hence the arrival of the new Elise Club Racer, a stripped-down, lightweight version of its iconic mid-engined roadster. This £27,500 sports car has a new 1.6-litre, naturally aspirated engine, but sacrifices nearly all luxuries in its pursuit of the purest possible driving experience.
Lotus has put the Elise on a serious diet to create the Club Racer special edition. It's swapped the standard car's battery for a lightweight unit more commonly found in motorsports, and removed the stereo system, speakers and floor mats. Even the sound-deadening material designed to insulate the cabin from engine, exhaust and road noise has been ripped out. The end result is a 25kg reduction in weight, a considerable amount given that the standard car weighs a paltry 876kg.
Like any track-orientated car, the Club Racer isn't a comfortable place to hang out. The door sills don't run along the floor -- they rise halfway up the car, so getting in and out requires extreme flexibility and underwear that you don't mind flashing to passers-by.
Once you've limbered up, flashed your nether regions and poured yourself inside, you're in for yet more punishment from the seats, which are Spartan at best. Most cars see proper upholstering as a necessary evil, but weight reduction is king in the Club Racer, so its pews are shod with strategically placed cushions to protect your bum and shoulder blades.
Even when settled in, there's no let-up. The cabin is a cacophony of wind, tyre and exhaust noise, and, if you're not the type to use a wallet, the incessant rattling of loose change against the bare metal chassis. None of these noises is as distressing, however, as the sound of your own sobbing as you realise the only way to rescue your mobile phone from its under-chair prison is to remove the seats with a spanner.
The Club Racer can be a chore to drive, particularly in traffic. Its suspension is surprisingly soft and rides bumps well, but the lack of power steering and the tightly sprung clutch will give your arms and left leg a thorough workout. The aluminium gear stick is unforgiving, too, and enthusiastic gear changes can result in sore palms, a phenomenon we've not noticed on any other model of car.
The roof, which can be detached for some top-down thrills, isn't without its problems. It's easy enough to attach and remove, and stows neatly in a cubby hole behind the seats or in the tiny boot, but it doesn't actually protect the car from rain -- at least not sideways English rain. Lotus says heavy downpours in high winds can cause the roof to leak, although this isn't something we encountered during our road test.
The little engine that tried
Previous entry-level Elise cars were powered by a 1.8-litre engine, but new models on the bottom rung, including the Club Racer, now use a 1.6-litre unit, chucking out 134bhp. That, we're afraid to say, isn't an awful lot. The Club Racer is quick off the line, and can achieve 0-60mph in a respectable 6.4 seconds, but it simply doesn't have enough grunt to overtake dawdling Sunday drivers.
The upshot of having such a small engine, however, is that the Elise achieves impressive fuel economy of 46mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 149g/km -- numbers normally reserved for far uglier cars.
Handle with flair
Where the Club Racer truly comes into its own is on the track. The engine, which feels puny at low revs, delivers a rewarding surge of power near the red line, and the lack of sound deadening will make you feel like you're doing a million miles an hour. You won't be, obviously -- faster cars will pass you like you're standing still on longer straights, but the Club Racer's fabulous brakes and ultra-low weight should allow competent drivers to brake later and carry more speed through the corners.
There's little danger of accidentally pushing the car too hard through the twisties, as the Club Racer's suspension and steering delivers gobs of feedback about when its ultra-grippy tyres are reaching the limit of adhesion. Its electronic stability-control (ESC) system, meanwhile, acts as a fail-safe, cutting the power or applying the brakes to individual wheels as necessary to straighten the car out.
Those who want to risk getting bent out of shape can activate the car's 'sport' setting, which reduces the amount of interference from the ESC system, via a button in front of the gear lever. You can also deactivate the ESC system completely. Even with the system off, we think most people are unlikely to exceed the Club Racer's grip levels -- it's so well-planted that it feels like it's on rails most of the time.
Like most track-orientated cars, the Lotus Elise Club Racer isn't a vehicle we'd like to drive on a day-to-day basis. It's uncomfortable, it isn't particularly quick in a straight line, and it's about as practical as marshmallow underpants. But, if you're seeking a sexy weekend ride that turns corners as well as it turns heads, then there are few cars that can compete.
Edited by Charles Kloet