“Für Elise am 27 April  zur Erinnerung von L. v. Bthvn”. According to the lost Ludwig Van Beethoven’s original manuscript for the famous Bagatella Für Elise, this was the title accompanying the music sheet. A light, simple but intriguing melody, written as a dedication to a loved person which has now been etched forever. The identity of the lady to whom this music was dedicated to has not been confirmed yet, but it is supposed to have been one of Van Beethoven’s very young students.
Inspired by the grace of a lady, Für Elise has perhaps done a woman the greatest of gifts: consigning her name to eternity. Interesting to note how inspiring a member of the fairer sex can be, charming and with her simplicity and powerful with their character. Put it this way, we might be obsessed with our passions, whether music or cars, but women are an invaluable source of inspiration.
In a way, Romano Artioli acted a bit little like Van Beethoven when he introduced the Lotus Elise on September 12th 1995, when he named the new sportscar after his niece. No love story of course, but still an inspiration from a newborn child whose name has signified a new era in sports cars. Like Für Elise, that new Lotus was light, graceful and intriguing for anyone who had an interest in cars. The engineers have been a bit like composers as they followed the principles of lightness, creating a new standard for sportscars that still endures 25 years later.
Even here, the love of a grandfather to his newborn granddaughter has consigned a name to an ideal of lightness and grace which belongs to the petrolheads’ lexicon. The Lotus Elise was a revolution. Under the guidance of Richard Rackham, the team designed a road car destined to be the successor of the famed Lotus 7. The new car had to be safer and a step ahead in performance but also a true “back-to-basics” car, with no frills and no unnecessary equipment. The cockpit was the chassis itself, with its alluminium panels glued together in a revolutionary way. With the consultancy of the Hydro Aluminium Company, Lotus put together a car with a chassis so good to see that it became the heart and soul of this project. Powered by the Rover K series engine producing 120 hp with peak torque at 3.000 rpm and equipped with the special Metal Matrix Composite brake discs produced by the now defunct Lanxide Corp it was as light and essential as a modern sportscar could get. Less than 800 kg is still an impressive figure by 2020 standards: very few sportscars have been able to achieve similar results ever since.
5 years after the Elise came into the scene, the Exige was presented. Conceived as its more performing sibling, it offered more power and performance. With its more aggressive styling and 177 hp Rover K series VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) 1.8 litre engine, it was ready to raise the bar set with the Elise. It was a car destined to a “technical” audience, meaning those driving fanatics looking for every detail that could lower their track-day lap times. The Exige took the melody of the Elise and turned into something aggressive and razor-sharp…like Beethoven played by Five Finger Death Punch. 2020 marks the anniversary of both these cars: 25 years for Elise and 20 years for the Exige. God… time flies, especially because we remember these cars when they were brand new and roaming the world!
Set on the magnificent roads of Lake Iseo, north of Sarnico, this test had a double purpose: to celebrate the modern “adding lightness” mantra and to see how this philosophy has evolved over the years. Luckily we had a pre-production 1996 Elise, one of the first 100th produced and one of the few painted in Deep Purple with blue interior and a loud open exhaust. To compare, we had a 2013 Exige S painted in the rather interesting color of Military Grey and black leather interior. Still light by modern standards, it represents one of the latest evolutions of the idea of the original Elise. Strong with 350 hp from its supercharged Toyota 2GR-FE V6 engine it’s a car for those looking for a good balance between a road-usable supercar and a pure track-day monster. Weighing over 1000 kg, it may shock the most faithful “Chapmanians” but it’s still a great driver’s car nonetheless. Our Escape towards the history of this landmark dynasty of light cars begun on the shores of Lake Iseo, where the roads are free during the week and offer both cruising sections very close to the water, great scenery and awesome twisty roads.
Top down (obviously), we started off with the S1 which you must admit… it’s hard not to stop looking at it. The shape of the body, so small and perfectly balanced and the nice wheels make you just think that this is perhaps one of the most gorgeous cars of the 1990ies. The entrance is a bit hard, especially because the steering wheel is not adjustable in height and the seats are down low, well between the door sills. The sensation is to be sitting right on the floor, as the seats do not have almost any padding at all. Only the driving position has a small air pump that could increase comfort just a bit than necessary not to make your back hurt too much. The view out is excellent and the controls are right where they should be: a small steering wheel and a small lever for the gear-change. The pedals are perfectly positioned and are ideal for heel-and-toe. The start up is gentle, with the Rover engine coming to life with a very subtle purr which immediately gives away its modest origin. First gear in and the Elise moves easily and without hesitation: right from the first meters it’s incredibly easy to get used to this little gem. The unassisted steering is light, the gearshift precise (despite being a little notchy) and the comfort superb. The Elise is happy at all speeds and becomes even happier when you drive through the corners. The handling is magic, as the car feels like it’s dancing between the curves: there’s little downforce and no go-faster trickeries, and the Elise is just a joy to drive. 120 hp are more than enough and if you pace the car well, even the 350 hp Exige will have a hard time catching up! The S1 of our test had an incredibly loud exhaust, so in the galleries it sounded like a modern LMP2! The factory soft suspension setting meant that all the bumps were absorbed very well and that under hard cornering it begun to slide, just like an old school car would do. The engine picked up revs quickly with peak power at 5.500 rpm, just when the little Lotus was screaming her heart out. What a gem of a car!
Following the logical historic order, we next jumped on the Exige S. Gone is the absolute minimalism of the Elise as you’re presented with a much more elaborate (in Lotus terms of course) car. Much heavier as it’s equipped with first world accessories like a radio, driving modes and leather seats, it was the answer to those power-hungry Lotus enthusiasts. Its V6 sounds very “technical”, it’s brutally fast and it’s effective on both road and track. It has plenty of low-down torque and the progression is just ferocious till the redline: however on the road around Lake Iseo, 5.000 rpm already feel like too much. The car handles very sincerely and precisely and you’ll find yourself immediately finding a good pace between the corners. The gearshift is mechanical but a bit loose and at times imprecise but it’s rewarding nonetheless, while the relentless surge from the engine is addictive. The howl coming out of the exhaust is enough to make your hair raise and the acceleration is absolutely sensational. The handling is neutral and very forgiving: precise and confidence inspiring, you’ll be surprised by the fact that the Exige S doesn’t have a limited slip differential. It’s a Lotus through and through and you can see the genes of the Elise well planted in the Exige S’ character. Light, involving, forgiving and ultimately a very fun driving car, it’s the modern definition of Colin Chapman’s philosophy. Too bad the Man himself is not around today to enjoy the sight of these two iconic Lotus motorcars.
25 and 20 years have passed but they will always remain at the core of what a Lotus should and will always have to be: light, graceful, feminine but involving and hardcore to the bone. Elise is sure a name that inspires: from one side sweet melodies, to the other the utmost representation of Chapman’s “adding lightness” philosophy.