One-Horse Race?: Comparison of Elise and Ferrari

Surely the L28K Elise doesn’t stand a chance against the L133K 360 CS?  Don’t count aginst the go-dart coming before the pracncing hourse, says David Vivian.

Photography Mark Bramley

Elise versus Ferrari

'ELISE 111R fights 360 Challenge Stradale.’ Sounds absurd, doesn't it? Well absurd is better than contrived. And what makes this face-off so intriguing is that the Lotus is good enough to keep the Ferrari honest.

So it's real. But still absurd. We're talking L133,025 v L27,995 here; 420bhp v 189bhp; L3k go-faster stripes versus a L1995 lights/leather/roof/windows/stowage/stereo upgrade package. The cars represent totally different worlds of expectation and irreconcilable expressions of value. The CS is a supercar deity, the Elise a supercar wannabe. The mere sight of the CS can knock out feeling to the knees. If the Elise had the same effect, its driver wouldn't be able to get in. The CS is an object of lust on a lofty pedestal; the Elise could be yours for the signature on an affordable credit agreement. If the task here is to identify the greater car, the little Elise, you'd have to assume, hasn't got a prayer.

But, truth is, we've been wondering. Never mind the financial uncertainties of Lotus the company, Lotus the brand, the legend and the philosophy is a global benchmark. And Hethel can unequivocally be mentioned in the same breath as Maranello. Both have their own development test tracks, both have world class 'hands' to guide and hone the dynamic behaviour of their cars. Ferrari's most celebrated part timer (a German mostly employed to drive the company's single seaters) is, admittedly, very tasty. As for the regulars, though, we'd take Gavan Kershaw over Dario Benuzzi any day of the week.

Largely thanks to Gav and co, the newly re-invigorated, Toyota-powered Lotus is probably the best road-going Lotus ever, certainly the most talented Elise. It is, hand on heart, quite ridiculously good. And not just because its cross-country pace dissolves whatever happens to be between A and B like a vat of sulphuric acid. With the MR, that seminal Elise purity is at the heart of a bigger experience that includes genuine straight-line thump, new levels of front-end bite, fabulous manners on the limit, a tasty engine note, a vast new rev ceiling, a terrific gear change and an almost unfathomably fine ride. If ever a car's abilities - in this case, too good for the hitherto invincible Vauxhall VX220 Turbo (from the same factory and development stable) - transcended its apparent station in fife, here it is. This is what we think. So long as the road isn't punctuated with too many lengthy straights, the newly re-armed, Toyota loaded Lotus can hold its own with anything this side of a full-on track-day special. And if you focus on arguably the most important elements (driving environment, performance, transmission, handling, ride and braking) its fight with the CS looks more like an opportunity than a forgone conclusion.

Visually, the Elise 111 R is a feast of quasi-exotic gestures. Its body has more slats and scoops than the Ferrari's. This is not the same as presence, though.

Sitting next to the red, striped Challenge Stradale, the Lotus looks curiously small and ordinary. To be frank, it all but disappears. If you just happen to have E133k burning a hole in your pocket, first sight of the Ferrari could be all that's needed to hand it over there and then. However irrational it might seem, some will believe a car that looks as good as the Ferrari cannot be approached in any sense, let alone usurped, by the Lotus.

But after being almost knocked out of the frame by the immediate shock of the Italian's kerbside clout, the Elise is quick to start clawing its way back. Fact is, it has the better 'office'. Sliding behind the Ferrari's wheel may be a whole lot easier than even contemplating the graceless contortions required to enter the 111 R with its roof in place, but the CSs bare metal’n’carbon cabin with its rubber mats and drilled pedals feels like a boxy, upright saloon's by comparison, despite its uncompromising, ultra-grippy, fixed backrest bucket seats. That said, the Ferrari's interior stowage is surprisingly generous (especially the wide door pockets) and visibility only get-away-with-it good.

The broad sills that make getting into the Lotus so awkward undoubtedly narrow the cabin but also enhance the feeling of intimacy and snug security once ensconced. And the driving position nudges perfection. Maybe the leanly padded but shapely buckets could do with a little more under-thigh support, but the relative positioning of the deliciously tiny steering wheel and the all-aluminium gearlever are spot on. And while the straight-ahead pedals are quite dainty, they're extremely well spaced, allowing peachy heel-and-toe downshifts if you're so inclined. The paddle-shift CS has only two pedals, of course, and it's just as well because the footwell is quite cramped.

So the Lotus is lower, easier to see out of and should, thanks to those prominent, razor-edged wheelarches, feel more threadable and confidence building. But perhaps the confidence thing isn't entirely unrelated to the nature of the engines slung between these cars' axles. The 425bhp quadcam V8 of the 360 CS is possibly the world's most intense production engine: loud, manic and utterly magnificent. It has over twice the power and double the cylinders of the Lotus's 4 16-valve four and a 1421b ft torque advantage. But although the Ferrari weighs 420kg more, it scores a power-to-weight ratio of 328bhp per tonne against the Lotus's 220bhp: awesome plays merely impressive. So while the 111R's lightness is something of a leveller, it's not nearly good enough for a would-be Ferrari assassin to got the job done against the clock. The Elise nails 60mph in a fraction over five seconds, 0-100mph in 13 and winds out to 143mph. It's one fast Elise.

The CS, though, is potentially much faster. Get the start right (tricky, and the launch control isn't a huge help, dialing in too much wheelspin) and the CS is even faster than the Elise to 60mph. After that things get more extreme: the Ferrari starts to accelerate with a sustained intensity to which the Lotus has no honest answer, cutting loose by around three seconds at the ton on the way to its 190mph-plus top speed.

It's a phenomenal experience. The engine's dizzy outputs are spat at the tarmac in six perfectly judged gobs of scalp-prickling fury with just 150 millisecond pauses in between. I've never been a great fan of the 360's Fl box but it's been honed and finessed to the point where it's now smooth and well mannered around town and, in Race mode, works brilliantly. As if that isn't enough, the Stradale's exhaust note at flat chat is loud and penetrating enough to blow chunks off the Lotus's receding nose and curdle milk in the fridges of nearby houses. The weapons grade sonic onslaught that accompanies its progress is extraordinary, unforgettable and deeply addictive.

But ease the volume back from I I to, say, eight, remove 30 per cent of the spite and fury and you have the Lotus. Going hard is essentially the same deal. Which makes following the Ferrari in the 111 R almost spooky. The Elise tries to shadow the CS, homing in at a dizzy 78OOrpm like a cruise missile and, up to 80mph at least, it comes tantalisingly dose to pulling it off.

Really, it's one bell of an engine. Honed and re-programmed by Lotus for the featherweight Elise - its output sliced into expertly divided chunks by the short-throw, lightning-fast sixspeeder - the Toyota lump (essentially lifted from the Celica) delivers a denuded, less exciting but nevertheless authentic version of the Ferrari's high revving action rush.

And if that was as close as the Elise got to the CS, we could all go home happy that the underdog had put up a spirited fight and drawn token blood. But, as we hinted earlier, things aren't quite that simple for the Stradale. God knows, they should be.   As well as being formidably fast the CS is also the owner of a blinding chassis capable of massive cornering forces and steering that, once it sheds its initial low speed deadness, becomes meaty and scalpel sharp. Its dynamic proposition is a stark honesty stripped of fi-ills and peripheral distractions. There's a broad and adjustable band of behaviour that encourages commitment. Coordinate mind, hands and feet and it flies. Let your concentration spool down a tad and the consequences aren't dire. The interaction between machine, butt and cerebrum is extreme. You, the Ferrari and the road. Hard to imagine this isn't as good as it gets.

But there's something about the Lotus's steering. Something about the way it requires so little effort yet says so much, the way it melds precision with purity feels unmatched by any other road car.

The latest Elise is reflexive, instinctively correct in its actions. It seems to have no inertia, no blurring of intention. You don't have to read the car, it reads you. You wear it - mentally, physically. Everything it does is beautifully resolved. There's the immediacy of the controls, the sensational ride - so firm yet unerringly supple - the way it feels so light and closely coupled to the road.

And by comparison the Ferrari feels very much what it is: bigger, wider and heavier. Its steering doesn't seem to resolve half as much information from the road's surface or respond as precisely or swiftly to small, line-trimming inputs. And despite having quite phenomenal ceramic brakes and astonishing reserves of grip on its semi-slick Michelins, it simply doesn't key into the

road the way the superbly lithe and supple Lotus does. In short, the Elise feels more connected. It recalibrates your senses even when you come to it from a car as responsive as the Ferrari.

The Lotus's is a killer formula: rnidmounted engine, low polar moment, big power-to-weight ratio, diplomas in direction changing and transitional handling. The nub of its allure as a sports car lies in a chassis that can involve and satisfy at all levels of commitment and not punish driver and passenger with a jarring ride. Scrubby understeer, speed-sapping oversteer, steering that doesn't place the front wheels exactly where you want them and the deflections inflicted by bumpy, rutted roads have no place in its extraordinary repertoire. What you get is the perfect conversion of power into motion. Pure, unsullied, sensational.

And the plain fact is that the Ferrari isn't as good. It comers harder but with less communication, less involvement and less fluidity. As the fight nears its end, this isn't a superficial flesh wound, it's a badly broken jaw.

However, there are areas in which the car from Maranello crushes the Hethel upstart so obviously and completely, it's stretching things to call it a contest: styling, presence, case of ingress, interior ambience, engine size/power/ sound/appearance and - harder to define, this, but no less real - an aura that makes your skin prickle as you walk up to it. It might be a 360 with a loud exhaust, stripped-out cabin and stickier tyres, but the modifications have made an already addictive driving experience almost unbearably thrilling.

True, the Elise can easily keep up on a twisty road and teach the Ferrari several lessons in steering acuity and chassis finesse. Ultimately, however, it doesn't measure up as an experience.

But the fact is, remove straight-line grunt from the equation, and the Elise 111 R is a more rewarding steer than the Ferrari. Savour the moment. Cars that change your life view don't come along every day.

Auto Car Magazine  30 March 2004