There's not much that's practical about the 2008 Lotus Elise SC. It's nearly impossible to get in and out of gracefully, the interior lacks many of the bells and whistles we've come to expect of modern road cars, and its diminutive proportions prevent it from carrying much more than a purse and a bottle of water. But here's the thing: with the right mindset, it doesn't really matter.
The "SC" trim is new for 2008. An acronym for "supercharged," it's a step up from the Elise's normally aspirated base engine. Between its feather-light curb weight and the supercharger's 29 extra horses, the Elise SC makes a perfect track, weekend or midlife crisis car. And it doesn't look bad either.
At a base price of $55,425, the midengine Elise SC is a relative bargain. A similar-performing Porsche 911 would cost thousands of dollars more. But the Elise's bang-for-the-buck performance is mitigated by a lack of everyday functionality, which could scare away some prospective buyers who might consider the Elise too cramped and spartan for their daily driving needs.
Still, the cachet that comes with driving an Elise is priceless. Fellow Elise drivers wave at one another as they pass, as if part of a small, exclusive club. Even on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, land of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, valets leave the Elise out front. Just mind the way you climb in -- everyone's watching.
If you're the kind of person who seeks the thrill of the open road but don't quite trust yourself enough with a Ducati, the 2008 Lotus Elise SC might be your car. It's powered by a seemingly benign 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. ("How cool could that be?" you might ask. "That's the same size as the one in a Toyota Corolla.") But hold onto your hats, because that supercharged mill makes 218 horsepower at 7,800 rpm and 153 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission (no automatic or clutchless manual is offered).
If those numbers still don't sound impressive, consider that the Elise SC's curb weight is a mere 2,028 pounds, 500 pounds fewer than a Mazda Miata Touring convertible. The result? The 2008 Lotus Elise SC rips from zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds from a standing start (4.6 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip).
Braking performance is similarly excellent. The Elise SC can stop from 60 to zero in 110 feet. The ground-sticking suspension, combined with Yokohama Advan AD07 summer performance tires, helps the Lotus Elise SC get through the slalom at a blistering 72.4 mph, only 0.2 mph slower than a Porsche 911.
It's also nice to know the Elise doesn't cost a fortune at the pump. In our test car, we averaged 21.6 mpg, which was on the low side of its EPA fuel rating of 20/26. Not too shabby for a car with this kind of performance.
Strip away the facts and figures, and the Elise -- especially on Southern California's winding canyon roads on a sunny Sunday morning -- easily confirms its place as a pure wind-in-your-hair driver's car. When the pavement and weather conditions are pristine, the Elise responds quickly and smoothly, its steering giving you fantastic feedback. You'll think it's your best friend. But on average, rougher roads littered with cracks, gravel and railroad crossings, the Elise gets cranky, and there's no stability control to save your bacon if the car gets out of sorts. Some members of our team also found the shifter's action to be occasionally clunky. So although the roadster drives beautifully in optimal conditions, alas, such conditions these days are increasingly difficult to find.
The Lotus Elise is tiny (only about 6 inches longer than a Mini Cooper), and it sits very low to the ground. The door sill is wide and notoriously high in comparison to the seats, an attribute which requires of the driver and passenger some contortionist skills to successfully navigate. The racing-like seats are supportive, but feel hard and thinly upholstered. The driver seat can slide forward and back, but there are no other adjustments. The passenger seat is fixed, and although it's set as far back as possible, tall riders will still find their knees pressed up against the front airbag compartment.
The 2008 Lotus Elise SC is also a physically demanding car to drive. It doesn't have power steering, so the turning effort is very high (the wheel will feel so light in other cars, you'll think they have a busted steering rack). And because the ride is so stiffly tuned, the Elise makes a poorly maintained street feel less like motoring and more like rodeo training. There's also quite a bit of road noise when driving, but that's somewhat expected in a car like this -- and our car had the Touring Pack's additional sound insulation. So between the suspension, the hard plastic seats and the roar of the road, sensitive or tender-fleshed drivers might walk away feeling rather beat up after a day of vigorous driving.
The interior of the 2008 Lotus Elise is pretty bare-bones. The instrument cluster is relatively easy to read, but don't look for the redline on the tachometer. The Elise uses a series of shift indicator lights that come on sequentially as the engine reaches higher rpm, which tell the driver when to shift. Also, the digital fuel gauge makes it a bit tough to guess exactly how much gas is left, which can be nerve-wracking in a car with a mere 10.6-gallon tank.
Removing and replacing the fabric roof is relatively easy, although somewhat labor-intensive. It rolls up and fits, along with two plastic support pieces, into a nylon bag that can be stored in the trunk. Putting the roof back on can sometimes be difficult, as the pins on the roof that fit into the guides on each side of the car sometimes don't sit flush when pulling the fabric tight to click things into place.
Cargo space is extremely limited. There is no glove compartment, only a narrow shelf on the passenger side. The Touring Pack adds a sliding cupholder, which will only fit a narrow bottle or can. The trunk won't fit much more than a medium-size suitcase or a couple of backpacks.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2008 Lotus Elise SC has the look and feel of a kit car. Its low profile, insect-style headlights and wild color palette have the power to turn the heads of kids and adults alike. The chassis seems well built, although it appears to be held together by a goopy pink epoxy, evidence of which can be seen beneath the dash near the footwells. It's not by any means a plush car, but the quality is good where it counts: namely, the powertrain and all the parts that make it corner and stop.
Who should consider this vehicle
Track junkies or driving enthusiasts looking for pure performance unhampered by weight-adding options and unnecessary techno-gadgets; bored retirees with money to burn and great bone density.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.