South Grade Road and East Grade Road aren't the sort of evocative names you'd expect from the best driving roads to be found anywhere. But these smooth, flowing ribbons of asphalt, known locally in San Diego County as S6 and S7, are as good as anything we see on press junkets to Spain or Italy or Germany. No, really.
Best of all, they're part of a nearby network of roads in the mountains above San Diego that make this region a weekend stomping ground for the car clubs, enthusiasts of high-strung Italian motorcycles (who have about six months to live, we figure) and the kind of drivers who can appreciate the supercharged 2008 Lotus Elise SC.
So obviously we would be remiss if we didn't stomp on the loud pedal as we unwind the steering out of the next tight uphill hairpin on the way up S6 toward Mount Palomar. Squeeze the pedal is more accurate, actually, as the 2008 Lotus Elise SC's new supercharged 1.8-liter engine finally balances the equation posed by the diminutive Elise by bringing the horsepower and torque up to the level of the already-impressive chassis. Now we're talking.
Unlike the fixed-roof Lotus Exige, the Elise is defined by its open-air targa-style top and sports a functional rear window. As a result, the bulky intercooler and overhead roof scoop of the supercharged Exige couldn't be adapted here, and instead the Elise offers a non-intercooled supercharger setup built to Lotus specifications by Magnuson.
The new blower's Roots-type rotors are slightly smaller than those found in the Exige S, and the unit is wedged between the engine and the firewall in a single casting that is integral with the intake plenum. We hope you like supercharger noise, because the blower's proximity to your ear makes the flutter of the meshing rotors easy to pick out above the general din of the 16-valve DOHC 1.8-liter Toyota inline-4.
What this means to the bottom line is 218 horsepower at 7,800 rpm, an increase of 15 percent over the normally aspirated engine's 190 hp. Just as important, there's 153 pound-feet of torque at just 5,500 rpm instead of 133 lb-ft at 6,800 rpm, an increase of 15 percent as well. By far the meatiest difference comes in the midrange, where about an additional 40 lb-ft of torque is available. Partial credit goes to new engine control software with intelligent variable valve timing that can switch to a more aggressive cam anywhere between 4,000 and 6,200 rpm instead of blindly making the change at 6,200 revs every time.
What this means at the test track's finish line is a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds (4.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and a quarter-mile that comes and goes in 13.3 seconds at 103.2 mph, a few tenths quicker than the normally aspirated Elise. The Elise SC can't be had with the track-dedicated launch control system found in the Exige S240, but it does have the same trio of shift-indicator lights in the instrument binnacle that come on in sequence as you approach the redline of 8,000 rpm.
Back on the road to Mount Palomar, the extra grunt afforded by the new supercharger gives the 2008 Lotus Elise SC a power band that's so much more flexible in real-world driving that the car feels absolutely long-legged, something no Elise has ever achieved before. We don't need to row the six-speed manual gearbox quite so frantically, as the supercharged engine now has the beans to pull a taller gear out of many corners.
Fuel economy for the supercharged Elise comes in at 20 mpg in the new EPA city test and 26 mpg on the highway, 1 mpg less than a regular Elise on both cycles.
Roof, There It Isn't
All of this newfound motivation turns the Elise equation on its head. It used to be that you had to consider an Exige S to find the place in the Lotus lineup where the engine and suspension were in equilibrium. But the fixed-roof Exige S with its useless rear window and graceless ingress and egress procedure always makes us think of this car as simply a stonking good track car that possesses just a few too many compromises for use in the real world.
Since the Elise SC retains its removable top and full-view rear window, it seems so much more like the mythical four-wheel Ducati motorcycle we'd like to have on standby in the garage, the kind of device you can take out on a whim to enjoy the pure sensation of speed. Once you dispense with the roof, entry and exit is eased considerably, plus you can enjoy the open air even when you're putzing around and admiring the scenery. Unlike an Exige, the SC doesn't make you feel like you need to be on the gas all the time, so this Lotus is a whole new proposition.
Same as It Ever Was
That said, the benefits of the ultra-lightweight, fine-handling chassis wrought by the folks from Hethel are still in play here. Despite being pretty much loaded with all of the major options offered by Lotus except the blasphemous hardtop, our test car registered just 2,028 pounds on our scales.
Part of the reason is the $2,600 Sport Pack option, which actually reduces the car's weight. Forged-aluminum wheels and anatomically contoured ProBax sport seats together shave about 20 pounds from the total. Meanwhile, traction control and sport-tuned Bilstein monotube dampers (non-adjustable here) don't save weight but are a significant part of this option.
The SC's double-wishbone suspension and unassisted rack-and-pinion steering are unchanged from Elise specification, so the car's handling and steering are as epic as ever pretty much every place. Even with a slightly dusty surface, our Elise SC pulled a stout 0.96g on the skid pad and bombed through our slalom cones at 72.4 mph. Stops from 60 mph used up just 110 feet. Pretty remarkable stuff, dynamically speaking.
It's no secret that ride comfort and the suppression of noise and vibration have never been this car's forte, especially if your commute includes segmented concrete freeways. That's why it's best to think of the Elise SC as the second (or third) car in your stable.
We sampled an SC without the Sport Pack, and the only significant difference we found was a slight tendency for the tail of the Sport Pack car to step out a bit if you trail-brake enthusiastically into certain bends. Once we became accustomed to it, we were able to use it to our advantage, but the standard suspension seemed a bit more forgiving without giving up much cornering ability you'd notice on a public road.
It's Gonna Cost You
An old racer's adage (seen scrawled on the graffiti wall of dad's race shop) goes like this: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" That's a relevant question here, as the $55,425 base price of the 2008 Lotus Elise SC represents an $8,230 premium over a standard '08 Elise. Ouch. A supercharged Elise is $6,500 less than the 2008 Exige S, if that's any consolation.
But it doesn't end there. In addition to the $2,600 Sport Pack and the $1,600 Touring Pack that adds an iPod-enabled stereo, leather, carpeting, extra insulation and a cupholder, our test car had $3,300 worth of Burnt Orange "Limited" paint and a $995 piece of Star Shield plastic film clinging to it to keep rocks from chipping the nose. You could spend as much as $5,100 on "Exclusive" paint if you must, but this is starting to sound silly to us. All told, our test car costs a not-insignificant $63,920.
But Elise and Exige buyers aren't typically strapped for cash. And Lotus only has to sell 4,000 or so worldwide to max out the factory, something it's been doing with unaccustomed ease.
The overriding good news here is the 2008 Lotus Elise SC finally has the motor to keep up with itself. Unless regular track days are in your horoscope, this is the one to get. It's the perfect weapon for storming the back roads on weekends and sick days. We promise we'll wave if we cross paths on Mount Palomar.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Vehicle Testing Manager Mike Schmidt says:
I just returned from a weekend in the supercharged 2008 Lotus Elise.
My left calf is black and blue. A matching bruise decorates the shin on that leg. Semi-permanent indentations on my hips from the rivets serve as reminders that jeans and lateral G-force don't mix with firm seats. I must have banged the back of my head on the roof 10 times while climbing in and out. And I still can't wipe the smile off my face.
When settled behind the steering wheel, all pain subsides. The Elise offers such a connection between the driver and road that there isn't time to lick your wounds. Precise steering commands attention at all times. Fiddle with the integrated iPod connection while in motion and you're asking for trouble.
I found myself completely absorbed by the Elise driving experience. But the occasional passerby brought me back to reality. It turns out many people just aren't into cars. Some of the more memorable quotes from my weekend follow.
Man at a stoplight: "Whoa, is that a Europa?"
Man fueling up beside me at the gas station: "Is that the new electric car?"
Woman in a parking lot: "Cool car. Is that a Lamborghini?"
The 10-year-old son of the woman in a parking lot: (disappointed) "No Mom, it's a Lotus."
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