First Drive: 2008 Lotus Elise SC

2008 Lotus Elise SC First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (3)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2008 Lotus Elise Coupe

(1.8L 4-cyl. Supercharger 6-speed Manual)

The first-generation Lotus Elise never made it to the U.S. It was pure, simple and edgy, built for a niche of die-hard enthusiasts. Lotus never expected to sell more than 750 examples. But the Lotus Elise soon proved to be a sensation, so popular that 3,500 roll off the assembly line every year.

The 2008 Lotus Elise SC shows us just how far we've come. A 217-horsepower supercharged companion to the entry-level 190-hp Elise, the SC refutes the talk that electric windows, airbags, antilock brakes and even the availability of a cupholder have made the Elise civilized and soft.

The 2008 Lotus Elise SC won't arrive in the U.S. until June, but we had a chance to drive the car in Spain on roads through the hills behind Barcelona. Is this car — which has almost twice the power of the first-generation Elise — true to the original Lotus concept, or does power really simply corrupt?

A Simple Chariot No More
You'll need to be a car bore or a Lotus aficionado (the two are not necessarily the same) to spot the changes to the 2008 Lotus Elise SC.

As with the standard Elise, the SC has a 90.6-inch wheelbase and measures 149.0 inches in length, 72.8 inches in width and 50.0 inches in height. The most notable difference is a wraparound rear spoiler designed to improve high-speed stability, although it looks a little aftermarket for our tastes and badly compromises rear visibility besides. Less obvious are the new cast-aluminum wheels and the single, large exhaust tip.

The original Elise was such a hard-core car that it didn't even get carpet, while the seats were so uncomfortable that an ex-girlfriend of ours once got piles on a cross-country blast. Today's car is still comparatively basic, but you do get a reasonable assortment of creature comforts. All cars now have twin airbags and if you opt for the Touring Pack fitted to our test car (as most owners will) you get carpet, a leather-trimmed center console, an iPod connector and even an exquisitely crafted cupholder.

The driving position is excellent and the ProBax seats are exceptionally comfortable. An Elise is now relatively easy to live with, but don't get carried away, as this is not a Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's still difficult to get in and out, the roof is still fiddly to erect and the trunk is not exactly accommodating.

The Lotus Elise SC is the automotive equivalent of a beautiful but high-maintenance girlfriend — difficult, but clearly worth the trouble.

Supercharged Performance
The Lotus Elise is the car that Lotus said it couldn't build. When the company introduced the supercharged Lotus Exige S coupe, it argued that the need for an intercooler and an overhead air scoop made it impossible to introduce the engine in the roofless Elise. The company engineers weren't wrong, but when customers started asking for an artificially aspirated roadster, they decided to engineer a new motor.

The SC uses the same 1.8-liter Toyota 2ZZ-GE engine that's featured in the Exige, but it now features a Roots-type Magnusson M45 supercharger (slightly smaller than the Exige's unit). Though the installation doesn't have an intercooler, the Lotus engineers discovered that careful tuning of the engine's variable valve timing brought the same improvement in output.

As a result the Elise SC produces 217 hp, nearly as much as the Exige's 220-hp rating and usefully more than the 190-hp Elise. Torque, meanwhile, is improved from 134 pound-feet to 157 lb-ft, just 2 less than the Exige engine's output.

The Magic Formula
Though the raw horsepower and torque numbers don't sound like much, the magic of Lotus lies in power-to-weight ratio, and the Elise SC weighs just 1,918 pounds. And thanks to the traction afforded by the car's midengine configuration, Lotus claims the Elise SC will accelerate to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and then reach 100 mph in 10.7 seconds on the way to a top speed of 150 mph.

The engine's character is different from that of the supercharged and intercooled Toyota inline-4 of the Exige S. The power from the latter arrives in a linear fashion, while the Elise's supercharged engine has a noticeable change in thrust as the variable valve timing takes effect at 4,000 rpm. Keep the engine spinning above this mark with swift use of the six-speed gearbox and the Elise accelerates like never before.

In something so small, so light and so basic, this performance is genuinely thrilling.

Pure Driving
The Elise might have gained mass and girth over the years, but it remains a pure driver's car, and there was no need to meddle with the chassis to accommodate the extra power.

That said, the original Elise was not for the uninitiated. The lift-throttle oversteer was so severe that more than one driver found himself exiting the road backward through a typical English roadside hedge. The second-generation car is more predictable, but it still deserves respect.

The relatively narrow 175/55R16 Yokohama Advan AD07 LTS front tires give this car a natural tendency to understeer, but you can adjust the car's cornering attitude with the throttle, either by lifting off or by giving the loud pedal a determined kick. If you're confident and know what you're doing, this gives the SC a level of control that's lacking in the less powerful standard Elise, and the car balances nicely on the 225/45R17 rear tires, which now ride on wider 8.0-inch rims.

There is so much to enjoy about this car. The steering is crisp and wonderfully communicative, the brakes are tuned so that the ABS intervenes only at the very last moment and the gearbox has a crisp, positive feel (even if it could use a slightly shorter throw between gears). As always with a Lotus, the ride quality is also better than it has any right to be in a car this focused on pure performance.

The Elise might be impractical, but on the right road, it can still deliver like few others.

Back to the Real World
Prices for the U.S. model of the 2008 Lotus Elise SC haven't been announced yet, but British pricing should give us an indication of the incremental increase.

In the United Kingdom, the 2008 Lotus Elise SC costs $18,000 more than a standard Elise and $4,000 less than the Exige S. Since the Exige S costs $59,890 in the U.S., this should give you an idea of where the Elise SC will fit in the pricing structure.

At the same time, this poses some awkward questions.

For die-hard track-day enthusiasts, the Lotus Exige S is a better ride than the Elise SC because it's faster, more responsive and even safer (thanks to its roof). And if you're simply a road warrior, you have to ask yourself if the Lotus Elise SC's supercharged thrust is worth the substantial boost in the price tag. After all, a Lotus has always been about the feeling that comes through the steering wheel, not the throttle pedal.

For those who are considering the purchase of a 2008 Lotus Elise SC there is much to ponder, but it's a nice problem to have.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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