I went to the southern California desert to experience the new, supercharged Elise SC-around stargazing Mt. Palomar and the quaint apple-pie capital of the southwest, Julian. The roads consisted of everything from open straights to twisted black ribbons snaking up and down the sides of steep mountains-the perfect environment to test out the latest Lotus.
Working up the mountain toward the Palomar Observatory, it soon becomes clear that the Roots-type supercharger has added some serious grunt to an already quick car. On paper, 28 hp doesn't sound like much, but it's the low end that really gets the benefit. In the naturally aspirated Elise, the driver has to row through the gears constantly to keep the engine on cam. The supercharger on the SC almost manages to make the close-ratio gearbox redundant. Pulling out of tight hairpins at just below 4000 rpm is smooth and torquey, allowing you to link switchbacks without having to shift gears too often.
Flowing from apex to apex is what this car is about. Turn-in is supple and quick, the absence of power steering gives the driver almost synaptic control of the front wheels. The slightest input from the driver translates to instantaneous action. Whereas the standard car is fitted with new cast alloy wheels, the optional sport pack offers lightweight forged units from the Exige S. The forged wheels' lower mass gives even better feedback due to a lower gyroscopic effect, while the uprated springs and dampers provide even sharper handling. The sport pack also adds adjustable traction control, twin oil coolers and the amazing ProBax sport seats.
Whether opting for the sport pack or not, the Elise SC comes with the twin-piston brakes found on the standard Elise. For street and even sport driving they're actually a better option than the AP Racing brakes found on the higher-spec Exige S 240. The Elise brakes are more linear and easier to use. They allow for slight adjustments to chassis attitude without a huge loss in speed. Feathering the pedal on turn-in can keep the nose down just enough to get a little extra bite on the front end for aggressive direction changes. On technical downhill sections, there's still plenty of braking power and fade never becomes apparent. At just over 2,000 pounds, the car can be slowed late and hard again and again; the guardrail never seems to run up any faster in corners. Sinking your foot deep into the center pedal just results in predictable straight stops; rear weight bias really helps here.
As much as I love the Exige, the Elise is probably the better choice for a car not destined to spend most of its life on a track. The lack of an intercooler means the driver can actually see out the rear window. The removable top makes getting in and out a lot easier. Even though I don't consider myself a convertible guy, open-top motoring is more fun in the Elise than anything else I've driven topless.
Twisting, tree-covered roads outside Julian seem to have been built with this machine in mind. Larger, heavier cars can become downright frightening in areas like this. Corners exit at the top of steep rises, apexes fall away and the turns follow the natural rhythm of the landscape. The Elise does everything perfectly. It does what heavier cars can't. The fact that it has one of the best-tuned suspension systems doesn't hurt. Downhill turns result in nipping the apex and allowing the car to run toward the exit with both tires shouldering the line simultaneously. Increasing-radius uphill corners flash by with a little lift of the throttle and a quick nudge from the steering. Slashing through the mountains in this car is like a grown-up version of Disneyland's Autopia ride. It simply doesn't get any better.
While this car's biggest strength is its small size, some may see that as weakness. My six-foot-two-inch, 200-pound frame is about as big as fits comfortably in the car. I've seen bigger people than me in them, but I can't speak for their level of comfort. Trunk space is surprisingly big-the entire back area is hollow, even though the opening is on the small side.
The Elise SC does so many things well. It's not the fastest car you can buy, or the most practical, but while driving it, all that melts away. It's complete and total fun-like the first time you master a two-wheeler or drive a kart. The Elise SC is one of the best driver's cars, period.
2008 Lotus Elise SC
Transverse mid-engine, rear-wheel drive
1.8-liter inline four, dohc, 16-valve, supercharged
Unequal-length wishbones with gas damping, coil springs and anti-roll bars
Power vacuum assist, Brembo calipers, drilled and ventilated steel rotors
Length/Width/Height (in.): 149.0/67.7/44.0
Wheelbase: 90.6 in.
Curb Weight: 2,006 lb
Peak power: 218 hp @ 8000 rpm
Peak torque: 156 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.4 sec.
Top Speed: 150 mph (limited)
*What We Like
Almost everything, especially razor-sharp handling, flexible powerband
*What We Don't
Anyone over six feet tall will have hair full of bugs, stones, asphalt, rubber, etc.
Price Tag $54,500