CAR's test of the Lotus Eco Elise has an inauspicious start. I slip into the driver's seat – with that swing-legs-in-haul-your-weight-around gymnastic routine familiar to generations of Elise owners – and thumb the start button.
The first few hundreds yards confirm the Elise's rich DNA. Who doesn't love Hethel's back-to-basics purity? The tiny rim squirming in your palms, the wings' contours making it a cinch to thread out of the car park, the surprisingly supple ride soaking up pitted road acne. But something's amiss. In the nighttime gloom I can feel what can only be described as old man's trousers lining the steering wheel's boss...
The tweed Elise? Just what is the Lotus Eco Elise?
As it's pitch black when I leave the office, I am none the wiser until the following morning. My commute home passes in familiar Elise fashion; the Eco Elise is a remarkably easy car to drive, with good visibility and simple, light controls, but it comes alive the moment I turn off the A1 onto the capillary roads criss-crossing the countryside around CAR's office.
The whole Elise drivetrain is so precise, it becomes an extension of your driving psyche. You think around corners, the Elise responding instantly with little inertia or unnecessary heft to dull progress; gearchanges are precise and snickety, the pedals allowing even an oaf like me to heel 'n' toe to match revs with hero status; and when you rev it, the little Lotus clears it throat and accelerates without a moment’s hesitation.
But what's all this about the Eco Elise having granddad trousers?
Fast forward to the following morning and the truth becomes clear. This is the world's only Eco Elise – a testbed research vehicle for Lotus, a four-wheeled laboratory to help the company make cleaner, greener cars. It's an Elise that's become a friend of the earth.
This explains why the Eco Elise has 1950s sludge-beige tweedalike wool covering the steering wheel boss, gearlever gaiter and slimline seat shells. Two solar panels are built into the fixed hemp hard top, while the front clamshell, front access panel and rear spoiler are also made of hemp, the exposed and unpainted brown stripe giving a clue that these aren't ordinary fibreglass Elise panels. I had noticed none of this in the dark the previous day.
And rather than concentrating on tailpipe emissions or mpg figures, Lotus is taking an holistic approach to the Eco Elise. The shockingly brown interior trim is made from biodegradable wool and hemp – an indication of how Hethel's engineers are applying equally clever thinking to the very core of its popular Elise roadster.
Read on for our full first drive…
>> Click 'Next' to read the rest of CAR's review of the Lotus Eco Elise research vehicle
So how green is the Lotus Eco Elise?
It's all about cradle-to-grave greenness, not just a Gordon-Brown-will-love-me CO2 figure, so the paint, primer and lacquer are entirely water-based products from paint giant Du Pont.
Many of the body panels are made from hemp instead of harmful fibreglass, and even more of the exterior could have been made of the stuff had Lotus not run out of time before the Eco Elise's debut at the 2008 London motor show. Hethel made the most complicated panels first (the rear spoiler and front clamshell) so it reckons the rest of the bodywork should be a doddle.
Lotus also rightly points out that local sourcing and cutting air miles is a crucial part of minimising a car's carbon footprint, so the hemp is locally produced in that there East Anglia.
Naturally, being a Lotus, the Eco Elise is also 32kg lighter than the standard Elise S – for the holy trinity of better handling, performance and economy. The diet programme includes:
• Lightweight alloys cut 15.8kg from the kerbweight
• Alpine stereo saves 1.5kg over regular item
• Each seat weighs 500g less than standard Probax items
The list goes on and on. Lotus's Hethel HQ has been to boot camp, too, cutting its appetite for electricity (-14%), gas (-30%) and water (-11%) in 2007 from the previous year, while three on-site wind turbines will be operating within the next 18 months and supply Lotus with all its electricity needs.
So it achieves near-godliness on paper. On the road?
The Eco Elise is my kind of green car. Most of the clever-clogs tech comes in the manufacturing stage, so you're left to get on and drive. Ignore the opinion-dividing woollen seats and sissal front-door-mat carpets and it's pure Elise.
It uses the detuned 1.8-litre Toyota engine from the Elise S, producing an identical 134bhp and 127lb ft – so it doesn't feel especially fast until you rev it hard. You miss you out on the Elise R's 189bhp hit and its ballistic transformation from roadster to rocket as it comes on cam, but it remains a brilliant, simple-thrills sports car.
You'd need to strap on timing gear to notice any performance improvements from the diet, but I can confirm the Eco Elise is an absolute hoot to drive. Short of the Tesla Roadster, I can't think of any environmental special that's more fun. And if any car on sale today has better steering feel, I’ve yet to drive it.
>> Click ‘Next’ to read our economy test figures in the Lotus Eco Elise
The acid test: so how clean is the Lotus Eco Elise?
Remember that Lotus says this research project is about whole-life responsibility more than tailpipe emissions, but the Eco Elise is 12g/km cleaner at 184g/km than the regular S. We drove it for six days and averaged 38.9mpg when we took it easy and 32.6mpg when we fancied a giggle. No official figures have been issued yet.
What don’t you like about the Eco Elise?
Lotus’s experimental gearshift indicator drove me potty – there are two identical green icons on the speedo that light up, the left one to downchange and the right one to shift up. It’s terribly confusing (why not arrows? Or different colours?) and they don’t seem to work terribly well.
And I’d pass on that tweedalike interior trim, although I suspect Lotus could use different eco dyes in production and is just making a point on this research vehicle. There's also a nagging suspicion that the Elise's aluminium architecture is very energy intensive to manufacture, although it pays dividends at the weighbridge.
Few gripes aside, the Eco Elise is brilliant. Lotus claims that some of the tech is near production ready – the water-based primers and lacquers should be ready by the end of 2009 (water-based paint is already used at Hethel), the lightweight wheels are available now and only the hemp body panels and solar panels require more testing with production ‘a few years away’.
I ran one of the first Elise 111Rs for the best part of a year and fell for it hook, line and sinker. The Eco Elise is a car of its zeitgeist – it takes an old favourite and dials in some clever, contemporary thinking that proves that Lotus could be around for a while longer.
Let’s just hope they make some of this eco tech standard fit, rather than reserving it for a special, premium-cost green special as most mainstream manufacturers have chosen to do. The whole sports car fraternity deserves this kind of fresh thinking, not just the monied few.
>> Fresh thinking? Or a storm in a teacup? Click ‘Add your comment’ and let us know what you think of the Lotus Eco Elise