Lotus Elise - a light weight contender

That Old Weight Vs HorsePower Question

A guest post by Neill Watson, photographer-writer-blogger

Yellowwheels editor Timtim posed me a really intriguing question today over a quick email chat – which is best, a lightweight car with minimal horsepower or a car with a bit more weight but a lot more power? A very good question and one that I believe I’ve answered to my own personal satisfaction this year. However, as the Americans are fond of saying, “your mileage may vary”


To put this into perspective, let me explain one of my day jobs. In addition to being a car photo-journalist, I’m also a track instructor. I spend a significant slice of my waking hours sitting in a variety of cars, from a 640BHP Lamborghini LP640 to a 120 BHP Lotus Elise and pretty much everything in between, either driving or imparting my limited knowledge. From BMW E46 M3 (a personal favourite) to Ferrari 458 Italia, I have a fair bit of seat time in them all. So, which is best? A 640 Bhp projectile or a 120 BHP mountain goat?

The answer, as ever, is “It depends” That’s not a cop out, I’m not dodging the question. To a degree it really does. Taking the extremes of performance envelope, there’a absolutely no way that a Lotus Elise is going to stay with a Lamborghini LP640 down 7,500 feet of RAF airbase runway. By the same token, throw in some tight twisty sections, preferably off camber and a few chicanes with fast changes of direction and the Lotus will make the Italian look like a fool.

A little thought processing over a beer
or a glass of my favourite red gives some clarity. The perfect car will change in any given situation and there is always a balance, a trade off, if you will and the optimum will always vary a little. But living in the real world, not the vast expanse of RAF runway, my preference leans towards light weight and driver skill.

You see, weight is the enemy. Weight is the thing that creates problems. The more weight you have, the more power you need to push that weight forwards, which of course, then creates even more weight due to the bigger engine, which needs to carry more fuel to feed it.

Got a heavier car? You'll need plenty of cylinders and horses to make up for it

Which is heavy. Then the whole thing needs stopping for turns. But a big heavy car needs great big brakes, which are heavy and….. you see where we’re heading here? Then once you’re in the turn, changing direction with a heavy car is a whole lot harder. Some big, heavy supercars have one line in a corner. You choose it on entry and that’s it, you have to live with it. Try modifying line mid-corner and it’ll start trying to bite. Be wide awake.

In comparison, my experience driving a Lotus Elise this last few days is a revelation. For sure, I knew they were nimble, but I’d forgotten just how much. The tiny 1.8 litre engine needs working hard. Best to drive it like you stole it. If you do, it comes alive. From the first few gearshifts, things educate you. There’s little weight to control, so the springs and dampers are soft. Stand iutside and push down on the rear, it’s very soft, feeling like a Cadilac when you push the rear up and down. Becuase of this, the ride is supple, the suspension can work properly, keeping the wheels in contact with the track at all times.

The brakes look implausibly small. No carbon ceramics with six pots, just good old steel discs with simple, single piston calipers. Yes, really. You see, there’s no weight to stop. Because of that, braking distances are dramatically shorter. When customers and other instructors are braking, we’re shifting up another gear past the “Brake” board. Yes, really. It takes resolve, but burying the pedal deep into the aluminium floorpan sheds speed dramatically, making even the most casual passenger into a ‘grasper’. You get the idea.

Of course, the little Lotus isn’t perfect
. There are few creature comforts. Carpets of a sort, but lots of bare aluminium on show. Seats are skeletal, thin and adjustable manually back and forth, that’s all. There’s no traction control, stability control, ABS braking. That all adds weight and complexity. It has a heater, though. And music. The ethos is light weight with an aluminium tub that carries the people, the engine and gearbox, with bodywork hung onto it, made from lightweight plastic. Forget the weekly shop, it’s not going to happen….

So in aviation terms, it’s never going to be a luxury jet. It’s not a Gulfstream. More the Pitts Special or Red Bull racer of cars. As a daily driver with just one person, a twisty A road commute and no Golden Retriever to transport around, it’s perfect. And as my dog really doesn’t like going fast, I’m quite happy with that. You can keep your V12 monster, I’ll have the Lotus, please…

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