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Did the Lotus Elise kill the sports car?

Chris Haining November 7, 2018 All Things Hoon, Featured 25 Comments

No, of course it didn’t. What a stupid question. The sports car is not only alive and well, but in rude health. Look at that, I’ve answered my own question. Thank you and goodnight.

I think there’s more to say, though. When the Lotus Elise arrived out of the blue like an aluminium and fibreglass lightning bolt, it immediately redefined the sports car. It became the new standard bearer, the datum point from which all subsequent sports cars would be judged. And from that point onwards, the category seems to have become one without nuance. Judging by published reviews of the new Toyota co-developed BMW Z4, a car is now either a Sports Car or “Not a Sports Car”.

Why did things have to get so one-dimensional?

This was a Sports Car in the 1960s

A friend of mine once had an MGC. Generally regarded among the worst of the ’60s MG products, the MGC was the wrong engine in the wrong car. Its 3.0-litre straight-six engine was well suited to the lumbering Austin 3-litre saloon, but was rather bulkier than was ideal for the MGB. It increased weight over the front wheels and necessitated an unsightly hump on the bonnet to clear its twin SU carbs. The far lighter all-alloy 215ci V8 would later prove a far better fit, leading to better balance as well as crisper acceleration and response. The MGB V8 was just a better car.

It was probably a sportier car, too. But my mate Simon really enjoyed manhandling the heavy, recalcitrant ‘C’ through the corners, revelling in that old-school soundtrack while petrol cascaded through those dubiously balanced carbs. He sold it just before it turned into a pile of orange dust and bits of wire with ‘Lucas’ proudly stamped on them.

It was, nominally, a Sports Car. It was essentially the follow-up to the Austin “big” Healey 3000, and lived during the era of the Triumph TR5, the Jaguar E-Type and the Aston Martin DB5. Over in Europe, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and many, many more were lined up with competing products, each with their own distinct feel and appeal. And the world was an ever richer place for their presence. There’s a big overlap, though, between sports car and mere ‘roadster’, and for a long time both were practically synonymous.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sports car’ thus:

“A low-built car designed for performance at high speeds, often having a roof that can be folded back.”

Roadster, meanwhile, is defined as:

“An open-top car with two seats”

With performance decidedly in its favour, the Lotus Elise was unequivocally A Sports Car when it arrived over two decades ago. Hitherto, pretty much anything with fewer doors than seats and a loose regard for fuel economy would call itself a Sports Car, but here was a car that emphatically deserved that title. It was the sharpest, most responsive, most involving mode of four-wheeled transport south of the Caterham Seven, and was available for a fraction of the cost of blue-chip high-speed heroes with Italian badges. Nothing quite like it had been seen before.

Today, the Sports Car de jour is the Alpine A110, a car that follows a very similar pattern to the Elise, and one that comes remarkably close to matching the Hethel car’s telepathic ability to obey your whims through corners. Before it came the Alfa Romeo 4C  — kind of the same story, but with added width and a very intimidating price tag. The Porsche 718 Boxster is praised by all who point it through a complex of bends, too — little coincidence that it follows the same four-cylinder, mid-engined format, to the chagrin of those who miss the old car’s flat-six soundtrack.

To be frank, anything that can’t match the above for steering precision, immediacy of response and the ability to lap a given short circuit mind-bendingly quickly is given short shrift.  With a few notable exceptions — the Mazda MX-5 can do no wrong, for example — the also-rans are condemned for “not being proper sports cars”.

It looks like fun is being had here

Autocar, for example, on the all-new 2019 BMW Z4:

“BMW’s Porsche Boxster rival is better to drive than ever, although it still makes a better high-day open-top cruiser than a true sports car”

So, what exactly is a Sports Car? Well, nobody seems to really know. BMW certainly doesn’t — it flips between the description ‘sports car’ and ‘roadster’ throughout its own press releases and literature, as if to confirm that the two are still generally regarded as one and the same.

It has become accepted that a ‘true sports car’ should satisfy all those glib clichés about ‘pivoting around the hips’ and ‘devouring corners hungrily’ and ‘changing direction like a scalded gnat’. Anything with less agility than an Elise is a failure, it seems. But I’ll venture that the Z4, the Mercedes SLC and even the Nissan 370Z entertain in an entirely different way, and one that the Elise can’t oblige.

Ariel Atom — Sports Car and torture device all rolled into one

I’m talking about that slight feeling of unwieldiness that’s so satisfying to tame. Knowing that there’s a ‘knack’ to successfully conquering a corner, where clipping the apex is a target rather than an expectation. A bit of weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For me, and I suspect thousands of others, ‘sports car’ describes anything designed for pleasure ahead of practicality. You expect ‘better’ handling and road holding than you’ll coax from the family car, and absolute race-track fidelity is a bonus, but not everybody was born an athlete. Some ‘Sports’ cars are sportier than others, and I say that’s fine. As long as there’s fun to be had in putting your foot down.

So, my message to car makers is to keep the faith. Keep serving us sports car in abundant, glorious variety. Don’t be put off by those who decry your efforts as ‘sports car lite‘ or not ‘real enough’. Not everything needs to be on a knife-edge. The Sports Car has always been about escaping from the humdrum realities of everyday life, whether on an easy-going back road cruise or a maximum attack closed-track mission. If every car drove like a Lotus Elise, the world would genuinely be a less interesting place.

(All images courtesy Wikipedia Commons and Newspress.co.uk)

  • Zentropy

    I think the hardest thing for people to consider is “sports car” vs. “grand touring car”. Many of the latter get classified as the former.

  • Lokki

    A sports car is a small car which seats only two people comfortably and which, in a pinch, could be raced.

  • tonyola

    I think we have to go back to the old phrase “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

    In the 1980s, Road & Track asked in their magazine whether the Honda CRX was a sports car. It was hotly debated among the editors, but the ultimate answer was “yes”.

    • Zentropy

      The CRX was a fun little runabout, but not anything near what I would consider a sports car. Personally– and I’m sure there are many who would argue against me– I think any FWD is automatically disqualified from the title.

      • tonyola

        This is not a sports car?

        • Mini Coopers are sad now, too: a winning race car isn’t necessarily a sports car.

          • Zentropy

            Formula 1, NASCAR, WRC, Top Fuel NHRA, etc. all feature car racing without “sports cars”. The Mini can pout all it wants.

        • Zentropy

          I’m sure by the definition of many (and perhaps even the traditional definition), the Elan is a sports car, but it doesn’t fit my criteria. I don’t consider it any more a sports car than the Buick Reatta:

          • Each to their own. Buick specifically avoided using the term ‘sports car’ when marketing the Reatta, but I don’t see why FWD alone should disqualify a car from that title.

            • Zentropy

              I acknowledged that this was only my personal view, but the whole point is that the term “sports car” has become nebulous. I simply defined it as I see it.

              A sports car was originally a post-war two-seater soft-top convertible that could driven competitively. That said, the Elan may qualify, depending on your idea of “competitive”. However, that definition narrows the field considerably in today’s cars:
              Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, Audi A8 Spyder, Audi TT Roadster, BMW i8 Roadster, Corvette Convertible, Fiat 124 Spider, Jaguar F-Type Convertible, Ferrari Huracan Spyder, MX-5 Softtop, MB GT Roadster, Nissan 370Z Roadster, Porsche 718 Boxter, and the Smart Cabrio.

              I don’t see the Smart being eligible for competition at all, but I guess if you can make a race out of riding lawn mowers, then anything qualifies.

              • Gotcha. Good call on the post-war ‘potential to race’ thing, although the term was in fairly widespread use long before then, certainly in the UK. Wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘sport’ etymology could be traced back to popular non-competitive ‘gentlemanly’ leisure pursuits such as shooting grouse, clay pigeons and poor folk.

                • Zentropy

                  “Sport” definitely has a different traditional connotation in the UK, I suppose! I’m getting a visual of hunting caps and a rifle resting on the windscreen frame…

                  Automotive classifications in general (sports car, sedan, coupe, etc.) may never return to a narrow definition. For example, I would consider the Mustang a grand tourer (coupe). The SCCA defines it as a “sedan”.

              • tonyola

                The operative word in your statement is “originally”.Definitions change over time. Once upon a time, “cabriolet” meant this…

                • Zentropy

                  I agree, tonyola, that definitions change over time. I brought up the original definition with tongue in cheek. I don’t suggest it should remain static, only that it not be so vague and all-inclusive.

          • Lokki

            It fails my “in a pinch can be raced” test, for whatever that’s worth.

        • Rover 1

          Everyone knows FWD cars can’t be sporty or win races or world rally championships. And if they can now-a-days it’s only because of modern tyre tech.

          Or not.

          • Zentropy

            They certainly can, and have, won races. But with the term “sports car” now being applied to anything with four wheels, “sporty”– just like beauty– is in the eye of the beholder.
            I judge a car by how connected I feel to it when driving, and when front wheels are pulling double duty of propulsion and steering, I feel that connectedness suffers. The Civic Type R, for instance, has admittedly impressive performance, but I don’t like the feel at all. It doesn’t feel “sporty” to me. Nor does a Challenger Hellcat, but for very different reasons. Neither, in my mind, are sports cars.

            • Rover 1

              I sort of agree with you. But, in it’s day the standard Fulvia was a more sporting drive than an Alfa Spider, or anything RWD from Japan. The idea that FWD can work really well is something that was bought home to me when I drove my Lancia Gamma after driving a same age Alfetta GTV. The Alfa had a worse gear change, more understeer despite new tyres, more pitch under braking, and less throttle adjustability. This confirmed the contemporary road tests. But of course with RWD you can ‘hang the back out’ on any slippery road, which for many people is their idea of ‘sporty’.

          • Lokki

            I was just going to post a picture of Erik “Carlsson on the Roof” Carlsson in his FWD SAAB, but I still have Schrodinger’s syndrome of being both logged in and not logged in when I try to post images. Yes, I wrote to Discus, and yes, they ignored me.

            So, here’s a link to a story about him -with pictures- that’s better than my original plan anyhow.

            • Rover 1

  • Ol’ Shel’

    1st-world dilemmas.

    • Lokki

      I think I saw a pretty excellent example of a comparison between First World Problems and Third World Problems on a cooking competition show the other day.

      The two finalists were asked what they would do with the prize money if they won. The woman from California said that she and her wife would use the money for treatments so that they could artificially have a child together. The contestant from Venezuela said she would use the money to get her parents out of Venezuela because they’re starving.

      Now, back to cars, and sorry for the interruption.

  • SlowJoeCrow

    The answer is Miata 🙂

    • Zentropy

      Isn’t it always?

  • Fred

    It was comercials like this that confuse the ordinary folks about what a sports car is.