When I was a kid, Lotus meant many things to me. It meant the best-looking Formula 1 cars on the planet, resplendent in their iconic black-and-gold JPS liveries (name a cooler looking livery… I’ll wait). It meant the exploits of the men who raced those cars, their names etched in my memory for all time, including my childhood hero Elio de Angelis.
Lotus also meant a series of aspirational road cars, not least of which that 1980s wedge-shaped icon, the Esprit Turbo (I’ll have mine in black, thanks, with gold pinstriping).
So, when Lotus Cars Australia offered me an invite to drive one of their modern iterations around a race track, I was staring down the barrel of a dream fulfilled. The track? None other than Australia’s – and one of the world’s – greatest race tracks, Mount Panorama, Bathurst.
The catch? I had to drive there myself. In the Lotus.
The Lotus of choice is the 2020 Lotus Elise Cup 250, finished in British Racing Green. Asking price? Around $107,990 plus on-road costs. It’s a lot of coin for something with not very much in it, in terms of equipment. But what it lacks in sat-nav and CarPlay and cupholders and a radio, it makes up for with a heartbeat and a soul as spiritual as it is real.
It’s a drama that immerses you in delight from the moment you press the starter button and that gloriously supercharged 1.8-litre engine wedged into the back barks and growls and howls into life. You soon forget the contortions required of your body to leverage yourself into the cabin just moments earlier. Instead, you marvel at the simplicity of it all, like looking at a piece of abstract art that is little more than a black square on white background. Purity of being.
The cabin screams purpose, with nothing to distract you from the pure driving pleasure this car was engineered and built for. The steering wheel is solid in hand, more solid still for bypassing any form of power assistance. There are no dials, nor buttons of any kind on the wheel. It remains a singular tool with only one purpose.
The open gate gear selector, with its polished metal linkages, is automotive art. It’s as lovely to behold as it is to use. Solid, mechanical, cool to the touch, sheer engineering artistry.
The sports seats are firm, and with plenty of side bolster, snug. No height adjustment, of course, merely limited fore and aft mechanical adjustment. It’s easy to get cosy though, and the driving position – legs straight ahead on the closely-spaced (hello heel-toe) pedals reinforce the track-focussed vibe of the Cup 250.
It takes but a moment to forgive the Lotus its minor flaws. That moment comes with the satisfying ‘snick’ you not only hear, but feel in the palm of your hand as you select first gear. The clutch is mercifully short with a bitepoint at once predictable and comforting.
And the intensifying whine from the 1.8-litre supercharged four just behind your ears as you climb through the revs is intoxicating.
Lotus sources its engine stock from Toyota. But once the Hethel squad has tweaked and turned, programmed and fettled, nurtured and tuned, the once-staid 2ZR-FE Toyota donk is transmogrified into a performance beast. In Cup 250 trim, it’s good for 181kW (or, 250PS, hence the badge) at a scream-happy 7200rpm and 250Nm between a reasonably broad 3500-5500rpm. The dash to 100km/h takes just 4.3 seconds while top speed maxes out 248km/h. We’d get close to that V-max, but not on the drive to Mount Panorama.
Instead, the Cup 250 proved once again, you don’t have to drive outside the legal limits to have the type of fun about which we can usually only reminisce. At city speeds, the Cup 250 can feel a little out of its comfort zone, like the athletic kid at a party full of Goths. There’s a lurchiness to the way it handles traffic, while its stiff suspension isn’t made for below-average city roads.
But, once you hit the open road – as we did driving from the outskirts of Sydney to Mount Panorama via the Bells Line of Road and across to the Jenolan Caves – the Cup 250 comes alive.
The rev-happy 1.8-litre sings and howls for your pleasure, while the delicious torque band hauls you out of corners with delight and a sure-footedness that beggars belief. That’s partly because you’re not hauling much weight. Tipping the scales at a positively svelte 931kg, the Cup 250 exudes athleticism and dynamism. She can be hustled with verve through twisting and winding roads that even at the signposted limit, feel like you’re driving a race car.
Until, that is, you hit the track and drive it like it was meant to be driven.
Mount Panorama needs no introduction other than to say it’s Australia’s most feared and revered race track. Challenging, fast, dangerous, the nominal ‘tourist road’ is usually reserved for major motorsport events, serving time the rest of the year as a public road with strictly enforced and highly patrolled sensible speed limits.
But, not today. Today, Lotus Cars Australia has booked the track for one of its increasingly popular track days. And it’s a full house, with around 160 participants lining up for the privilege to thrash some 60 track-bred machines around one of the world’s great race tracks.
Prior to today, like most people with more than a passing interest in Australia’s rich motorsport heritage, I’d only ever driven the 6.213km circuit at a sedate pace. And, of course, the countless thousands of laps on race-sim games where the consequences are a trip to the reset button.
That’s why, as I strap in for the first of my three 20-minute sessions, my palms are sweaty, and my heart is galloping like a Melbourne Cup winner on the home stretch. In a former life, before CarAdvice, I had attended countless races at Mount Panorama, I had seen great feats performed by the racing gods. I had witnessed monumental mistakes that destroyed cars. And I had seen death.
All of this is rushing through my head sitting in pitlane waiting for the green light. This is a track that bites, and when it does, the consequences can be lasting.