En route to Monaco, Johnny Tipler airs the new 1.6 Elise on some of the finest driving roads in Europe. Welcome to La Route Napoleon and the Gorge du Verdon.
We’re literally blown away. Snapper Fraser and I are no lightweights (physically, at least, if not intellectually), but the gust of wind from the canyon exit takes us clean off the pavement. The lightweight Elise 1.6 tips the scales at a mere 876kg, and for a moment we’re worried.
We’ve driven the magnificent Route Napoleon to the spectacular Gorge du Verdon in the Alpes Maritimes of southeast France, a sprawling landmass of gigantic conical hills, exposed strata thrusting dramatically skywards and, until a second ago, we’ve been standing on the bridge that crosses the swirling Verdon river as it spews from its chasm into the Lac de Sainte Croix. Today the ice-blue waters are whipped into a white horse frenzy, and even the windsurfers have stayed home. But for we intrepid Lotus eaters – it’s nirvana! Of course, the newest member of the Elise family, the entry level 1.6 model is safe as houses on the sinuous cliff-hanging mountain roads of the Route Napoleon. Aerodynamics alone ensure that the wind takes the shortest route over its sleek contours. Launched in April this year, the new Elise incorporates subtly revised styling cues: the teardrop headlamp nacelles house LED lights and indicators so the front panel contours are cleaner, while twin driving lamps live either side of the radiator grille, flanked by a pair of moustache shaped intakes that boost the family resemblance with the Evora. A similar stylistic spruce-up has taken place round the back too, the one-piece rear panel and diffuser giving the impression of a broader car than before. Like the front ‘bonnet’ panel, the engine-cover ribbing is also revised. The stats show that the new Elise’s green credentials are well in order and, in fact, it’s the cleanest sportscar on the market, with the lowest C02 emissions in its genre.
Price-wise, it comes in at a very reasonable £27,450. So how does that stack up with the 134bhp, 1,598cc Toyota twin-cam powerplant and its matching six-speed gearbox, 200cc smaller than its Elise R stablemate? The 1,000km (800-miles) run from Hethel to the Mediterranean should reveal all.
Our mission was to bring the new Elise to a press reception for lifestyle journos hosted by LCI editor Caroline Parker and Lotus PRO Tracy Parnell at the expansive Mas de Pierre hotel close to Nice. While we’re there we plan to take in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, but for now we’re having a blast of our own along a section of road that presents the ultimate sportscar challenges.
Exile on St Helena post Waterloo was Boney’s fate after that little local difficulty, but we owe him one for bequeathing us some of the finest driving roads in Europe. Having abdicated to Elba in 1814, Napoleon was in France a year later in a comeback bid. However, the main north-south access between Lyon and Marseilles was out of bounds as Boney needed to elude Bourbon royalist troops garrisoned at Marseilles for a crack at newly crowned king Louis 18th. So in just seven tough days he marched 1,200 soldiers 350kms from Cannes on the Mediterranean coast to Grenoble on Lake Geneva, making his way northwest over the Alpes Maritimes on a network of regular roads that in 1932 became known collectively as the Route Napoleon. It’s no coincidence that the Monte Carlo Rally uses stretches of it between special stages, and we’ve taken a leaf out of their tulips route book to air the Elise. We’re doing our bit the opposite way to the Imperial march, heading southeast from Valence to where the Route hooks up into the Alps proper at Digne-les-Bains on the N85; from here on in, the nimble Lotus comes into its own.
When the tortuous D4085 reaches Castellane we make a sharp detour, going right onto the D952 at a confluence in the river towards the Gorge du Verdon. A pair of hitchhikers beg a lift but with the best will in the world we can’t help. I was going to say the Gorge du Verdon is a stone’s throw from the Route Napoleon, but that analogy’s tempting providence on a road where rockfalls are a perpetual hazard, creating mini chicanes along the way and requiring constant monitoring by a truck-mounted snowplough that shoves the debris aside. At any rate, it’s only 19km (13 miles) from the Castellane turn-off to the start of the Gorge.
Our target’s the Lac de Sainte Croix, a snapper’s delight with its fabled cerulean colour. The road tracks the Verdon River a hundred feet below us, sliced into the cliff as if by a cheese wire. We’ve got the top off and as we pass beneath dramatic rock overhangs I straight line the Elise through the bends to dodge the drips; there’s water everywhere, cascading in huge arcs from high above us, with the wind blowing spray back onto the rock face where it keeps the cling-on box trees, hawthorns and cork oaks alive. Rock fingers point skywards. We emerge from a defile in the cliffs and there’s the exhilarating sight of the unfeasibly blue lake, stretching out way down below. The road zigzags its way down the Col d’Olivier, till just short of Moustières-Ste-Marie we hook left onto the D957 that takes us right to the lakeside. A sign proclaims Haute Var du Verdon, and we skirt the shore to Les Salles sur Verdon, the remains of a hamlet drowned when the lake was created by a dam built across the Verdon River in 1975.
One minute bathed in hesitant sunshine, the next darkened by scudding clouds that also variously tint the terracotta and limestone cliffs, the azure waters of the 10km by 3km lake are assaulted by the wind that vents out of the Gorge. The airstream’s had a good 20km’s worth of canyon to compress itself before exiting with such force and it’s here that Fraser and I are blown off our feet – clouds are overtaking us at 60mph.
Aiguines is a charming, hugger-mugger village perched on the hillside overlooking the lake, a handful of cafés and restaurants testament to lakeside summer frolics down below. We take a random lane, seeking a vantage point to capture the glazed tiles atop the chateau turrets, but the road is strewn with rocks and stones and, given that we’ve escaped unharmed so far, we decide not to tempt fate and risk the Elise’s canvas top or our own skulls, and beat a sharp retreat. From Aiguines on the D19 we soon meet the D957 again, which invites us to circumnavigate the lake in either direction, and we go right and fetch up at a deserted beach where kayaks have been hauled far from the tricksy water’s edge. I’m cleaning the car for Fraser’s photo when a gust snatches my paper towel roll and I watch wide-eyed and helpless as it comically unfurls like a long white snake way into the blue yonder.
Down here the foliage is verdant spring green, the shore fringed by a scattering of campsites, picnic places and crazy golf, an abrupt transition from the awesome chasm of the Verdon Gorge. Now we track back to the Route Napoleon once more, out of Aiguines via the equally lofty Corniche Sublime, the D71 that runs along the Gorge’s opposite rim. The view across the canyon from Col d’Illoire at 1039m is staggering, sharp triangular peaks and pinnacles thrust vertical by immense antediluvian forces. You don’t need to be a geologist to comprehend the exposed strata and the hard time it’s had.
The cliffs are only occasionally netted, but despite frequent rock falls, the blacktop is remarkably good, allowing fluent progress through the incessant bends. This is Lotus driving at its purest. There’s no power steering on the Elise, yet you have fingertip control of the wheel for fine adjustments. Turn-in is as exact as can be, rounding every kind of corner you could wish for, aiming at apexes, just shy of kissing the stone walls, and there’s much arm twirling, feeding the wheel from lock to lock in the hairpins – and here a firm grip on the rim is necessary. The taut chassis and finely wrought wishbone suspension and dampers, complemented by gripping Yokohama tyres, give absolute handling precision. Hugging the rock face, I floor the accelerator, snatch 3rd and blast down to the next turn, braking in a straight line and double-declutch for 2nd and steer into the curve, me and the Lotus united.
The new Elise’s 0-60mph time is 6.0seconds, and it’s no slouch on the Autoroute either, a 90mph cruiser if you want, returning 34mpg and 400 miles to a tankful of 95-octane. But at high revs it’s a real performance car. The 1.6 Toyota unit has a noticeable change in pace at 4,800rpm when a flap shortens the inlet tract length, giving a slight dip in engine tone. Be warned, chasing this subtle song shift can be addictive, and I find myself jumping at opportunities to push through the magic 4,800rpm barrier in the knowledge that more bhp and torque are instantly on tap. In fact it loves to rev all the way till 7,000 when the limiter kicks in and red lights flash on the tachometer. Snarl morphs to roar as the revs rise, a four-pot banshee blare at max-out, an aural attack. Bring on the cliffs for utmost echo.
After the Balcons de la Mescla on the D71 there’s a few kilometres’ respite from serpentine crag-crunching, and we cross a plateau set with flower filled meadows. We join the D21 at Comps-sur-Artuby and thence it’s the Route Napoleon after Col de Calvel, down in the forests at Le Logis du Pin where the Emperor and his troops rested one night nearly 200 years ago. Once again the road numbering changes, the D4085 becoming the D6085 for no apparent reason. Napoleon never had it so good: his route is now well served by eateries along the way especially in villages like La Garde where appealing restaurants are complemented by charcuterie, fruit and veg stalls. Faded frescos on a roadside building at Escragnolles advertise the Emperor’s favourite tipple – a shot of Napoleon Brandy.
Now the Col de Valferrière: not much in the way of cultivation, just twisting through gorges and huge limestone cliffs on either side. I’m using 3rd and 4th on the velvety asphalt, occasionally 5th, and 6th just ’cos it’s there, with few straights worthy of the name. We’ve come a fair way now, and the car’s Pro-Bax seats are still providing decent support so there’s no excuse for slumping. Top off, the one-ness with the elements is complete. And that’s never truer than when it rains, which it does now. Having stashed the top behind the seats in deference to camera bags in the boot, we manage to unfurl it over our heads and click the side-rails into place to make it taut without so much as getting out of the car. The air-con makes short work of the steamed-up windscreen in the re-canopied cockpit.
Now we’re on our ear-popping way down though scrub cork oak and moorland, winding towards Grasse, the world’s perfume capital. Popularised by Napoleon, chemists such as Fragonard have been on the scent for 300 years and there’s a dedicated museum to the joys of sniffing in amongst the town’s lovely belle époque buildings, painted sand yellow with lavender shutters, or terracotta with blue. Blue’s also traditionally the colour of French racing cars, and over here they love the Elise’s paint job. Everywhere people enthuse, knowledgeable or merely curious, old and young. ‘Ah! Lotus,’ they go. ‘Ça marche!’
After Grasse on the D2085 we make a left onto the tiny D3 for Gourdon, just for the hell of it, since it means taking in the Gorge du Loup via a wood-lined hillside backroad with barely a white line to be seen, and a sheer drop on one side through trees down to the river Loup. On our descent we pause by the Cascades du Loup, another amazing waterfall, burgeoning from recent rain. A final plunge down to Vence, and we’re done. Umbrella pines, spiky aloes and banana palms spell Côte d’Azur, and the Med’s a dozen clicks away. We meet up with editor Caroline Parker for dinner at La Colombe d’Or in St Paul, oft-times frequented by celebs such as Picasso and Orson Welles. After that it’s a short hop to the cosy comforts of the Mas de Pierre, and we head back to the sound of Tamla Motown paean First Impressions on the plugged-in MP3 player; it’s time for ours after a great day’s driving. The 1.6 version complements the Elise range absolutely. It deserves more than entry level status because it’s Lotus motoring at its purest: a high revving engine that needs to be worked hard for best effect, yet it’s willing as anything when you ask it to perform. Its spellbinding agility is a given. You have to work the gears more, rev the engine harder than the 1.8 versions, and that makes it a more involving car – hard concentration makes for swiftest progress. The controls are laid out perfectly to achieve this, though your right foot needs to behave as smoothly as possible while it slides from accelerator to brake and back again. It’s such a nifty car, this Elise. Going to-and-fro from 2nd to 3rd gear all the way down through the twists and turns, you get moments in that ‘zone’ that Ayrton Senna spoke of, where it seemed to him that another force was on hand.
Napoleon Bonaparte took seven days to march the 300kms from Cannes to Grenoble; we’ve taken a day to do 100kms, but it’s been one of the most outstanding drives ever, from the point of view of the roads, the scenery, and above all, the lithe Elise 1.6. Boney’s diminutive stature was supposed to be the spur for his ambition – the Napoleon complex, they call it. Maybe that’s what the Elise suffers from, and it’s all the better for it. Route march or exile, I’ll take one with me any day.