It's 9am at an anonymous looking service station on the M4. I'm munching a slightly optimistically titled all-day breakfast roll and waiting for Ian Dickson and Henry Biggs of MSN cars to arrive at our rendezvous. First to appear is Ian in the sparkling blue Elise SC. We've barely finished with the pleasantries by the time Henry appears. "This thing's fantastic" he remarks, emerging from the (equally blue) Honda. "It's so much fun."
After the arrival of photographer Jonathan Bushell, we head out onto the M4. Not surprisingly my 63bhp Saxo struggles to maintain pace in the middle of the convoy. I glance at the mirrors to see Ian waiting patiently behind, until a gap in the traffic allows him to unleash the Elise. It surges forward with visible ferocity – even from the outside it's clear to see that's one quick car. Henry, meanwhile, darts through the traffic in a flurry of VTEC revs. Today is going to be interesting.
I dump the Saxo in a lay-by just off the motorway and head for the photo shoot location next to Ian in the Elise. From the passenger seat, the car feels every bit as fast as it looks. The first thing that hits you is the soundtrack – it emits a sort of fizz – not an unpleasant sound, but rather different to the growl you get on the outside. Progress is brisk, yet it feels quicker still as the hedges blur past low-set cabin of the Elise.
Shortly we reach our first photo location and it's time to clean the cars before a few static shots. Up close the Elise SC looks purposeful, if largely like the standard car. Only a discrete boot spoiler separates the two. In contrast to the Lotus' vents and bulges, the Honda has a very clean shape. It possesses classic front-engined roadster lines and there's something very taut about its appearance – it looks purposeful; poised to attack.
Heading out to the tracking shots I get my first chance to drive the Elise. It may be a cliché, but this is undoubtedly a car your granny could drive. The clutch is progressive, there's plenty of torque and even at manoeuvring speeds the steering is reasonably light. The gearbox is beautifully precise in the forward gears, although there's a brief moment of comedy as I attempt to locate reverse for the first time. On the move it exceeds all my expectations. Within a few hundred yards it's clear that the Elise is blessed with phenomenally good steering. Every dip and camber in the road is felt and there's a palpable sense of the front end hanging on through each bend. It has the sort of clarity that would be impressive on a level race track, let alone a bumpy, potholed B-road. Unlike some cars, which take time to load up the steering on the entry to a corner, it instantly lets you know how much grip remains… and in this car, the answer is invariably a lot. It's not just the steering either. The whole package gels beautifully with a smooth engine pulling to over 8,000rpm and firm, powerful brakes.
Car comparisons are put on hold for a while as we get back to the serious business of the photo shoot. I find myself at the wheel of Jonathan's 325i Touring while he sits on the tailgate taking shots of the test cars behind. As an encore he adopts an even more precarious looking position, part way out of the passenger side window, clinging to the roof, as we follow the other two cars. Fortunately, despite the hedges closing in, he remains attached and firmly intact, enabling us to complete the tracking shots.
Having done so, we now move on to the drive-by shots and my first chance to get behind the wheel of the S2000. It’s a rather different experience to the Lotus. It feels far more conventional – somewhat like a grown up MX5. Fire up the engine and at first it emits a quiet, unexceptional four-cylinder hum; the seats are higher-mounted and noticeably softer, while the cabin feels a tiny bit, well, Japanese. As we stooge around for the low speed shots it feels admirably civilised. However, when the gesture comes to speed things up, all hell breaks lose. Suddenly Dr Jekyll becomes Mr Hyde as the 80s-tastic digital tacho sweeps past 7,000rpm and the S2000 goes mad for the last part of its rev range. It just so happens there is a bridge just down the road from our photography spot, and going through the tunnel underneath, the Honda’s mechanical scream echoes off its walls like an angry wasp.
Oddly, it doesn’t feel that fast, but accelerating away after another drive-by and chasing Henry in the Lotus something becomes obvious… The two cars are actually surprisingly well matched in a straight line. At these speeds, the Lotus doesn’t quite seem to have the advantage the figures would suggest (0-60mph in 4.4 seconds as opposed to 6.2 for the Honda). It is, nonetheless, a markedly different experience - the S2000 is very much the logical progression of a classic roadster formula, while the Elise feels more like a baby supercar.
As the morning draws to a close, Ian and I go off in search of sandwiches in the Elise. With Mr Dickson at the wheel, it rapidly becomes obvious that I was far from extracting the best out of the little Lotus. Part way to the nearby village he enquires if I’m a nervous passenger… The truth is I’m not, but I do still prefer being in the other seat. Fortunately, on the way back that's exactly where I am. I still can't get over this car's handling - it feels progressive and compliant, yet utterly precise and blessed with pin-sharp responses. I'm busy waxing lyrical to Ian on the subject when I look down and notice the speedo. It was firmly into the sort of range I'm not going to publically admit to doing on a B-road and yet the car felt completely undaunted; my TVR at the same pace would have been a very different matter.
After lunch, Jonathan and Ian head off to do some more shots with the Lotus, leaving me to exercise the S2000. On a longer, twistier route than our earlier drive it reveals considerable talent. The steering is perfectly weighted and very direct. It may not offer as much feedback as the Elise, but it's rewarding nonetheless. Body roll is very well resisted and the whole structure feels impressively rigid. The downside is a rather choppy ride, which combined with the sensitive steering and hyperactive powerplant, make the S2000 feel a little fidgety. It's still a quick car across country, but it doesn't inspire confidence in quite the same way as the home-grown contender.
The beauty of the S2000 is that it does everything well. The engine may not really come alive until your ears are starting to bleed, but it's still perfectly tractable, and indeed quite civilised, at every day speeds. The gear change is fantastically slick and precise; the hood seems well thought out and it even has a half decent boot. One criticism of the earlier cars was a tendency to snap into sudden oversteer, but with the revised chassis you'd have to be trying very hard to do so in the dry. Even with the 'vehicle stability assist' turned off it took deliberate provocation in first gear to make the tail break lose and minimal correction to bring it back into line.
Returning to our photo shoot location for the group shots, it's time to reach a verdict. Henry really rates the live-wire nature of the S2000, but Ian prefers the Elise. It doesn't take me long to reach my own decision. In many respects the banzai Honda is every bit as exciting to drive as the Elise and it's definitely a more practical ownership prospect, but there's just a certain quality to the Lotus. It feels so intimately connected with the road and so cohesive as an overall package. It almost feels a little unfair to compare the two, as they feel very different, yet almost equally competent. However, for me, the lasting impression was that the S2000 felt like a car – a very good one, but still 'a' car; the Elise felt unique. It felt like a Lotus.