Lotus Elise is a small two-door sportscar best known for its telepathic handling, nimble moves and astounding speed. It is what Ferrari owners buy when they want to go to amateur track days, and win. Less known, or perhaps less appreciated, is how it achieves its performance. Elise's small size, combined with its remarkably light weight, result in astounding quickness derived more from sheer efficiency than outright power. What other fast cars do with 400 or more horsepower Elise does with around 200. Elise is likely the best driving production car in the world. It offers one of the most exhilarating driving experiences in the world. It is also the world's most efficient production supercar, which in itself is meaningful in an era of rapidly rising fuel prices and increased green consciousness. Elise's small and powerful engine also delivers reasonable fuel economy and commendably low CO2 emissions. Elise used to be the lightest weight production car offered in the U.S.; now that honor goes to the Smart car, though by only a small margin.
The Elise is aging, but you might not know it. Launched in original Series 1 form in late-1996, it has been continually modified and upgraded to meet evolving regulations and market requirements. The current model is a Series 2, released in the UK for 2001 and in the U.S. for 2005. Interestingly, in the process of aging and adapting, Elise has put on some 400 pounds since initial launch. Don't be discouraged, though, as it's still remarkably light weight at just under 2000 pounds.
Elise's almost unparalleled agility and speed make it tantalizingly seductive. But, as is so often the case, seduction comes at a cost. For street use, the Elise is less practical than, say, the Corvette or any Aston Martin. It is less usable than a Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo. To put its day-to-day utility in context, think of it as a (much) smaller and lighter Lamborghini LP640. Prospective buyers should be careful and mindful of Elise's undeniable seduction and marginal utility, as many who have been seduced and bought Elises have subsequently had second thoughts. A quick web search reveals many low-mileage Elises for sale, their once bedazzled owners now discouraged with the harsher realities of trying to use Elise on the street. Don't forget, Elise is a marvelous car for those seeking fair-weather weekend thrill rides and occasional track time. For the commute, use the Camry.
Taken in sum, the Lotus Elise is a fantastic car for a comparatively limited audience that gets it and can actually use it. For everyone else, including those specifically interested in high-performance sports cars bordering on supercars, there are other choices in the market likely to be more useful, accommodating and appealing. Keep in mind many of these alternatives are likely to cost more, or perhaps a multiple more. As a normal sports car, the tiny Elise looks a stretch at $50,000. As a supercar, it's an absolute bargain.
Lotus Elise is available only as a two-door, targa-top sports car. Basic exterior lines and proportions reflect its two-seat capacity and mid-engine layout, which is to say it has both air inlet and extractor vents at the front and straked oil cooler intakes along the rear quarter flanks. The cabin is located well forward in the chassis, with a steeply raked windshield rising almost continuously out of the front clip. Behind the cabin are two buttresses which hide a steel roll hoop structure. Front overhang is noticeable, but there is very little rear overhang.
The Elise body is made out of molded RTM composite fiberglass. Every panel is arced and curved. The overall design could be called either sleek or busy, with multiple character lines, fillets and features punctuating every surface. A Coke-bottle shape within the wheelbase provides visual drama and glorious highlights, but detracts slightly from vehicle aerodynamics.
Elise is very small, very sporty and very aggressive. Aside from alloy wheels in muted silver, all exterior trim is either body color or matte black. Lotus has invested heavily in the front lighting assemblies. A ribbed clear plastic lens covers projector-beam headlights. Taillights are round, basic and undistinguished.
The fact Elise is so small and trim so muted makes it most visible and striking in lighter colors. Of course, color selection and visibility is a matter of individual preference. Owners seeking to stand out and be seen will go lighter. Owners preferring stealth will go darker. Keep in mind that as a small car often traveling at high speed, there may be a safety advantage associated with lighter/brighter colors and being more easily seen in traffic. Elise offers one of the most broad and aggressive exterior color palettes in the industry, with a total of 20 hues available. Non-metallic Ardent Red and British Racing Green are standard at no extra cost. Seven metallic colors, six Lifestyle colors, three Limited colors and two Exclusive colors are available at extra cost.
Placed in a competitive context, Elise looks like a smaller Ferrari F430. Much smaller. Beyond F430, it does not really resemble any other mass production vehicle on the road. Not just from the standpoint of exterior appearance but in literally every other aspect, Elise (and its Exige S companion) is in a class by itself.
We like the optional Star Shield, a clear plastic film used to protect the paint on the nose of the car. It's impressively strong yet virtually invisible.
The Lotus Elise interior is, by design, very simple and very basic. The overall look is not quite kit car, but falls short of almost any other production car in the industry. Everything looks hand-cut and hand-made, which, as a matter of fact, it is. There are two tightly shaped ProBax bucket seats. Neither reclines. The driver seat is manually adjustable fore and aft. The passenger seat is fixed. In cloth, the seats looks and feel like cloth. In leather, they look, feel and smell like vinyl. There are exposed aluminum pieces and panels on the floor, just the way owners like it.
The dash is equally basic. A gauge cluster looking like something out of a motorcycle covers speedometer, tachometer, fuel and temperature functions, leaving warning lights for the rest. A dimpled black pad extends across the dash, mounted above an extruded aluminum tray to store what the British call oddments. In practice, the tray is more cosmetic than functional, though a cell phone, wallet, or garage remote will fit.
Aside from the small trunk behind the engine, the only storage space is behind the passenger seat, and this is not enclosed. Groceries? On the passenger seat or footwell. With no luggage space, the Elise is not an airport car.
Minor controls are few, but somewhat randomly placed and in every case cryptically marked if marked at all. This is not a car you can get into late at night for the first time and instinctively know how to operate. Horn buttons are in the two steering wheel spokes and are hard to find in an emergency. There is even a regimen for disarming the alarm and immobilizer that requires explanation in advance; and we've found it can go off on its own accord. The standard Alpine audio is fair at best. Worse, its 1-DIN layout, microscopic controls and low placement in the dash make it difficult to operate and adjust while underway; then there's the annoying, flashy LED. Then again, there's enough engine and road noise to drown out music or talk anyway.
The air conditioning system features rudimentary controls in the form of three round alloy knobs that sometimes fall off and two small supplementary black buttons. The light indicating whether the A/C is on is difficult to see. The heater works acceptably well. The A/C is outclassed in warmer climates, particularly when the car is traveling at slow speeds and there is insufficient ram air passing through the front-mounted condenser. Cold? Put on a sweater. Warm? Take the top off!
By their very definition, Lotuses are small. They've always been small. Small on the outside is great, as small makes them nimble, lightweight, fast and efficient. Small on the inside is more delimiting. Many people over 6 feet simply don't fit in this car. And some under 6 feet, particularly those of broader beam, don't fit very well. The ProBax seats are tight and confining; thinly padded and light weight to the core. They're ideal for track and aggressive street use where you really want to be held in place. They can be accommodating and supportive if you're the right size to start with. If you're outside the envelope, they're tight and unyielding.
Even more an ergonomic factor than physically sitting in the vehicle is entry-egress, getting in and out. Elise was originally planned without doors. Practicality prevailed at some point in the development process, and doors were added. These mask and cover a high alloy sill. The sill is great for maximum structure and solidity at the lightest possible weight, and contributes significantly to side-impact safety. It also represents a fairly substantial threshold in both entry and, even more significantly, egress. For the small and limber, no issue. For the larger and less flexible, a challenge bordering on job-stopper. Another issue is the comparatively short door, which means having to hook leg and foot around and across a curved alloy hinge to get out. Easy for some but more difficult for others
Ask the average Lotus owner what characterizes Lotus most, and the answer is usually quickness, litheness and phenomenal handling. The Elise proves the point. The most salient and notable Elise driving characteristic is what might best be called telepathic steering. Remember, this is a car with manual steering; no trace of (or need for) power assist. Approach a turn, any turn, and the Elise behaves as if it has forecasted the turn coming up and starts steering ahead of your actual input. No fight. No resistance. No hesitation. Just the most predictive and responsive steering of any street car. Steering that makes bad drivers look great. Steering that makes good drivers gods.
In street conditions and at normal speeds, steering is fairly neutral and, as mentioned above, largely forecasts and reads the turn. On the track, slight initial understeer can quickly transition to oversteer. Actually, on the track, Elise can be driven two different ways: Basic understeer with just enough judicious throttle use to keep the tail alive and working. Or lurid oversteer. The former is usually quicker. The latter more theatrical.
Elise is available with two suspension settings: firm and firmer. Both are taut and offer superb control. For most street applications, the standard setting combined with the standard Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 LTS tires is perfectly acceptable. For track applications, only the Lotus Sport suspension in the optional Sport Pack will do. Think carefully before you buy. Purists will always want the most aggressive of everything; bragging rights, so to speak. But the resulting Sport Pack ride on America's rutted and uneven highways and by-ways can be jarring to the point of pain and eventual exhaustion. The standard suspension works better for 95 percent of the road surfaces and actual uses you will encounter. The Sport Pack suspension shines for that remaining 5 percent of the time when you're blowing everyone else away on the street or, better yet, the track.
Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS complete Elise's impressive ride and handling ensemble. Suffice to say vented and cross-drilled rotors, each the size of a pie plate, combined with two-piston Lotus/Brembo front and single-piston Brembo rear calipers are more than up to the task of bringing such a lightweight car to a stop. Repeatedly. In short, drivers are likely to find Elise brakes nothing short of eye-popping. Modulation is linear and seamless.
Elise is not just quick, it's fast too. All Lotuses sold in North America are powered by a 1.8-liter Toyota 2ZZ-GE I4 engine. The 2ZZ designation may sound familiar. In 180-horsepower guise, it powered the last-generation Celica GT, and was also used in short-lived Matrix GT and accompanying Pontiac Vibe GT models. On adopting 2ZZ, Lotus immediately remapped power and torque curves through a purpose-built ECU. This resulted in horsepower being raised to the current 189 hp. The supercharged SE boosts this to 218 hp.
Regardless of application, the 2ZZ engine has always been tuned more for revs and horsepower than torque. This is particularly true in Elise. Peak torque is achieved at a dizzying 6800 rpm, and the torque curve itself is comparatively steep. Owing to a VVT system that switches modes at 6200 rpm, engine delivery below that speed is strong enough for most street applications, but absolutely sizzles beyond. Sizzles to the extent you really feel a kick when you cross the threshold. The engine's a real revver, and exceptionally strong through an 8200 rpm cutoff.
Lotus uses a very close-ratio M6 transmission in all its vehicles. The result is great on the track, where revs and speed are readily maintained from gear to gear. Everyday street use is a little more labored, where fifth and sixth gears are close and sixth-gear engine speed at 70 mph is around 4000 rpm. This is okay for the first hour or so of freeway driving, but then the combination of noise and excitement just behind yo
The Lotus Elise is the ideal fair-weather weekend canyon runner and enthusiast track car. It is arguably the most agile, best driving sportscar in the world, A sports bike on four wheels. Nothing is faster or more rewarding from A to B, particularly if A to B is filled with dramatic curves. Outside its intended role, the Elise becomes far more compromised, being one of the more challenging vehicles in today's market to use as anything approaching normal transportation. This makes Elise devilishly charming, consummately seductive yet significantly flawed at the same time. Think carefully before deciding, as Elise is a choice that requires full commitment and is clearly not for the faint of heart.
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