The Lotus Elise is a mid-engine two-seat sports car known for sharp handling, excellent braking and quick acceleration. It achieves this the traditional Lotus way: through lightweight construction rather than outright power. What other sports cars do with 400 horsepower the Elise does with half that. The Elise offers one of the most exhilarating driving experiences you will find. It is also the world's most efficient production supercar. Its small yet powerful engine delivers reasonable fuel economy and commendably low CO2 emissions. Weighing less than 2000 pounds, the Elise used to be the lightest production car offered in the U.S.; now that honor goes by a small margin to the Smart car.
There have been no functional changes to the Elise for 2009. The current Elise was released in the United Kingdom for 2001 and in the United States for 2005.
Agility and speed make the Elise a compelling sports car, but its small size make it less practical than, say, a Corvette or Porsche Boxster. Prospective buyers should be mindful of the Elise's marginal utility, as many who have bought an Elise have subsequently had second thoughts. It's a marvelous car for those seeking fair-weather weekend thrill rides and occasional track time but, for the commute, use the Camry. As a no-compromise sports car, the Lotus Elise is fantastic. Considered as a cute sports car, the Elise is pricey, but viewed as a supercar, it's a bargain.
The 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 body is made out of molded RTM composite fiberglass. 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.
The 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.
Elise offers a broad exterior color palette and is most visible and striking in lighter colors. There may be a safety advantage associated with lighter and brighter colors being more easily seen in traffic. The Elise is small, after all, and turning on the headlights is not a bad idea.
Placed in a competitive context, the Elise is proportioned somewhat like a smaller version of a Ferrari F430. But, beyond that, it does not really resemble any other mass-production vehicle on the road. In just about every aspect, the Elise is in a class by itself.
We like and recommend the optional Starshield, 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 simple and 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, and it is. There are exposed aluminum pieces and panels on the floor. There are two tightly shaped bucket seats. Neither reclines. The driver seat is manually adjustable fore and aft. The passenger seat is fixed. In cloth, the seats look and feel like cloth. In leather, they look, feel and smell like vinyl. The leather holds up well though and is easy to clean.
The dash is basic, with speedometer, tachometer, fuel and temperature functions arranged in a cluster, leaving warning lights for the rest. A dimpled black pad extends across the dash, mounted above an extruded aluminum tray to store odds and ends. 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 a regimen for disarming the alarm and immobilizer that requires pressing a button on the key fob before pressing the Start button, which seems fussy. We've found the anti-theft system can be prone to false alarms, but a technician can turn the sensitivity down. In short, the remote locking key fob and alarm systems are not our favorite features.
The standard Alpine audio is fair at best in terms of sound. 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. The fussy audio system may be this car's worst feature followed by the alarm system.
The air conditioning system features rudimentary controls in the form of three round alloy knobs and two small supplementary black buttons. The light indicating whether the air conditioning is on is difficult to see, especially on bright (hot) days. Most of the time, it chills the small cabin quickly and gets the job done. However, the A/C is outclassed in warmer climates when the car is traveling at slow speeds and there is insufficient ram air passing through the front-mounted condenser. The heater works acceptably well.
Lotuses are traditionally small cars. Small on the outside is great, as small makes them nimble, lightweight, fast and efficient. Small on the inside is limiting. Many people over six feet tall simply don't fit in this car. And some under six feet, particularly those of broader beam, don't fit very well.
The ProBax seats are tight and confining, thinly padded and lightweight 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.
Getting in and out of it the Elise is difficult. The high door sill is great for structural rigidity at the lightest possible weight and contributes significantly to side-impact safety, but it also represents a threshold for entry and egress. For the small and limber, no issue. For the larger and less flexible, this could be a challenge bordering on the near impossible. 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. Then there are those who won't even try. Sliding the driver's seat back before getting in or out is a good idea. We usually go in rear first, folding ourselves in half, and swinging the legs over the sill, with the upper body coming in last. Getting out usually involves sitting on the sill, squeezing the feet past the door, then lifting the body up.
As opposed to the Exige with its fixed hard top, the Elise offers the advantage of a removable top. Entry-egress is easiest with the top off. Hold the windshield header, then slide down and in. Pull on the steering column and sill assembly, and lift yourself out. With the top on, the aperture is smaller and lower, and you lose the ability to grab the header. Regardless of whether you go legs first, legs last, twisted body, sliding body or whatever, the first couple of times in and out are fairly routine. But use the Elise as a commuter car, getting in and out several times a day, and you'll likely come to really appreciate other, larger cars in your fleet.
The Elise is available with a roll-up soft top and bolt-on hardtop. The soft top is a gem, easy to install and snug fitting. It keeps wind and water out and, when removed, rolls easily into something the size and shape of a runner carpet. At that point, it stores easily in the trunk. The hard top, in turn, takes several minutes to remove or install with multiple socket-head bolts. When removed, it cannot be stored in the vehicle, so has to be left behind, in your garage. Assuming security is not a major issue and the car will be used in warmer climates, go for the soft top alone. But some owners like the hardtop for its styling, the security it provides and use for track events.
Visibility forward is fair, though it is not possible to gauge the front end of the car from the driver seat. Visibility to the rear is restricted by tall and wide seat headrests, a shallow rear window and the exterior buttresses. Reversing maneuvers in parking lots are best coordinated by someone outside the car. Door mirrors are small and only manually adjustable, which limits both their functionality and field of vision. Elises are built to go forward, and fast, which is to say whatever lies alongside or behind is but a minor and momentary inconvenience.
There is a small trunk area behind and above the engine compartment. It's accessed by key through a lift-up decklid. Access is up-and-over, and the aperture is small. A flimsy prop rod somewhat awkwardly holds the lid up, and the delicate lid needs to be handled carefully. Soft luggage is recommended. Perishables are best carried in the passenger compartment.
The Lotus Elise is quick and nimble, with phenomenal handling. The most salient and notable Elise driving characteristic is what might be called telepathic steering. Remember, this is a car without power steering; there is no need for power assist. Approach a turn and the Elise behaves as if it has already researched that turn and somehow starts steering ahead of your actual input. No fight. No resistance. No hesitation. It's just the most predictable and responsive steering of any production street car.
In street conditions and at normal speeds the 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, the Elise can be driven in two different ways: Basic, manageable understeer with just enough judicious throttle use to keep the tail alive and working. Or lurid, sideways oversteer. The former is usually quicker. The latter more theatrical.
The Elise is available with two suspension packages, the standard setup and the Sport suspension. Both are taut and offer superb control. For street applications, the standard model combined with the standard Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 LTS tires is perfectly acceptable. For track applications, the Lotus Sport suspension is superior. Ride quality on the street is firmer with the Sport suspension, however. Think carefully before you buy. Enthusiasts often 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 driving situations you will encounter. The Sport Pack suspension shines for that remaining five percent of the time when you're blowing away everyone else on the track. Also, aftermarket shocks and wheels and tires can accomplish the same goals as the Sport package and can be added later.
Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS complete the 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. In short, drivers are likely to find Elise brakes nothing short of eye-popping. Modulation is linear and seamless.
The Elise is not just quick around corners, it's also fast. All Lotuses sold in North America are powered by a version of the 1.8-liter Toyota 2ZZ-GE inline four-cylinder engine. In a different version, it was used in the last-generation Celica GT, and also in the Toyota Matrix GT and the accompanying Pontiac Vibe GT. For the Elise, output has been increased to 189 horsepower, and the supercharged SC has 218 horsepower.
Peak torque is achieved at a dizzying 6800 rpm, and the torque curve itself is comparatively steep. Owing to a variable valve timing (VVT) system that switches modes at 6200 rpm, engine delivery below that speed is strong enough for most street applications, but absolutely sizzles beyond that when it crosses that 6200-rpm threshold. The engine's a real revver, and exceptionally strong all the way to its 8200-rpm cutoff.
Lotus uses a very close-ratio six-speed manual 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 a relatively high 4000 rpm. This is okay for the first hour or so of freeway driving, but then the combination of noise and excitement just behind your head makes you want to stop, rest and recalibrate.
Fuel economy is an EPA-rated 21/27 mpg City/Highway. Low gearing and the high-revving nature of the engine cost the Elise in terms of fuel economy, but it's much better than any Ferrari, Aston Martin or Lamborghini might deliver.
The shift quality is good, as might be expected from a transmission supplied by Toyota. Synchro action is seamless, and shifts are quick. The clutch is light and predictable in its travel and engagement. There is some clunk-clunk in the shift linkage, resulting as much from the assembly being encased in a minimally insulated surround as from the action itself. The sound and feel of going from gear to gear can best be described as minimalist bordering on unrefined. Everything is done in the interest of simplicity and the lightest possible weight, so the driver becomes more a part of the car.
The Lotus Elise is an ideal weekend sports car for spirited driving or track events. It is among the most agile, best driving sportscars in the world. On a winding, curving road, no other production car is likely to be faster or more rewarding getting from Point A to Point B. Outside its intended role, the Elise is compromised by its small size.
Rex Parker filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report.
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