50,000 Miles - 20 Careful Owners

Lotus Elise Final Report

After 50,000 punishing miles, we know all thre is to know about livieng with an Elise. Fragile toy or usable everday sports car? Colin Goodwin decides.

0h blast, I missed the moment. I had been preparing for it for several miles then, when the moment came, I was looking the wrong way. That little liquid crystal display in our long-term Lotus Elise's instrument pod flashed up a five and four noughts and I missed it.

Fifty thousand miles. It's quite incredible. Steve Cropley ran a Jaguar over this mileage but I've never heard of a magazine running a sports car for that distance. Especially one like this: a car that a lot of people consider to be just a high day and holiday toy and not a serious proposition for day-to-day motoring. Well, I always knew that that was rot. Mind you, this is the view of someone who has memories of dreadfully leaky '60s British sports cars and who also commuted for a year in a Caterham 7.

That said, I never anticipated just how friendly the Elise would turn out to be. All of us have had at least one memorable long-haul road trip in the little yellow car. An Alpine tour, for one, a holiday in Scotland, and I've taken it to Germany twice, Switzerland once and France several times. Sure, it doesn't suit the kitchen sink type of traveller, but if you're careful with the packing there's no problem.

Before we look at those 50,000 miles and what they've cost and what's fallen off or snapped, we'll go back to the beginning, before the car had even arrived. I made a big mistake choosing yellow. I didn't listen to the critics around me. Mind you, that was aesthetic criticism. I regret the choice for the more practical reason that it is a nightmare to keep clean and doesn't age well. We ordered the car with quite a few extras, at least by Elise standards. A CD/radio was fitted, leather seats the top-spec roof and driving lights. All of which has proved to be worthwhile kit. You can't hear music at any sort of motorway speeds unless you have it turned up to teenage levels, but it's nice to have for low-speed commutes. The seats look nice and water runs off them better than it does off fabric coverings. And driving lights are a real boon on the B-roads on which the Elise is most at home.

I hadn't driven many miles in Elises before ours arrived, but enough to know what was in store. Now, 50,000 miles later, I feel that I know the car down to the last nut and drop of glue. It's been a fascinating journey, this, and not one that's been completely straightforward. It hasn't been one long high, either. The car has changed enormously over the past 22 months and so has my opinion of it.

One view has remained constant throughout and that's the question of power. In the past couple of years more and more companies - and more recently Lotus itself – have offered tuning kits for the Elise. Ours now wears the factory 135 Sport kit, which is basically a gas-flowed cylinder head and sports exhaust system. The exhaust was fitted well before the engine conversion was carried out. This pipe is an absolute must because it helps to drown out the sound of the engine and the transmission whine, of which there is plenty.

The engine conversion is excellent, giving more mid-range power without sacrificing any of the bottom-end torque. The problem is its price. At about 12500 1 don't think I'd go for it. During the past 22 months I've been in contact with loads of Elise owners, many of them on a regular basis. The feedback has been both fascinating and useful. The question of power has come up loads of times, and the more I've thought about it the more I'm sure that Id stick with the standard output - even for track days. Just imagine how much faster you'd be after receiving 22500 worth of driving instruction. I'll wager it'd make more difference to your times around a circuit than an extra 17bhp.

The one modification that would really tempt me is the close-ratio gear set that comes with the factory 135 Sport model. Stacking the ratios together really makes the car come alive.

Mention of race tracks brings us to another popular topic of conversation along Elise owners: handling. And the fact that while the Elise's dynamic behaviour is virtually in a class of its own, it's not quite as vice-free as we all thought at first, especially on the track. My own thoughts on the subject have varied quite a bit during the car's time with us.

The Elise is so precise, its suspension so finely tuned, that if one component is out of true then the whole plot is upset. You may well remember the Niirburgring incident in November 1997. The trip ended in a cloud of glass fibre and spilt fluids. Lotus fixed the car and made it as good as new. Oddly, a few weeks after getting the car back a bolt worked loose in the rear suspension. There had just been a recall for the same # problem, which is a good thing because the effect of that loose bolt was quite dramatic. For me it resulted in a spin on the way to the garage to have it fixed.

The second major handling event in the car's life with us was when it performed very badly during a handling story. The car had severe lift-off oversteer, especially through right-hand corners. Not surprisingly, Lotus was a bit perturbed by our findings and got Alistair McQueen, its hugely talented test driver, to drive the car. The end result was a session on Lotus's chassis rig. The diagnosis was not much wrong with the rear suspension but quite a bit astray at the front. Bump steer was way out, the toe change was excessive and the steering rack had moved down by 3mm on one side and 2mm. on the other. The result was a front end that gained grip faster than the rear, which explained a lot.

Tyre wear is a crucial factor in the Elise's manners. The rears don't have to be near the illegal stage to make a big difference, especially in the wet. And the Elise goes through rear tyres at a fair old rate. We're on our fifth pair of Pirelli P-Zeros at the back - although at least one lot got carved up rapidly on handling tests.

With the suspension back to normal, I risked another trip to the Niirburgring. Amazing what confidence in a car can do, and tens of thousands of miles of wheel time. More than 60 laps of the 'Ring and not one scare. It was a hugely entertaining couple of days away and an experience that made me think the Elise is a better track car than I thought.

Nearly all the servicing work on our car has been carried out by Bell & Colvill in West Horsley, Surrey. Like many Lotus dealers, it is owned and staffed by enthusiasts. Our first visit was at 1000 miles for an inspection, which is just an oil change and cost 15l.98. After that the services came every 9000 miles, leaving us with a total servicing bill over 22 months of L1784 - extraordinarily reasonable for a sports car.

At most services the car was accompanied by a short list of faults that needed correcting. Not once in 50,000 miles has the Lotus let us down, but in the early days it did frustrate with several niggly problems. First off, the driver's window became very difficult to wind down and almost impossible to wind up. That was fixed by careful adjusting. The detent that holds the driver's door ajar broke but was an easy fix. The clips that hold the roof's cant rails in place proved more troublesome. Held in by just self-tapping screws, they were always coming loose. The problem was only solved when new-style clips were fitted (so we could have a hard top).

One of the drawbacks of being early in the queue for a car like the Elise is that you tend to miss out on later developments. The window mechanisms have been updated, as well as the cant rail fixings. And the rear window is slightly angled on recent cars to stop reflections. When our hard top was fitted, the rear window was converted to the later specification. Prior to this, all you could see in the rear-view mirror at night was the car in front reflected in the rear window.

The Elise roof is another subject that fires up. owners. Most have experienced anything from a few drips coming in to waterfalls. We started with drips but after the first 20,000 miles or so the roof really improved. Must have settled down a bit. Most people seem to acquire the knack of fitting the hood in reasonably quick time; certainly the number of whingers in this office has tailed off to zero. The hard top has gone down well, too. It's very easy to fit and remove and comes with a very neat storage bag. The hard top cuts out a bit of wind noise on the motorway, but you still get a lot of engine and transmission racket.

I've driven quite a few different Elise variants lately, including the VVC-powered car and the 135 Sport. None has changed my view that the standard ca r is the best. However, driving new cars does put into focus the effect of 50,000 miles on the car. Our Elise still performs well but feels quite stiff and heavy next to the fresher cars. As I said earlier, yellow was a bad choice as it doesn't age particularly well, especially on the bits that are inside the car. The aluminium surfaces are looking quite well worn and the fabric on top of the sills and along the edge of the seats has worn through in places. Still, it would be a simple matter - and not that costly - to rejuvenate the car. What a gem this Elise is going to be to restore one day. One of the simplest cars in history to make like new again. I reckon that day is at least another 50,000 miles away.

What others think of the Elise:

Exquisite car though the Elise is, I reckon it needs a better engine, with more character and refinement. The Rover K-series is raucous and uninspiring - and the VVC engine is not the answer. With the sweet, torquey 1.7-litre Ford Puma engine or one of Honda's manic
VTEC units, the Elise would be perfect. Allan Muir

The Elise makes you realise how much information modern cars filter out; at 40mph the Elise is more of an experience for all five senses than many so-called sports cars at three times that speed. Everyone should be made to drive the Elise for a weekend; climbing back into their usual cars will never be the same again. Ben Whitworth

I've only driven it with the hard-top on. I find it absurdly difficult to get in and out. I like the lack of nonsense inside. I like having the engine noise behind my head and the feeling of being directly in contact with the engine. I like the sensation of speed you get from being close to the road. I don't like the way people look at you like you're a tosser, or that the car is made of plastic. Colin Overland

Goodwin's Elise feels weary to me. My year-old car exposes some of the fatigue his car has inevitably suffered. The steering and gearbox are a little slack and it creaks all over. But for a 50,000-mile Lotus, it's a miracle.

Chris Harris