Specialty File

Lotus Elise: Car and Driver, May 1998

For the pure thrill of sports cars, it's in the top five.

Elise interior



0f the two cars Lotus produces, the Elise and the Esprit, only the Esprit makes it to our shores. Ever since the smaller, mid-engined Elise debuted in 1996, we've been smitten by this $33,500 car, pleaded with Lotus to bring it here, and even spent a few nights dreaming of owning one. It was high time to take one for a drive and find out if all the lusting was justified. So we paid a visit to Lotus's factory in Hethel, England, to take a spin and talk with the people who designed the car.

The design approach was simple. "We tried to make all the controls act in a linear way," says the Elise's principal development engineer, David Minter. "The brain easily computes a one-to-one relationship between what you put in and what you get out."

Minter and his crew also know that weight is the enemy of performance, so they used an innovative aluminum chassis. Made of 25 aluminum extrusions bonded together with an epoxy adhesive and Ejot screws (the name comes from the company that makes them), the chassis is extremely rigid and light. The whole car weighs a scant 1550 pounds. That's 830 pounds lighter than a Miata, which is roughly the same size.

Lotus engineers even went so far to reduce its weight by using aluminum-silicon carbide brake rotors, saving about 10 pounds at each corner. These rotors are slightly porous, and as the pad wears, the pores eventually fill up with pad material, creating a pad-to-pad interface for braking.

Climb into the attractively bare interior, and you can just tell you're in for a good time. You sit on a molded fiberglass seat with a bare minimum of padding. "The better to relay what's going on," comments Minter. The steering wheel is a tight I 11 inches in diameter and is placed perfectly. Right next to it stands the tall shifter that emerges from the bare aluminum floor.

The 118 -horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder and five-speed gearbox were plucked from an MGF-without so much as a calibration change. Credit the car's low weight for a scorching 0-to-60-mph run of only 5.2 seconds. BMW's tricked-up six-cylinder M roadster hits 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.

After a couple laps around Lotus's test track, we were pushing the car right to its limits. As Minter promised, the Elise makes you feel supremely confident, but without dominant understeer. With both ends balanced properly, the Elise circles the skidpad with 0.87 g of lateral grip (M roadsters pull 0.88 g). But oversteer is easily provoked midcorner with just a stab of gas or a squeeze on the brakes.

Unlike in some mid-engined cars, however, this willingness to rotate isn't an enemy. The rear end doesn't snap around violently but rather breaks free gradually and falls back obediently into line when asked. The Elise's light weight and small size make it flickable, light on its toes.

Although the brakes and the steering are not power-assisted, you'd never know it. The steering wheel dances a bit over bumps, but the car doesn't dart around nervously. You appreciate the feedback. The same goes for the brakes, which don't have anti-lock. "Puts the emphasis back on the driver," says Minter. Easily modulated, the brakes haul the car from 70 mph in 162 feet.

In short, the Elise is fast, confidence inspiring, and a hoot to drive. The Lotus crew blessed the Elise with just enough feedback-through the steering, brakes, even the seat-without being too harsh. For pure sports-car thrills, it's easily in the top five of "most entertaining."

But it is not without faults. The shifter lacks the mechanical feel of a Miata's, and the engine note is just plain wrong. Instead of a sweet-sounding mechanical wail, there's a rough-sounding growl. It doesn't suit the car.

Put the fabric top in place, and you find more trouble. Getting in is a downright chore, and the spartan interior amplifies the rough engine noise. But at least we failed to detect any cowl shake whatsoever.

If the Elise were ever to make it here and there is a chance, albeit a very small one-it would cost about $33,500. Lotus fears us Yanks wouldn't be willing to spend 34 large on a car that really is only meant for weekend rides. For a bit more in the U.S., you can get better everyday roadsters, but compared with the Elise, the rest feel too filtered, too isolated for that perfect blast through the twisties.


Vehicle type: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster

Price as tested (England): $33,500

Engine type   DOHC 16-valve 4-inline, aluminum block and head, Motorola Memms 1.9 engine control system with port fuel injection
Displacement   110 cu in, 1795cc
Power (SAE net)   118 bhp @ 5500 rpm
Torque (SAE net)   122 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Transmission   5-speed manual
Wheelbase   90.6 in
Length   146.7 in
Curb weight   1550 lb
Zero to 60 mph   5.2 sec
Zero to 100 mph   18.1 sec
Street start, 5-60 mph   6.6 sec
Standing 1/4-mile   4.1 sec @ 91 mph
top speed (estimated)   126 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph   162 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad   87 g
European fuel economy, urban cycle   25 mpg

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If going from 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds seems like an eternity to you, consider the Elise's quicker big brother, the Sport Elise. The Sport is a car that contains all of Lotus's high-performance aftermarket parts. To build the car pictured here would cost $20,000 more than the purchase price of a standard Elise, but all the parts are available separately from a Lotus dealer.

Center stage goes to the engine. With a less restrictive intake system and exhaust, higher-compression pistons, new cams, solid lifters, and stronger connecting rods and crankshaft, the horsepower leaps from 118 at 5500 rpm to 187 at 7500 rpm. Torque also grows from 122 pound-feet at 3000 rpm to 139 pound-feet at 5600 rpm. The redline is a hair raising 8000 rpm.

Suspension mods lower the car and up the spring and damping rates. To make it ready for the track, a roll cage, five-point racing harnesses, racing seats, a fire-suppression system, and a quick-release steering wheel are added.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to strap on our test gear, but we did get a few hot laps around the Lotus test track.

The easy controllability and excellent road feel of the stock Elise are all here in the Sport, but you're going much faster everywhere on the track. We estimate the Sport would hit 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds. The unrestricted engine is still on the rough side, and it's louder, but it emits a much more pleasing growl.

In short, the Sport would make a perfect race car, small enough to leave room on the track and plenty fast enough for high thrills.


Car and Driver

MAY 1998