Lotus Elise: Is the Elise Coming Here?

Grassroots Motorsports (Oct 1998?)

story and photos by paul lone, jr.

interior of Sport
The Lotus Elise is selling like hot cakes where ever Lotus can sell it. Initial plans called for only a few hundred cars to demonstrate Lotus Engineering's ingenuity and high-tech design skills to potential customers; the number was then bumped up to 2500. When it was discovered that a crowd was at the gates waving money, production was expanded to to 3000 a year for the foreseeable future.

For Once, a Success Story

The Lotus Cars side of Group Lotus is making a profit for the first time in years. Lotus has returned to its roots. The Elise is the Seven and Elan in modern dress. To Lotus' amazement, a market was hiding in the woodwork. There still are odd, quirky people out there, who long for an austere, moderately- priced car whose sole purpose is awesome motoring performance and visceral pleasure.

It's a complex and confusing world. We of the car nut genre are particularly aware of the scrambled eggs we have to deal with when politics, international corporate wheeling and dealing, and environmental bickering define what we drive. Therefore, the Lotus Elise has been among the fine, world-class cars that could not be sold or driven in this country.

There is hope. The Lotus camel is poking its nose under the tent. Rolling off the production line are the first Sport Elises to be sold in this country-but for racing purposes only. They should be here in the fall, just in time to be demonstrated at the Lotus 50th Anniversary celebration during the Lotus Owners Gathering and USA vintage races held at Road Atlanta the final weekend in September.

Lotus Cars USA (LCU) has developed a tentative plan for bringing the street version of the Elise into the U.S. and Canada; but there are a lot of ifs, ands and buts associated with the plan. Lotus has a shot at getting waivers, at least in the U.S., because it is a small manufacturer (under 10,000 cars a year). Congress is also proposing laws that offer a bigger loophole for importing exotics.

The earliest that LCU could hope to have street machines certified is about a year, according to LCU CEO Arnie Johnson. "We need the car and want to keep it close to its original concept,"' he explained, trying to sweep away rumors that the car was going to be "Americanized."' Sorry, but there is no room for cup holders, plush carpets or air conditioning (unless you want to give up the heater).

It's obvious that the Elise is not for the gold-neckchain, "'ain't I great" image crowd. For those who appreciate clever engineering and have enough skill to use the performance the Elise offers, the car makes an appropriate statement. It makes demands as well. Pretenders are rudely reminded that they wasted their money. The Elise is austere to a fault.

Once, an automotive magazine described the original Lotus Elan as a Lotus 23 race car for the street. The Elise is out of the same mold. Like the Elan, it's a bit ahead of its time. Engineering techniques straight out of state-of-the-art aerospace technology were used in its conception.

The Elise project (111) was carried out for only a few million dollars. It speaks volumes to the old saw that addresses the creativity and economy of a small, smart, integrated team of people being more successful than a rumbling bureaucracy and doing it faster by an order of magnitude. It took Ford multi-billions and about four years to bring the Mondeo world car to the showroom. They were smart enough to use the small team approach on the GT40. How many delays costing hundreds of millions did GM suffer bringing its current nt American models to market?

Lotus has achieved its objective in demonstrating what a small, creative company can engineer efficiently in a world of automotive giants lumbering for position in an overcrowded market. Let a lean and hungry little company do the design work, and it may give the lucky giant, who is the client, an edge while probably saving money.

There are more rumors floating among enthusiasts about what kind of Elise will finally come into the country than those flying around the inside of a beauty shop on Saturday morning. As of early summer, a visit to the factory and a separate chat with Arnie Johnson produced a status report of new and old information that deflects some of the wilder speculation appearing in various Internet sites.

The importation of the Elise Sport is a reality. Johnson thinks he can find a niche where they can be raced by the average enthusiast. ""I've talked to some of the vintage racing bodies and they seem to welcome the idea of including the Elise, including all-Elise classes," said Johnson. For Club Racing, Production classification by the SCCA is not possible until the car is imported for street use.
Johnson thinks if the car has a place to race, he can sell about one a month over the next couple of years at $55,000 a copy. The good news for potential Elise owners is the modular Sport kits that Lotus builds, allowing the "stripper" model to be built up toward Sport specs over time. Vivian Meazza discussed his plans to do just that with me, as he participated in the Lotus 50th Anniversary club races at Brand's Hatch in early June. The safety equipment was in. His next project was the Sport rear suspension.

I'm willing to wager he is too conservative. A Elise test drive is all it takes to create a powerful lust. There are too many people out there with fists full of cash who will realize that this car will run circles around many of the exotics. Groups of Elise owners are capable of renting tracks for the weekend, just like Porsche, BMW, Corvette and other marque clubs do now.

satisfaction: Driving the Elise

Fortune smiles on we who write for low wages but have lots of fun. I was able to take the development Elise Sport for a spin around the factory test track. So, I know from which I speak. Unfortunately, I do not have $55,000.
Elise Development Engineer Dave Minter warmed up the tires for me as we zipped around what were once runways and taxiways for B-24 bombers during World War II. It's deliberately kept in Mickey Mouse condition. Think of the worst Solo I course you have ever seen, and knock it down a couple of notches. If you can make a car behave on it, the machine has to be brilliant. This machine is brilliant.

My turn. The car was right-hand-drive rive. I had spent the previous two weeks enduring English drivers and pedestrians screaming and shaking fists at me and threatening to have me arrested for my attempts to drive on the right side. This was no time for second thoughts. I was going to crunch gears, no doubt. Once in the driver's seat, I was at home. Owning Elans for over three decades, even blindfolded, I'd know I was in a Lotus. The lineage is unmistakable.
Firing up the 190-horsepower hotted-up Rover K engine produced a docile exhaust note. Push off was equally docile. Stomping on the gas pedal and crunching up through the gears was not. Lotus claims 4.4 seconds to 60 mph. I believe it. There are only 1635 pounds to haul. Well, two hefty guys in the seats may have slowed things a bit.

The track has pylons, jutting out at right angles, forcing you to take evasive maneuvers once you've realized you are approaching them at over 100 mph. Another line of pylons force you into a narrow corridor at right angles to the track. The Elise went whichever way I pointed it, with proper application of brake, throttle and steering. It was fun to wear a car again. The Elise is a car that is part of your wardrobe.

The characteristically soft Lotus suspension allowed the bumps and holes from asphalt stripped off the runways to pass unnoticed, even at speeds above the century mark-no bump steer, no nuthin'. I just kept my foot in it, doing wonderful drifts while powering out of the 180 degree turn. I even think I said "whee" a couple of times.

Back to Earth. Well, not quite. A couple of days later I spent a delightful evening with Internet Lotus list pen pal Tony Churly and his lovely wife Jane. Tony has a near-stock Norfolk Mustard Elise. (The color may be yellow to you, but it's mustard to Lotus-a little darker than the Heinz salad variety.)

Tony took me on an amazing ride along the narrow roads and hedgerows of Northern Norfolk County, not far from the Lotus factory. The car dashed around corners and up and down hill and dale at ridiculous speeds, firmly glued to the road. The downforce aerodynamics were perfect.

"'I've given some people rides like this that caused them to turn ashen," confessed Tony, as we chatted casually at speed. "I think there is nothing like it in the morning, the days I take the car to work. My boss always says, 'you drove that bloody Elise to work again,' when I walk in the door grinning."

Getting a waiver to bring the street Elise into the U.S. and Canada is no sure thing. The Rover K engine does not conform to OBD-11 requirements. The car has no bumpers. Johnson jokes that the car has such low mass and body resilience that it will bounce off anything it hits at two-and-a-half miles-an-hour.

There is not a statistically significant amount of controlled crash data. Lotus has no money to smash up cars or give them to the government to destroy. They also do not have the money to do an extensive redesign that could, unhappily, result in a car with a vastly different character. Bummer.

To make bringing the car to North America work, LCU needs to sell up to 1000 cars in North America each year for the rest of the production run. That is close to all the Elans Lotus ever produced. If the Feds and insurance companies cooperated and buyer interest zoomed, as it has in the rest of the world, everything would be bright and shiny specs.

However, there is absolutely no telling the outcome of "what ifs." Any way you slice it, it will be a big risk for Lotus. The M 100 Elan miscalculation is still in people's minds. It should be remembered that any significant profit Group Lotus has made in the past decade has come from the engineering side of the house. Not too long ago, the official word was car production was a demonstration tool to highlight the company's engineering prowess.

There are some things that Lotus must change to make the Elise appealing to a maximum number of enthusiasts, regardless of regulations. They are little and not so little things that are correctable; but failure to pay attention could be a turn-off to potential buyers. The Internet chat is full of praise and complaints from Elise owners. In talking with several Elise owners face-to-face it's easy to see a negative Net mentality creeping into some of the on-line comments.

Churly has had few problems with his car. He and his wife have toured the Welsh countryside and are planning a trip to the Pyrenees. The other extreme has been experienced byAdam Buckley. He uses his Elise as a daily driver in his computer sales job, and he finds that his car visits the shop an average of every 900 miles with suspension, window crank and instrumentation/lighting problems.

It's hard to track down the degree of problems and satisfaction among Elise owners. A sure thing is they would resort to desperate measures if you tried to take the car away from them. American dealers usually carry a Lotus franchise because they are enthusiasts too and realize that Lotus builds floor traffic. If the car becomes available in this country, they will be in a hot seat. Service is king, and a well-trained staff of responsive mechanics and service reps is a must, even for a low volume car. Dealers have to be steered away from price gouging. Initially, at least, the cars will be bought by the people who have kept the Lotus name afloat all these years. They deserve some respect.

The Elise has had some annoying NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) problems. These are directly related to Lotus' not being able to conduct an expensive test program. The clunking suspension is being addressed. Stones hitting the honeycomb floor pan are striking a sounding board. It should be an easy fix. The window winders seem to come out of the factory hard to operate for many. Various bits and pieces do not get screwed on right and slip through quality control.

Quality problems have long been a millstone around Lotus' neck. Though improving, there still are difficulties. However, Lotus seems sincere in working with owners to solve problems. Good dealers are a big help. Remember that Lotus is a tiny manufacturer in an industry of giants. Development funds are limited. Personnel are often stretched thin. With understanding but firm pressure from potential Elise buyers and owners, sales and service are going to have to match the car's brilliance. If Lotus' plans work out, the pleasure will be all yours.
engine:	            1.8L, 16v Rover K-Series
horsepower:	       190 @ 7000 rpm
torque:	            140 ft.-lbs. @ 5650 rpm
transmission:         five-speed manual
curb weight:	       1477 pounds
brakes:	            282mm four-wheel disc
wheels (f/r):	       6.5xl5 5, 8x16 6 Tecno-Magnesia
tires f/r):	       185/55-15, 225/45-16 Yokohama A51 0 
price (approx.):      $55,000 
Accel                 0-60: 4.4 seconds