Elise Watch: Elise a Hit at the LA Auto Show

Column By Andrew R. Barron

By Michael Sands

This is Michael's account of the trip, where I gathered all the information for this article.

U.S. Lotus fans should be very happy that the intention to bring the Elise to the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show for market study turned into reality. While first reported in LR vol.29 no. 7, there was no official confirmation that the "soft launch" would actually take place until everything was set and the cars arrived at Lotus Cars USA’s (LCU) headquarters December 13th.

As reported in the last issue of LOTUS reMARQUE, a brace of European spec Elise Series Two cars and the first two 2002 Esprits had arrived at LCU. These cars along with a Motorsports Elise race car did appear on the Lotus display stand at the L.A. show.

While show goers were told the Elise is intended for sale here in late 2003, still there was no declaration in Los Angeles that the Federal Elise. The exercise in Los Angeles was more to gauge public reaction and provide the U.K. production team with U.S. market perception of Lotus and its cars.

Assisting the LCU staff at the show were Roger Becker, Program Director for this unofficial effort, and Sue Lascelles-Hadwen, Project Manager. Becker was previously responsible for the production of the M100 and has been involved in many aspects of Lotus cars. Sue worked with Roger on the 340R and the Exige. They have been working on this project for almost a year and have made significant progress.

It was learned that what is to be the Federal Elise has been given the code name Monterey and the code number M260. The latter is a development code assigned to each project and is not necessarily the code for the production car. The assignment of a separate code for this project is significant, however, because the series two European Elise retained the M111 designation (code name Monza). The change to the M260 designation indicates the amount of development necessary for the Federal car.

The M260 has been approved at many levels within Lotus. The engineering research and design is finished, although the NHTSA approval requires completed cars so this will have to wait. The business plan is complete, as is the planning needed to schedule and staff the effort. This information has been taken to Lotus management, the Lotus Board of Directors, and to Proton Management (the parent company of Group Lotus) for approval and the M260 has passed.

Two critical steps are now needed before the car can continue on to full production. First, the budget needs to be approved and the money made available. Due to Lotus' recent financial losses, projects are being examined carefully to make sure there is a significant business case for the effort. Second, a U.S. compliant power plant needs to be selected and a deal with the supplier completed. As last reported, the team has an engine in mind and has fitted it to a test mule which is running round the test track at Lotus Cars factory in Hethel. Because a deal has not been concluded with the manufacturer, Lotus has been unable to discuss any specifics about the power plant. Roger and his team are, however, excited about the possibilities that the proposed engine offers.

LOTUS reMARQUE has already reported from separate sources that a high revving 4-cylinder will be used. Becker did say that a 6-cylinder would not fit the character of the Elise.

Arnie Johnson’s (CEO of LCU) business plan calls for selling somewhere between 1000 and 2000 cars per year in the U.S. The first year will be towards the lower of these two numbers and will fill pent up demand from Lotus enthusiasts. Subsequent years are expected to result in per annum sales reaching closer to 2000. To do this the Elise will need to attract a wider audience. As a result, some additional creature comforts are intended to be introduced for the U.S. market. LCU will also need to improve its infrastructure, adding dealer support, service support, training, and parts handling.

The car will look like the current Series Two Elise being sold in Europe, but will need to be modified to meet NHTSA and EPA requirements. There are expected to be significant changes in some areas of the vehicle. It will come standard with air conditioning but with a delete option for those striving for lightweight. However, the weight will increase because of the air conditioning and the additional engine cooling it requires. Changes in the front ducting and the panel to encourage more airflow are required. Roger Becker stated that the new Elise Series Two handles as well as the old, does not have such a tendency to oversteer, and is a much more mature car. A common comment heard from many people at the show was the desire for the Elise to remain "stripped-down, light weight" with a premium on "handling and performance"; a warning was also made not to put "too much in it."

There are three trim packages currently available in the U.K. and Europe, and feedback from the show crowd will help determine exactly how the interior will be appointed when the Elise arrives here. It is most likely that the U.S. version will not be the minimum specification currently available, but will have leather seats and trimmings. It will have a stereo as well.

Becker indicated that quality has become an important focus for Lotus, with recent advances occurring on the Vauxhall/Opel Speedster production line. These improvements are being reflected on the present Elise production line and the U.S. car will benefit from many of these improvements. Becker also noted that there are three ways to reduce the costs of production: renegotiate with current suppliers, develop new suppliers, and reengineer for simpler and more efficient manufacture. The first two have already been accomplished for the Series Two Elise and Lotus is working on the third. Thus, the U.S. specification cars will also have various improvements to ease manufacturing, increase quality, and lower production costs, including possible modifications to the frame or tub.

One area that is currently undergoing investigation involves the curved side extrusions of the chassis. These large pieces require special equipment to bend them to the correct shape while maintaining the necessary tolerances. Lotus engineers are looking at simplifying the chassis structure to obviate the need for this expensive production step. Smaller components are also being re-engineered. For example, some bushings were difficult to manufacture to close tolerances because they were so small, these will be enlarged. With these developments, Lotus is looking to make the U.S. bound M260 an even better car than is currently available in Europe.

On the Auto Show stand a price range of between $35,000 and $40,000 was given. This fits in with the $38,500 quoted in LOTUS reMARQUE. It is understood that the business plan includes a lower base price with the options described above. Lotus management was somewhat nebulas as to the exact price and there is even a view that says the Elise is not price sensitive due to its unique driving experience. While this may be true in the U.K. and Europe, the relatively low price of many of the Elises potential competitors means that pricing is probably more important to the U.S. customer. Clyde Shepherd (After Sales Administrator at LCU) and Sue Lascelles-Hadwen took the opportunity later in the week to visit all the competitions stands and find out what $40,000 will buy the automotive consumer in the U.S.

So was the Elise a success? Clyde Shepherd noted that "there were countless people often coming back several times to get one more look at the Elise, quite often on different days and even bringing friends along." Clyde was pleased to note that a typical response to the Elise’s diminutive size was that there wouldn’t be much room inside, however, once people were given the chance of sitting in the car, most commented on the surprisingly spacious interior. LCU were also glad for the assistance provided by many Lotus Ltd. members and Lotus customers who spent their time answering questions from the crowds around the stand. As an indication of the traffic that the Elises created and how the Lotus team was kept on their feet, Clyde Shepherd had to by new shoes because his feet were so swollen from standing around talking to thousands of people during the week!

Let us hope that the positive feedback obtained from the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show sends a clear message to Lotus Cars and Group Lotus in the U.K. that there is a distinct market for the Elise here. This column will continue to update members as each step in the Federal Elise is accomplished.

- Michael Sands