Hope Springs Eternal

Could this Americanized Elise revive a withered Lotus blossom and take on Porsche's Boxster?

By Matt Davis

15 December 2003

THAT'S IT!" Shouts Lotus vehicle manager Nick Adams. It is about 6 o'clock on a damp November evening near Norfolk. The daylight is almost gone and we've been out here on the Hethel test track all afternoon trying to stick a perfect controlled slide for the entire outside half of Circle Corner, the company skidpad.

This exercise is not, sall we say, strictly necessary with all cars. Although car testers do it over and over, it may be de rigueur for fewer cars than you can count on your fingers. How many, after all, are likely to spend any time right on the limit?

But this is a Lotus Elise. Inspriring, consistent controlled slides all day long are this two-seater's reason for living. It is regarded by many as the single best-handling car in the world, and more or less demands you kick the tail out a bit and have all this fun while being totally in control.

"That's it," Adams repeats, calmer. He is grinning like a teenager who claimed high score on a video game after weeks of trying. He explains himself a bit. "Did you see that? That is exactly what this car is all about and what is so tough to explain to people who haven't felt it," he says. "Our cars demand that you be the driver you've always wanted to be and they give you all that feedback so you can learn. You were getting frustrated with yourself and the car just waited until you pushed it hard enough and really trusted it."

He's right.

In 1966 Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman moved Lotus Cars from Cheshunt (north of London) to Hethel (south of Norwich), the site of the airfield once used by the U.S. 389th Bomber Group, 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force, that led bombing runs over Germany in B-24 Liberators. The long straight of the test track is the original runway, and whereas the crews of the B-24s probably didn't notice the expansion strips, the pilot of a lightweight little Elise feels everyone.

Expansion joints? Heck, you feel every ripple in the 1.8-liter Rover powered cars, the ones we have never been able to buy for road use in the States. The bumps are absorbed better in the new Toyota-powered Elise, built specially for Lotus' return to America (purportedly it is exclusively for America, but we can't imagine the customer demand will let Lotus avoid selling the car elsewhere). Though the package looks generally the same as the Series 2 design by Flander's own Steve Crijns, this new federal Elise executes all the flash moves of the Rover Elise with decidely different rhythm and touch. But execute it does, boy howdy.

The project name for it in Hethel is Croft, after the track in northern England, not Angelia Jolie's hard-boiled superheroine. Although thje Lotus Cars USA website makes reference to the new car as the Series 3, Hethel has yet to apply that nomenclature - we were tp;d it was sort of a Series 2.5, unofficially.

We at AutoWeek have long admired the famed Rover K-powered Elise 111S (codenamed Monza, by the way) and it's perfect track characteristics. So we were eager to know: Does the colonial version with the Toyota 1.8-liter VVTL-i (variable valve timing and lift-intelligent) four-cylinder and C64 six-speed manual transmission from the Celica GT-S straddle that fine line between the track-perfect car and the inevitable alterations needed to sell soundly in America?

Adding roughly 200 pounds to it's curb weight, this Elise gets two big airbags, a brake servo-assist unit, lightweight cross-drilled AP Racing brake disks and a race-tuned TRW antilock brake system. There is climate control and a carpeted floor inside, along with a Blaupunkt stereo and an image-conscious start button to the left of the steering wheel. (The boffins in Hethel poke fun at this Honda S2000-copying feature, but bowed to the demands of powers elsewhere.) The dial graphics are all updated and backlit bright white in the day and streetlight amber by night, instead of the previous tough-to-decipher cobalt blue. Fuel capacity goes from 9.6 gallons to 10.5 gallons to extend your range per tankful - combined highway/city mileage reads a hefty and honest 31mpg today. There is even a half-leather interior and remote central locking. It all screams "AMERICA!" - or maybe more so "CALIFORNIA!" - but the folks in Hethel did avoid mounting satellite navigation and cupholders.

Dashing around the Hethel test track in both the famous Series 2 Elise 111S and this Toyota Elise, the differences are there. Due to the added weight (fore/aft remains the same at 38%/62%), there is a new feeling when setting up for, executing, and exiting every curve on the track. After some aforementioned practice, we finally consistently achieved that euphoric Elise slide. It takes a bit of momentum to get it started and more accelerator to hold it, but the end result is the same broad grin. One thing we noticed during it all is the basic exhaust note through the new center twin exhaust tips when at speed is a little lower than the rover note, but still oddly flat. The good news is there will eventually be a sweeter-sounding sport exhaust available.

The double-wishbone suspension fron and rear better cushions abrupt lateral movements upon impact, thanks to modified bushings, resulting in more isolation from bumps and holes - a very necessary thing if you drive Interstate 70 east of Denver and its like. The Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs all around do what they have always done so well, but are recalibrated here to account for the weight increase and the need for a touch of refinement. Standard tires are the Yokohama Advan 175/55R-16s front and Neova 225/45R-17s rear.

Add up the weight gain and it's obvious you need more power to attain the track-time nirvana of the 111S. Accordingly, the federal Elise, while effectively putting on 14 percent more mass, puts on 40 percent more power, and to great effect. The Toyota 2ZZGE unit produces 187hp (that is SAE, the Europeans rate in DIN at 190) vs the standard 111S at 118hp (SAE). Whereas the Rover enigne is sublime in its simplicity and performance, the VVTL-i motor gets highly technological and clever by switching cams at 6200rpm and thereby goes from Jekyll to Hyde in an instant. Redline for the K engine is 7000 on the tach; the Toyota can rev to 8500rpm.

The factory says the stock federal Elise goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, with the top speed hitting 150mph. Weighing 1965 pounds for a pound-to-hp ratio of roughly 10.5:1 makes most of this possible. Lotus engineers insist the new engine is safely capable of 300hp, so racers have something to work with. Torque maxes out at 138 lb-ft at 6800 rpm vs the Rover powerplant at 121 lb-ft at 2750 rpm. Either engine is lovable, depending on one's preference for the ultralight and flickable or one that is only a bit weightier and more civilized.

Official U.S. Elise production starts in the latter half of March, but th ekick off party at the L.A. Auto Show will be Dec. 28. By the time our cars are ready for delivery (perhaps as early as April, maybe not till June), Lotus Cars USA in Atlanta promises to have it's franchise network expanded from 38 stores to 50 to better meet demand and service needs. Volume breakdown based on a goal of 4200 Elises (the two engine specs combined) in the first full year is 2200 for the United States (Canada gets nothing as of yet, but talks are ongoing) and 2000 for the rest of the planet. Lotus already has 2000 plus orders to fill in the United States and foresees 3000 by April.

Here is where reality bites. For years, Lotus USA has barely existed, and of late has relied exclusively on it's few dealers and one model, the capable bu dated by any measure Esprit, now with a 350-hp 3.5-liter turbcharged V8. U.S. sales last year amounted to 125 Esprits at an exoticar list price more than double what is foreseen for the Elise.

So exactly how well will Lotus USA, between June 2004 and June 2005, suddenly be able to handle 2200 Elises and all those customer service needs and parts inventories? And all that new maelstrom of prompt distribution to wherever a customer lives? If the next Exige (an even more hard-core racer for the road) with Toyota power comes here - and both the American office in Atlanta and the home office in the U.K. hope to make that happen - that will mean around 500 more units to shuffle around per annum. That would make for a sales increase of, oh, 2160 percent in a short period.

Sports car enthusiasts want big success for Lotus, but the obstacles posed to anyone trying to sell a relatively modest number of cars across such a large geographic area have critically wounded many a U.S. market push. Alpina's recent decision to not come here after all, even with the support of the BMW network, comes to mind. So, too, does Porsche's recent decision to go into the SUV business, in large part to assure it's dealers sufficient sales volume to warrant their investments in the improved showrooms and service departments that the owners of 911s and Boxsters demand.

A similar rationale seems to be showing up in Atlanta where the prospect of a higher-volume, lower-priced car, or rather, a range thereof developing over the next decade, actually makes the business case easier.

"The real challenge now is getting the dealers more focused on Lotus as a more profitable proposition for them," says Lotus Cars USA Spokesman Arnie Johnson. "They've been selling maybe three (cars) a year in many cases up until now. This added volume will actually make this part of the equation a bunch easier from our standpoint."

The Atlanta office is preparing to expand from 11 people to more than twice that as the new cars arrive. Okay, but how much volume can Lotus give it's dealers? Production capacity at Hethel, though often cited at 10,000 per year, according to Lotus itself is realistically closer to 8000. With the Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220 contract with GM coming to an end and surety of it being renewed, plus the shakiness over the whereabouts for Solstice production, and the end of Esprit production.... things could potentially get lonely on the Lotus Cars side of the fence. No surprise then that Lotus Engineering, the consultancy side not dependant on car production, is getting pumped up in a major way to do the lion's share of the work in keeping things robust in the Norfolk copuntryside. Just in case. The aim is to see revenues split 50/50 between car building and consulting.

To help bulk up the sales side, Lotus plans to offer a performance driving school for it's U.S. customers, one at Road Atlanta and one at a western circuit to be determined shortly. There is also serious talk of backing entries in the SCCA T1 or T2 category against Corvettes, 911s and M3s. All pretty tough talk.

Base price is not set, but projected at "under $40,000." Not as affordable as the Rover model has been, but there is all that extra equipment and power. For those that would prefer a more bare-bones experience, there is a lightweight package on the way (they are saying by October) that strips out the air conditioning. and the stereo, and speakers for a 45-pound diet and $500 off the MSRP. A $2,500 sports package for the track-day crowd gets you a sturdier suspension set-up, special forged aluminum wheels and specially formulated Yokohama AO48 performance treads, same dimensions in the rear, but switching to 195/50s in the front. If you want to go the other way toward more comfort, the touring package adds $1,200 for a bunch more sound insulation, a better Blaupunkt, full leather with perforated seats, electric windows, carpeted sills and a stowage net. A body-colored hardtop adds $1500.

Most importantly, the fun. Driver satisfaction has been wholly translated into this new ELise from the European model we have lusted after for so long. Once you are in it, you will not see it as a compromise for our spoiled American sakes. In it's stock form, this federalized Elise flat out beats the Porsche Boxster, Mazda Miata, and Honda S2000 when the chips are down on track day. Americans finally get to find that out for themselves. Product success hasn't always equated to business success, of course, but for now, it looks like the getting could be good.