Lotus reMarque, Elise Watch

By Andrew R. Barron
November 2003

The Federal Elise: The First US Test Drive

The first road test of the Toyota-engined Elise by Sam Mitani will appear in the November issue of Road and Track. The cover and full article should be on newsstands as you read this article. Sam was given an exclusive opportunity to drive the car at Hethel; 1, however, was granted the chance to undertake the first road test report of a Federal Elise on US soil. [Thank you Amie Johnson and LCU! - Ed.] What turned out to be a great experience was nearly a disaster. Two Federal cars (scheduled for high altitude testing) were supposed to arrive at LCU's Atlanta headquarters on September 4th. However, when I arrived, Parts Manager Clyde Shepherd informed me he had lost the cars. Actually, this is not quite fair, since the cars were en route, but the cars were indeed AWOL. After frantic phone calls, Clyde breathed a sigh of relief when two cars finally arrived on a pair of flatbed transporters.

One of the cars was painted black with metallic added that made the car look like it was covered with dust. The other displayed a rather nice gold color that is described on the paint charts as being "bronze" - OK, so whoever chooses Lotus paint chart names isn't a metallurgist. Of the two, the gold (bronze) color better displays the exquisite lines of the Elise. The contrast of the gold with the black windscreen surround and grills was reminiscent of the World Wide Racing color scheme used for the Type 56B during the early 1970's. The shape of the Mk2 Elise is generally more flattered by dark colors which is in contrast to the Mkl Elise, whose shape looked best in bright, light colors.

In appearance, the Federal Elise is only slightly changed from the Mk2. The bodywork is still the modem aggressive design by Steve Crijns with only two significant changes. One is a slight bulge in the bonnet above the radiator outlet grill to allow for the power-assisted brakes and ABS system. The other, possibly more noticeable, change is at the rear. Instead of a single diffuser and the twin exhaust tips protruding from the bodywork, the segmented diffuser has the exhaust tips exiting Fl-like from the diffuser. It is interesting that while most companies (and after-market suppliers to the import performance car crowd) are trying to highlight the exhaust tips, Lotus has chosen the complete opposite. I think the new design is subtle and rather neat. While I am sure that some owners will attempt to change the muffler, they will be dismayed to learn that any change will result in a decrease in power output. A decrease? Yes, that's right, Lotus engineers have designed the exhaust system to be optimum for the engine and ECU. Any changes will result in a power loss estimated at 10 bhp.

The other change with the Federal Mk2, as compared to its UK K-scries sister, is the shape of the number plate holder. Since US number plates are taller and narrower than almost every other country in the world, a special flat mounting area has been neatly designed above the diffuser, but below the bumpers. The front of the car incorporates a small, integrated, mounting plinth for the number plate. This is a welcome addition that follows the dictum of M100 and Esprit designer Peter Stevens that a car should be designed to look good on the street and not just in the show room where no number plates are used.

The removable soft-top for the Federal car is of a similar design to the newer Mk2 Kseries cars, but with a lining. One issue with the Mkl Elise was that with the roof on, the inside of the car gave the impression of being inside a tin drum. The new canvas top is lined with a soft material that provides insulation as well as sound deadening. This is a welcome addition, and it is small changes like this (and other additions of sound insulation) that raise the overall feel of the Federal Elise from racecar to road car.

For M 100 owners who despaired that their baby was labeled an Isuzu by its cam cover, Elise owners can take solace that the Toyota engine has only "Lotus Performance" and an "ACBC" badge gracing the cam covers. There is no hint as to the source of the engine.

Getting into the Federal Elise is the same as for the UK Mk2. The sill is much narrower than found on the original Mkl; however, you should still be prepared to do your morning stretches as you move up in years! Entry with the roof on is even more of a challenge, but with practice, an individual style can be adopted that makes sense for your particular physique.

As you slide into the driver's seat, the car hugs you with a combination of leather and a hard wearing synthetic material. As discussed in a previous reMARQUE, the choice of trim level is either full or half leather. In each case the seat is designed to provide lateral support and has a significant increase in the padding for one's posterior as compared to the MkI cars.

As one may not expect for a sports car, the interior of the Federal Elise is rather roomy - even for this 6'1 " scribe. In fact, the Elise is the only car that I have foun44 actua4lyshdethe seat forward to adopt the arms slightly bent posture for driving.

Closing the door of the Federal Elise shows off one of the best features of having powered windows. Unlike the rather tinny sound (often accompanied by various rattles) made by the K-series doors upon closing, the Federal Elise's doors make an almost Porsche-like clunk. This positive feel is undoubtedly due to the added weight of the motors. The windows themselves appear much firmer in their tracks than on the hand-wound versions. A quick test showed that the windows could be raised and lowered repeatedly without tiring the motors. One poor design feature is that, in order to lower/raise the passenger window, the driver must reach across the car. I do not believe that it would have added much weight or cost to have dual controls on the driver's side.

The Stack gauge cluster is retained from the UK cars, as are the controls for the heater and a/c system. One negative of the Mk2 and Federal interior as compared to the MkI Elise is the adoption of very small buttons/switches for the lights etc. The MkI Elise used the large Rover sourced buttons (also used in the V8 Esprit) that lit-up when pressed. The Federal Elise buttons provide only a dim light when on, and no warning is provided if you leave your lights on. Despite these small quibbles, all the knobs are within easy reach and the radio/CD/MP3 unit can he operated by the driver. This latter issue may seem strange but the MkI Elise radio/CD was positioned, like the S2 Seven's speedometer, within sight of the passenger but out of reach of the driver!

Positioned under the windscreen surround are two sun visors. Required by Federal Law these are specifically for the US market. As such they are clearly a tag-on item. Too small for any real effect, they suffered what may be called "M 100 droop" (ask any M 100 Elan owner about this), which became annoying while driving. My suggestion is that if Lotus can find no other way to pass Federal requirements, remove them once you take delivery!

Starting the car harkens back to the Seven with a start" button rather than an integrated starter/ ignition switch. Turning the ignition on and pressing the large button to the left of the steering column results in the engine burbling to life. Unlike the rather soft effeminate sound the street legal K-series cars produced, the Toyota engine exhibits a rather pleasant deep rumble. The sound with the roof off is not obtrusive and doesn't preclude normal conversation.

Engaging gears for the Toyota sourced close ratio 6-speed gearbox is not as smooth as some cars, due to the long linkages inherent in a mid-engined car. It is an improvement on the K-series cars, but having said that, it is not perfect. The first-to-second change is especially notchy; however, things improve as you move through the gears. Those who use the car every day will easily adapt, and anyone who has driven an Esprit will be impressed.

The clutch has a long travel, but is progressive and easy to get used to. The peddle is firm, without requiring the muscular excess of the Esprit S4 and S4S. No fatigue here - as I confirmed by getting stuck in stop-and-go traffic due to Atlanta's road construction.

The brakes are awesome when stopping the car at high speed; however, in slow traffic they tend to bite too hard. This may be in part due to the power assist, but could also be a result of the brake pads used on these test cars. It appears that Lotus has chosen to continue using the pads selected for nonpower assist brakes of the lighter MkI and 2. For everyday use, a softer pad might be more comfortable, and this may be provided when the cars arrive in dealer showrooms.

Possibly a surprise to some will be that the off-the-line acceleration for the Federal car is not as fast as the MkI and 2. This is in part because of the lower weight of the original car, the extremely free revving nature of the Rover engine, and possibly the different gear ratios. Much like the 4-cylinder turbo Esprits, initial acceleration seems a little slow (unless you want to burn up the clutch at every red light - possible but expensive in the long term). However, once the revs rise, the Toyota powered car will easily out accelerate its Rover powered brethren. The 0-60 and 0-100 mph figures confirm this impression. While this may seem like a criticism of the Federal car, I think the Federal car is much more drivable. This is especially true in the wet, where the rapid initial acceleration of the ultra light Mk I requires judicious throttle control so as not to slide the rear of the car sideways.

The extra power and torque of the Elise, as compared to the Toyota Celica GTS and Pontiac Vibe applications, is due in part to Lotus re-mapping the ECU. The re-mapping by Lotus has an additional benefit of making the transition to the high lift cam smoother than Toyota had thought possible. Anyone who has driven the Toyota or Pontiac will have noticed that the cam transition is associated with an abrupt bump and surge. In contrast, the Elise shows a smooth transition at 6000 rpm to the higher lift cam. The only notification the driver receives of this change is a rapid increase in power (not turbo-like, but more akin to a supercharger) and a slight change in the engine note. All very satisfying and will no doubt cause many owners to rev the engine past 6000 rpm threshold just for the hell of it.

Some people have expressed a wish that the Honda S2000 engine be used for the Federal Elise. This would have been a disaster. The S2000 engine, while a 'me mechanical accomplishment, requires revving to extremes to obtain optimum power. The Toyota powerplant is strong throughout the rev range.

The Toyota powered Elise is heavier than the K-series cars. Most of the weight gain is from the engine (the Rover K-series was originally chosen because of its comparative light weight); however, the additional electronics (windows, ABS, etc.) and sound deadening all add up. Before anyone cries foul, however, there are two issues that should be addressed. First the power to weight ratio, and second, the handling of the car.

Although the weight for the Federal Elise is not fixcd (it will be less than 2000 lb) the engine's output of 190 bhp will give a po~erto-weight ratio of approximately 1:10. This is comparable to the power-to-weight ratio of the 111S versions of the MkI and Mk2. So despite putting on weight, the car has maintained the important power to weight ratio.

The principle idea of any Lotus (and especially the Elise) is never about power, but rather about handling. So how does the Federal Elise handle? The answer is simple - wonderfully.

Whereas the Mk1 Elise was prone to snap oversteer at the limit, the Federal car has completely neutral handling. Entering a corner at speeds much greater than rational (or legal) results in the car simply holding the road. The proverbial "feels like it's on rails" for once actually applies. Giving increased throttle at the apex of a comer results in a progressive drifting out of the back-end to allow the classic four-wheel drift. I tested the handling on an 1-85 exit ramp. Attaining a three-digit speed, the tires and suspension showed no hint of letting go. Handling was highly predictable. Greater throttle pressure simply resulted in the back-end hunkering down in a similar way to cars with much higher power. However, the contrast to most high-powered cars is that there is no rapid change in attitude that can cause "wipe-outs" on the track or highway. Even my attempts to induce drastic oversteer in a comer by lifting throttle or with rapid steering inputs were unsuccessful. The car just goes where you point it. No fuss, no fighting; the Elise is simply an extension of your will.

Simply stated, Lotus has performed a miracle - they have improved the handling of the best handling car ever built. No argument - just accept this statement as fact. The Federal Elise is everything that a Lotus should be, but it is also so much more. The build quality (thanks to GM's input during the manufacture of the Vauxhall VX220 and Opel Speedster) and overall feel of the car are better than previous models.

To all of those (including factually challenged Autoweek) who believed that the Federal Elise was going to be "soft", eat your words. The ride is very firm but not uncomfortable. Purposefully driving along the rumble strips at the side of the highway could be felt, but was not unduly disturbing. Even driving through some of Georgia's "best" potholes was not too bad; certainly much better than in a MkI Elise, and no worse than in the Esprit. Also, with the additional sound deadening material, the road noise of the Federal Elise is lower than many other cars. There are none of the rattles over bumps that were a feature of the MkI and Mk2.

Given the feel of the standard suspension, I would strongly caution readers about purchasing the track-package option. The standard version would out-class almost any car on the track, but is usable for every day applications. If you are serious about autocross and race track use, drive'a car with the track-package before deciding; you may not feel you need it.

The differences between the original and Federal versions can be summed up by stating that the MkI (and to a lesser extent the Mk2) was a racecar thatjust happened to be legal to drive on the street. This is clearly the origin of all the comparison between the Elise and the Seven - both are racecars for the road. In contrast, the Federal Elise is a road car that can be used as a racecar. Anyone who has driven a fully prepared racecar knows that they are loud, uncomfortable, and crude - but great fun. A road car should also be fun, but shouldn't require a helmet to protect your hearing and a seat harnesses pulled tight to prevent being battered by the bone jarring ride caused by low profile tires, hard shocks and limited suspension travel. It is with these issues in mind that I would conclude that the Federal Elise is a more usable car than the Kseries cars. [Race on Sunday - Drive to work on Monday! - Ed.]