Lotus Elise

The next great sports car in America

By Sam Mitani  •  Photos by Peter J. Fox
November 2003

The most talked-about sports car in Europe finally comes to the U.S., but the big surprise lies within the engine compartment.

Go ahead. It's all right now to place the upcoming America-bound Lotus Elise on your favorite-car list. I usually don't enjoy revealing the finale of a story before its introduction, but sometimes it just can't be helped. Well, this car is so good that I'm giving away the conclusion of my evaluation now. The bottom line is that the new Elise is arguably the most exciting sports car in the world to drive. It's a must-have for any enthusiast and will outperform anything in its segment

The Company

Let's start with the obvious: Lotus needs America. In fact, Lotus has always needed America. Even when company founder Colin Chapman was revolutionizing European motorsports with lightweight purpose-built race cars, he had an eye on the U.S. And in 1963, at the urging of Dan Gurney, Chapman built a car to race in the Indy 500. The Lotus Type 29 came in 2nd that year, and the Type 38 won the race in 1965 with Jim Clark behind the wheel.

The U.S.-spec Elise will look slightly different from the photo car here. There will be side markers on the fenders and the rear end will change slightly. The visual character of the car changes with the optional hardtop in place. To install or remove the standard soft top takes about 30 seconds.

driving the S3

(my apologies to Sam and R&T, as ths is a combined scan that crossed two pages)

Lotus became a household name in the American racing scene and experienced great success for years. Unfortunately, things have a way of changing when the captain of a ship passes. After Chapman's death in 1982, the passion and fire of Lotus Cars gradually waned. New products stopped appearing and Lotus' legendary racing team all but vanished, ultimately dropping out of Formula 1 in 1995. As a result, the company has spent the past several years tiptoeing on the proverbial edge. But an obscure Malaysian car company called Proton came along, and things began to change.

The Factory: Lotus built its new factory in Hethel outside of Norwich, England, primarily to meet Elise demand. Built in 1999, the first Elise rolled off the line in 2000. Unlike many of today's high-tech factories, you won't see computerized robots building cars here. Humans control the assembly of the Elise every step of the way. Currently, 3500 cars are being produced a year. The factory can increase production to 10,000 cars by going to a double-shift system; whether it adopts this system depends on how well the Elise fares in the States. Above, you can see the Elise's unique aluminum-tub chassis. That red stuff is the special adhesive.

Despite being powered by a 120-bhp inline-4 built by Rover, the Type 111 Elise was an admirable performer (0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds) and became an instant hit across the Continent. Lotus predicted sales of about 700 cars per year, but it sold thousands in its first few months. Demand was so great that it was forced to turn away customers and ignore the U.S. market altogether.

In the meantime, Lotus Cars USA, which was surviving on a few hundred Esprit sales a year, was slowly dying. Company President Arnie Johnson insisted to the execs at Lotus Cars Ltd. that he needed the Elise posthaste. His call was finally answered last year after Proton established 100-percent ownership of the company.

Roger Becker and Nick Adams

Roger Becker and Nick Adams
(the latter famous for providing information to the Lotus Life forum)

Leading the crusade in England was Roger Becker, senior consultant for vehicle engineering. From the outset, Becker tirelessly tried to persuade management to take the car to the U.S. market. "Half of all the sports cars in the world are sold in the U.S. It was obvious to me that we needed the Elise in America. Unfortunately, some people didn't see it as a priority as I did. Thankfully, our new parent company decided to support this venture," he said.

But before the Elise could be sold here, a number of obstacles had to be cleared, the most important of which were complying with federal emissions and crash regulations. The crash tests would be a breeze — all it needed were airbags and permission to market the car without bumpers. Meeting federal emissions standards would be the tougher task. Simply put, the K-Series Rover engine wasn't going to cut it. Becker began looking around for another engine. And after testing dozens of different types, he found what he believed to be Cinderella's slipper; one that perfectly matched the chassis and had already met all federal regulations. But, he wondered, would the makers of this particular engine be interested in doing business with Lotus.

With nothing to lose, Becker flew to Japan. He knocked on the door of Toyota.

The Engine

The engine that caught Becker's attention was the 1.8-liter inline-4 with VVTL-i (variable-valve timing and lift) found in the Toyota Celica GT-S. This dohc powerplant, built in conjunction with Yamaha, was not only lightweight, it packed a hearty punch (180 bhp and 133 lb.-ft. of torque). And with a few tweaks, it had the potential to make the Elise among the quickest cars in the world.

Toyota refused to cooperate at first. Not at all surprising when you consider that Toyota is one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. What would it have to gain? But Becker was persistent. And after numerous flights from Norwich to Nagoya and back, he finally received permission. He also got Toyota's 6-speed manual transmission as part of the deal.

Right away, he and his team of engineers picked the drivetrain apart and tested and retested it. What they ended up doing was remapping the entire ECU (electronic control system), which resulted in better midrange response and a slight power increase. The revitalized inline-4 produces 190 bhp at 7800 rpm and 133 lb.-ft. of torque at 6800. A slightly redesigned intake manifold and new exhaust system also change the character of the engine. A unique twin oil-cooler system was installed to improve durability. The powerplant was so responsive throughout the rpm spectrum, they didn't find it necessary to alter the gear ratios of the transmission. The VVTL-i is still programmed to kick in at 6000 rpm and remain active all the way to about 8000 rpm. Redline comes at 8350 rpm (where the limiter is set).

Once a prototype was fit to drive, I found myself conveniently on holiday in the Norfolk area where I paid my old friend Mr. Becker a visit.

The Car

The first thing you notice when slipping into the snug cockpit is the simplicity of the interior design. The U.S. Elise will come standard with a Blaupunkt stereo, air conditioning, power windows and the aforementioned airbags — all of which weren't on the European Series 1-but the overall essence has been kept intact. The driving position fits anyone up to about 6 ft. 3 in. tall, but climbing into and out of the car takes a bit of agility, especially with the roof up.

The exterior styling of the Elise remains virtually the same as the current Series 2 (the car you see in these photos). The only changes are to the rear end — the dual-tip exhaust is now located in the center of the car — and the addition of marker lights on the front and rear fenders. The Elise is about as small as cars can get in the U.S. With an overall length and width of 149.0 in. and 67.7, respectively, it's slightly smaller than a Mazda Miata.

The face has been designed to portray a serious, aggressive performance car. Lotus stylists said that the overall demeanor of the Series 1 proved too "cute" for its customers. I discovered that its new face reflected the Elise's on-road performance to a tee.

Turn the ignition key, and the Toyota engine comes to life with a growl. At idle, the powerplant purrs and remains relatively quiet until about 5000 rpm. The clutch pedal has a rather light effort, and the shifter a nice solid feel, sliding into gear with a reassuring snick. When driven in a civil manner, the Elise is a capable and comfortable commuter. Even with the top removed, cabin noise is nominal at highway speeds, and unlike in the Celica, where there's little low- and mid-range response, the 1975-lb. Elise pulls impressively from 2000 rpm onward (the benefit of an extremely lightweight car).

To get the most out of this engine, rev it like there's no tomorrow. Drop the clutch at about 7000 rpm, and you'll leave the line like a dragster, smoking the rear tires. Keep your foot pressed to the floor because all the fun starts when the tachometer needle brushes past 6000, the moment VVTL-i kicks in. The engine's purr turns into an ear-blasting scream, as the acceleration curve radically spikes, pressing your torso into the custom bucket seat. A shift-up light says it's time to grab the next gear. The Elise runs to 60 mph in a claimed 4.8 seconds, with the quarter-mile mark coming at about 12.0 sec. Top speed is estimated at 141 mph.

As for the car's handling, what is there left to say about the Elise that hasn't already been mentioned. It has garnered more than 30 awards from virtually every enthusiast publication and organization in Europe. In our evaluation of the world's best-handling cars, the previous 160-bhp model ranked second behind the Ferrari 360 Modena and won the objective performance category (see our June 2002 cover story). And Lotus guarantees that the U.S.-spec Elise will outshine its predecessor.

Lotus Elise Specifications

Price est $39,000
Curb weight est 1975 lb
Wheelbase . 90.6 in
Track, f/r 57.0 in./59.0 in.
Length 149.0 in.
Width 67.7 in.
Height 45.2 in.
Fuel capacity 10.5 gal.
Engine dohc 16V inline-4
Bore x stroke 82.0 x 85.1 mm
Displacement 1796 cc
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Horsepower (DIN) 190 bhp @ 7800 rpm
Torque 133 lb-ft @ 6800 rpm
Fuel delivery elect. sequential port
Transmission 6-speed manual
Chassis & Body
Layout mid engine/rear drive
Brake system, f & r 11.1-in. drilled & vented discs, ABS
Wheels 16 x 5 1/2J f, 17 x 7 1/2J r
Tires Yokohama; 175/55R-16 f, 225/45R-17 r
Steering type rack & pinion
Suspension, f/r upper & lower A-arms, tube shocks, coil springs, anti-roll bar/upper & lower
A-arms, tube shocks, coil springs

For starters, Lotus joined forces with Yokohama to create a custom tire for the Elise, one that improves on the car's already exceptional adhesive qualities. The chassis engineers retuned the suspension (upper and lower A-arms at both ends) to match the new powertrain. They also recalibrated the damper forces to provide a better ride while not sacrificing cornering prowess. Brakes have been improved, too, with servo assist and ABS as standard fare. The result is what may well be the best-handling car in the world.

The non-boosted rack-and-pinion steering is reactive and quick, and the entire chassis seems to foresee your intentions. Turn-in response is immediate and amazingly crisp. Its balance through virtually all corners is flawless. Fling it from side to side, and the only thing that'll become unsettled is your stomach. A bit of understeer is noticeable on the tight stuff, and the rear absolutely refuses to come out unless you overcook it into a corner and lift abruptly.

The key to the Elise is its structure. Its incredible weight, or lack thereof, can mainly be credited to its unique chassis. It is constructed from more than 20 different aluminum extrusions that are specially bonded and bolted together forming a single, very solid unit. Others have mimicked this revolutionary technique since but without quite the same results.

So when do we get our hands on this car? The word from Lotus is spring 2004, with its official unveiling at the upcoming Los Angeles auto show in January. But don't wait until then to get your order in. Chances are you'll be placed at the end of a long line. Lotus plans to sell about 3000 cars the first year, and capacity is limited. As for the asking price, it is not final as of this writing, but expect a sticker price of $39,000. It's more than reasonable for a car that's arguably the most enjoyable car on the planet to drive, now equipped with a reliable, efficient powerplant. The Elise also embraces the heritage of one the most celebrated marques in racing history. From a sports-car enthusiast's perspective, not only does Lotus need America, one can make a case that America needs Lotus as well.

specification table

Road and Track, November 2003