by: Tony Swan
photos: Aaron Kiley and Ritch Chenet

Comparison Test- Extreme Sports: Lotus Elise Comes to America

The Lotus Elise is here at last. So where does it fit in the U.S. sports-car continuum?

Hold it! What kind of compare is this? Kit cars versus production?

Are you guys off your meds? We can explain.

First, we know that for all their at-a-glance similarity—two seats, convertible tops, intended for entertainment rather than mere transportation—these five cars cover a broad spectrum of capabilities and character traits.

Second, two of the starters on this grid don't have to play by the same rules as the others—they aren't required to comply with the same federal standards. This dispensation provides, uh, certain performance advantages and might be considered by some of you to be unfair. We justify unfairness in pursuit of a more important objective: putting the new Lotus Elise into perspective in U.S. sports-car-market terms.

Regular readers know this arrival has been a long time coming. The Elise made its European debut at the 1995 Frankfurt show, underwent a makeover in 2000, and it still took another four years before the U.S. edition was ready for prime time. Besides meeting U.S. emissions regs, updates include a new instrument panel, replete with airbags; two Yokohama tire choices, both specific to the U.S. edition; a Blaupunkt audio system with elfin controls; twin exhaust pipes; and, a plus for us, ABS.

Inevitably, federalizing the Elise added up at the scales, to the tune of about 150 pounds. Still, at 1930 pounds ready to roll, it ain't exactly pudgy.

The rest of this compare cast, as noted, covers a broad spectrum. The Honda S2000 was an obvious choice, a Car and Driver 10Best winner and perennial staff favorite. Although it's less expensive than the Elise, we score it as the most trackworthy of the current production-roadster crop, at least those obtainable for less than $50,000. The Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata is even less expensive, but since we were suspending our ordinary rules, we wanted to see how it would measure up in this hard-core group. The Caterham, for its part, is hard core to the core.

Then Csere thought it would be fun to include a contestant from the some-assembly-required realm and suggested a Cobra replicar, since some of them offer big-inch V-8 power for about the same money as a Honda S2000. This describes the Factory Five Racing Mark II roadster (they can't call it a Cobra, thanks to the rear-guard legal battles waged by Carroll Shelby, but we can). It delivers the biggest punch of this bunch, and for only $32,109.

With rain-swollen storm clouds gathering over Ann Arbor as the fun was about to begin, Csere suddenly found that other duties required his immediate attention. He was replaced by the redoubtable John Phillips, a man who has endured much in the pursuit of driving pleasure. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before Phillips began wondering, via a series of clenched-teeth radio calls, whether he was having as much fun as Csere would have been having at that point, said point being about 40 miles north of Columbus, Ohio, in the midst of a biblical downpour.

Phillips was vexed over trifles such as his inability to see anything at all in the heavy rain and spray, and also that his butt was soaked, owing to the porosity of his car's weatherproofing equipment.

After the first day's downpour, the weather became more conducive to sports-car enjoyment. Our route led from Ann Arbor to Athens, in southeast Ohio, then to BeaveRun, the road circuit 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, for some racetrack lapping, and then back home.

So—five extreme sports cars. Three of them capable of 1.00 g or more on the skidpad, a rare percentage. And when a Honda S2000 is arguably the most civilized ride in the roundup, you can bet you're in for a memorable experience.

Fifth Place
Factory Five Racing
Mark II Roadster

Highs:Brawny good looks, high-quality materials, outa-my-way exhaust note, abundant thrust
Lows:Spooky steering, granitic suspension, ‘60s seats
The Verdict:A primal brute that will confirm your mother-in-law’s worst suspicions

Factory Five Racing is the most prolific provider of affordable, fundamentally sound Cobra replicar kits. The frame is stout, and the finish of the body shell is good, particularly when it's the upscale carbon-fiber version, as was our test car.

However, there are choices that can make the finished product a source of vast unhappiness to its owner. Translation: You may think you want locomotive springs and bushings with the stiffness of New England granite, but a half-hour on a stretch of pockmarked pavement will quickly cure you of that illusion. It sure as hell cured us.

This roadster belongs to Dave Riha, a Factory Five Racing engineer. We calculate his base price at $21,740. The kit was $11,990, then he found a 1988 V-8 Mustang for $1500 (he would use the power-train and various parts), plus figure $7500 for paint and labor and $750 for the kit delivery. Riha then paid $3300 for engine mods (heads, intake manifold, cam, exhaust headers, ceramic side pipes), $2500 for a carbon-fiber body upgrade, and about $4500 for other bits and pieces, bringing his roadster's price to $32,109.

All told, the options conspired to raise engine output to 348 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque (a stock ' 88 LX V-8 was rated for 225 horsepower and 300 pound-feet) and the as-tested price to $32,109.

With a ready-to-roll weight of just 2062 pounds and lots of rear rubber (315/35ZR-17 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDs), the FFR roadster was the quickest horse in this derby—3.6 seconds to 60 mph, 9.0 to 100, and 12.3 at 113 mph in the quarter. This was achieved despite the awkward action of its long-throw five-speed shifter.

The hefty tire package also gave the roadster enough grip to pull an even 1.00 g on the skidpad. However, even with big contact patches and big brake rotors, its stopping distances significantly lagged those of the other cars. Worse, stopping and directional control became a dicey business on bumpy surfaces. Thanks to ultra-stiff suspension components, the tires weren't always in full contact with mother earth.

But by far the worst of this car's dynamic attributes was its steering, variously described in the logbook as "spooky," "twitchy," and "frightening." An inch of turn at the helm produced a dart for the ditch all out of proportion to the input.

The roadster's wet-weather capabilities didn't do much to endear it to our test crew. It arrived without a top or wipers. The Factory Five people rushed a fiberglass hardtop to us, but the absent wipers weren't such a quick fix, so we did without. The adventure was magnified when the driver's window blew out as we circumnavigated Columbus—not really that much fun in a chilly downpour.

We emerged with respect for the road-ster's brawn and bellicose exhaust rumble, which at one point set off a nearby car alarm. And it's tough to beat as a crowd pleaser, even with a Lotus and a Caterham nearby. But it's a handful on all but glass-smooth paving, and strictly a fair-weather warrior. Factory Five prides itself on authenticity. Fine. The question is, how much authenticity can you stand?

Fourth Place
Caterham Seven Superlight R

Highs:Cat quick, sure footed, racetrack ready.
Lows:Cramped cockpit, cramped footwells, gives new meaning to the concempt of cacophony
The Verdict:Think of it as the ultimate driver’s suit

The Caterham Seven can reasonably be regarded as an ancestor of the Lotus Elise. It is, after all, a direct descendant of the Lotus Super 7, one of the best-loved Lotus cars of all time. And if any vehicle epitomizes classic British sports-car-ness, this is it—an undiluted driving experience for the motoring masochist. Stripped of nonessentials, tailored to fit like a golf glove, it delivers the handling purity of a Formula Ford grudgingly equipped for the bare minimum of street legality. Think of it as a four-wheeled motorcycle

We're more than a little familiar with the current Caterham, having tested one for our February issue and raced another in NASA's 25 Hours of Thunderhill (March 2004). Even so, this permutation—the Superlight R—is new to us. With its nifty carbon-fiber fenders, nose cone, and seats, it weighs just 1257 pounds, 181 pounds lighter than February's Roadsport SV, about the same as the Thunderhill racing version. Allied with Ford's 2.0-liter SVT Focus four-cylinder, a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, and grippy Avon CR500 tires, this adds up to lively acceleration: 0 to 60 in four seconds flat, 0 to 100 in 11.8, the quarter-mile in 13.0 at 103 mph. Only the Cobra was quicker. The Caterham's minimal curb weight pays off in other measurable areas. The Seven recorded 1.02 g on the skidpad, out-quicked the Elise in the lane change, and needed only 152 feet to stop from 70 mph, one of the best braking performances we've recorded for a street-legal car. (The best—145 feet—was by the Porsche Carrera GT we tested last month.) The Caterham was also fastest during our lapping at BeaveRun, and it was the back-road champ on the hilly byways of southeast Ohio—provided those byways weren't too lumpy. Which brings us to one of this car's negatives. Limited suspension travel, 13-inch wheels, stiff springs, and firm damping inevitably equate with punishing ride quality. For all its superb agility, the Caterham isn't happy on bad roads, and on one shamefully cratered stretch of Ohio Highway 164 between Highlandtown and Lisbon, we worried about survival of the suspension components and, for that matter, whether the car might disappear altogether.

Considered as a mere transportation device, the Caterham doesn't cut it. Interior din is relentless, varying only in decibel levels. Getting in and out is a challenge with the top up, and the side curtains, held in place by a pair of snaps, make tollbooth stops a unique experience for driver and toll collector alike. Narrow footwells leave no place but the clutch pedal for the driver's left foot, and wearing wide-soled sneakers won't work.

Anyone who looks for passenger-car virtues in a Caterham is bound to be disappointed. This car is a specialist, designed for terrorizing back roads on weekend mornings, or making everyone else look slow at a track day. It's a car you don like a Superman suit. Once you've wriggled into it, you'll be able to fly. As automotive toys go, it's far from cheap. But few, if any, offer more agility for the money.

Third Place
Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata

Highs:Lovely midrange response, precise gear engagements, creamy ride quality
Lows:Rubbery chassis, relaxed handling, limited cockpit space
The Verdict:The Miata we’ve always wanted at a can’t-lose price

We admit the Miata was a little out of its league here. Even with the extra power and torque of the Mazdaspeed turbo motor—at 178 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque, the boosted 1.8-literfour gains 36 ponies and 41 pound-feet of torque versus the naturally aspirated version—the Miata was the slowest player in the quintet. It required 6.7 seconds to attain 60 mph, 15.2 seconds to cover the quarter-mile, and it was the only car in the group that failed to reach 100 mph at the timing lights.

On the other hand, the standard Miata hits those same indexes in 8.1 and 16.3 seconds, respectively, and its midrange response is distinctly sluggish. The turbocharged engine, in contrast, gives the Miata more punch at much easier revs, making it more useful for dissecting urban traffic or passing on two-lane highways.

The Mazdaspeed treatment also extended to the Miata's suspension but in our view didn't extend quite enough. Static ride height has been dropped 7mm, spring rates are firmer, the front and rear anti-roll bars are heftier, and there are Bilstein shocks all around, but even so, the suspension is a tad soft for the increased engine output.

This isn't all bad. The Miata delivered by far the cushiest ride in this group, as
well as subdued interior noise levels. But its handling limits are a little too easy to reach, something that was glaringly apparent at BeaveRun, where the Miata was 3.5 seconds slower than the S2000, albeit as predictable as the tides. If they'd asked, we would have prescribed a little more roll stiffness and a little less up-and-down motion in the suspension. However, it may be that the Mazdaspeed engineers figured they'd gone as far as was prudent with this chassis, which is given to quivers in bumpy going.
On the other hand, unless you're out to set lap records at track day, relaxed handling might be okay with you. You might like this Miata's comfort quotient—although it still suffers from a slightly cramped cockpit, it certainly provided a nice respite in the driver rotation during this comparo—and we think you're sure to like what you get for your money here. Besides increased power and suspension upgrades, our test car included comforts such as power windows, supple leather upholstery with contrasting red stitching, and an effective wind blocker, the better to hear the AM/FM/CD audio system with the top down.

You get all of the foregoing—plus the snick-snick six-speed manual transmission, plus the torque-sensing limited-slip differential—for $26,720, about $900 more than a Miata LS with the six-speed.

The net here is the Miata that so many have been waiting so long for—a Miata with more muscle and a modest bump in attitude, at an unbeatable price.

Second Place
Honda S2000

Highs:Crisp responses, world-class gearbox, improved midrange punch.
Lows:Numb steering, hints of unwanted oversteer.
The Verdict:Where does it say a sports car has to include suffering?

The logbook was chock-a-block with hosannas: "The obvious 'real' car of the group—has refinement, but has no trouble keeping up." "If you add everything up— speed, price, usability—the S2000 is quite a package." "Communicates every nuance of the road without beating you up." "Best powertrain here. Shifter is pure magic." "Very comfortable compared with the Elise."

And yet here's one of our favorite sports cars languishing in second place. What's up with that?

We'll get to that in a minute. First, the car. As we reported in November 2003, the updated S2000 has acquired a higher level of refinement and comfort without losing a step in the process. Expanding the displacement of its DOHC VTEC four from 1997cc to 2157 provides much better midrange response, and the longer stroke brings operating rpm down from the stratosphere.

Honda softened the rear suspension slightly, a response to the S2000 owners who found themselves running out of talent and oversteering themselves into ditches. The update also included a lot more tire on wide 17-inch aluminum wheels, a big departure for Honda's chassis guys, who have long favored skinny wheels and tires, presumably to reduce unsprung weight.

Given its contact-patch increase, we were a little disappointed with the S2000's skidpad performance—0.88 g, poorest of the group—and some drivers still remarked on oversteer. On the other hand, this S2000 was a little quicker around BeaveRun than the first-generation car we drove here last year ("The Blow Dryers," August 2003), and its ride quality was almost as agreeable as the Miata's, without the Miata's handling limitations. The Honda's acceleration looked a little tepid compared with the much lighter Elise—60 in 5.5 seconds, the quarter in 14.0—but its lap times lagged the Lotus's by only a second.

So what was the problem? We think we were seduced by the Elise's single-minded dedication to sports-car agility. In short runs on the right kind of roads, the Elise has the power to cloud men's minds, making them forget there's more to motoring than lateral g and race-car responses. Not that the S2000 lacks these qualities. But in contrast to the Elise, it seemed, at least to some of our younger braves, almost too civilized. Besides the virtues noted above, it was the only car in the test with cruise control and a power top, and one of just two with power windows.

Think about that. A compare in which a Honda S2000 is perceived as a tad too
soft. It tells you a lot about the hard-core nature of the test group, and even more about the composition of the test crew.

But the No. 1 mission priority in this test was "fun to drive." By that measure, as good as the S2000 is, it finishes third in this group. And that's why, despite its everyday livability and excellent value, it missed the top spot.

First Place
Lotus Elise

Highs:Mongoose reflexes, tenacious grip, plenty of squirt.
Lows:Formidable interior noise, unforgiving ride quality, contortionistic ingress-egress.
The Verdict:Marginal practicality, unbeatable fun to drive.

Roger Becker says the Elise represents a return to roots for Lotus, and he should know. Now a senior engineering consultant for the company he joined in 1966, Becker is one of the few left at Lotus who was on hand when founder Colin Chapman still stalked the halls at Hethel, preaching the gospel of low weight and high agility.

Five minutes behind the wheel is enough to make it clear that Becker's back-to-basics premise is valid. Even though it's heavier than the Euro version, the federal Elise still weighs less than 2000 pounds, and its ultra-rigid aluminum tub weighs just 150 pounds. It's a tight piece of engineering, and with Toyota's 1.8-liter DOHC 16-valve four and six-speed gearbox—the same powertrain used in the Celica GT-S—it adds up to a decent power-to-weight ratio, although third in this group

In the GT-S, this engine is rated for 180 horsepower. However, Lotus developed its own engine-control software and claims 190 at 7800 rpm. As with the Toyota version, the engine doesn't really come to life until about 6200 rpm, when the aggressive set of camshaft lobes comes online. Lotus chose gearbox ratios to make it relatively easy to keep the engine in the sweet part of its operating range.

There have been durability concerns with this engine, particularly in sustained high-rpm operation. Although some suggest the problem is insufficient oil pressure, the Lotus engineers believe oil temperature is the culprit and added an engine-oil cooler. According to Lotus, there have been no problems with the engine in the Elise.

With a modest curb weight, 190 horsepower, and short gearing (a 4.53:1 final drive), the Elise can scoot: 4.4 seconds to 60 mph, 12.0 seconds to 100, 13.2 seconds at 104 in the quarter-mile.

It's quick on its feet, too, the most seductive of this car's dynamic traits. The steering is quick and informative, grip is abundant—the Elise was the skidpad champ at 1.06 g, thanks to its Yokohama Advan A048 tires (part of the $2480 Sport package)—body roll is essentially nil, and the car communicates every move to its driver at a level that's almost telepathic. There are no surprises.

However, we must admit that it is possible to produce undesirable responses. Or should we say provoke? The Elise is beautifully balanced, but it is a mid-engined car with a short wheelbase (90.5 inches) and a pronounced rear weight bias (39.1/60.9), which can add up to terminal oversteer given the right, uh, dynamic parameters. For example, if the driver takes his foot off the throttle while the car is entering a blind downhill right-hander, such as, say, BeaveRun's Turn Seven, simultaneously adding a little more steering lock because he's wide of the apex, the car will spin. Hey, we do these things in the spirit of research.

Aside from that mid-engine quirk, the Elise's abilities as a street-legal racer are hard to fault. But its passenger-car virtues leave a lot to be desired. For example, when the chassis is sending dynamic info to the driver, it omits nothing—no pave-ment irregularity is too small to overlook, and on bad stretches occupants take a beating. The punishment is also auditory, Interior noise levels—an infernal chorus of engine sounds, wind, and all sorts of resonances from the aluminum tub—are close to overpowering.

The driver's seat is supportive and comfortable, but the passenger seat is about two-thirds its size and lacks fore-and-aft adjustability. With the top in place, getting in over the wide door sills is tricky, getting out an exercise for those not overly concerned with their dignity.

We think the styling is pretty slick, if you can forgive this color—Kiino said it made the car look like "a fishing lure." And we were surprised at the capacity of the cargo well, which is big enough to stow the top and personal essentials for a weekend.

Weekends—that's what the Elise is all about. As a daily driver, fuhgedaboudit. But for track days and Sunday-morning missions on your favorite stretch of switchbacks, the Elise has the right stuff. It's a pure sports car for sports-car purists. And that's what makes it our champ.

chart of comparison of cars