Lotus Elise a pure, but flawed, performer

by Tom Incantalupo
November 19, 2004

Depending on their build and agility, people develop their own styles of climbing behind the wheels of their cars. A popular one is the "butt first" method, in which one backs into the seat, then makes a graceful swing of the feet into the foot well.

Also popular is the "one leg first" method, in which one leads straightlegged with the right foot, sits down, then bends the left knee and brings the other foot aboard.

There's the "Dukes of Hazzard" method - you don't see this one much - of entering both feet first through an open window.

A method for dashing, adventurous types is the "Hertz" technique - named after a TV commercial decades ago in which a driver sailed feet first into the seat of a convertible from above, but this one's tough to do if you don't have access to a crane. Much safer is to crawl head first into the front seat, then carefully twist, sliding feet onto pedals and butt onto seat.

Whichever style you prefer, this is to formally advise you that it won't work on the 2004 Lotus Elise. This is an exotically beautiful, compositebodied roadster that, unfortunately, has been produced for those willing to put up with vexing and even ludicrous inconveniences in a $41,000 car, along with some sloppy assembly.

The new Elise is, at its heart, a delightful weekend toy whose four-eylinder, 190-horsepower Toyota engine produces an exhaust tone that's almost as pleasant to hear as the words "no charge for this" from a mechanic.

The Elise is very fast, with an under-five-second zero-to-60 mph time and a 13.6-second quarter-mile time. Its near-race-ready suspension connects the driver to the road as in a go-kart. Its good looks, I can testify to, will collect enough neighbors for a block party the first time you bring it home.

The Elise's structural design, guaranteed to please your chiropractor, forces driver and passenger to step over huge side frame rails to enter. The seats are virtually on the floor and are thinly padded - certainly unsuitable for the hard landings of the Hertz entry method.

Once inside the Elise, driver and passenger also will find that, even for a base price of $41,000:

  • There are no side air bags to help protect them from the 99.9 percent of vehicles whose bumpers are higher than those frame rails.
  • Foot room is severely limited by the inward tapering of those frame rails toward the front of the car.
  • The loose-fitting plastic center console looks like a cheap afterthought purchased from an auto parts discount store.
  • The driver's seat has just two adjustments: fore and aft and lumbar support. There is no height adjustment or even one for the backrest angle. Nor does the steering wheel adjust.
  • The stereo has tiny controls best suited for the deft fingers of a neurosurgeon.
  • The accelerator pedal's narrowness and location very close to the brake pedal is an open invitation to unintended acceleration.
  • Installing the soft top is a multistep process that takes pages to explain in the owner's manual. A hardtop is available for $1,475.
  • There's no glove box, no coin holder, no cup holder and no trunk to speak of. The last is behind the mid-mounted engine, which is behind the cockpit.

But, numerous as they are, those flaws tend to shrink into near-insignificance when the day is sunny, the road is clear and the Elise's tachometer needle reaches about 6,000 RPMs - at which point the Toyota variable-valve-timing system delivers a surge of power almost like that of a turbocharger.

The engine's rumble becomes thunderous, driver and passenger are pushed backward into the seats, and all is right with the world.

Peak horsepower is reached at a high 7,800 rpms. This engine needs premium gas, which is stored in a 10.5-gallon tank.

The Elise's steering isn't power assisted and requires considerable effort at parking speeds but feels just right on the road, although the tiny steering wheel kicks a bit at high speeds. The Toyota-sourced six-speed stick shifter snicks precisely through the gears, the clutch is easy to modulate, there is no body lean in corners, and the powerful brakes and huge tires inspire confldence.

On sale since July, the Elise has been the only Lotus offered been the only Lotus offered here since production of the $95,000 Esprit was discontinued late last year.

The test car stickered at more than $47,000, with options that included $590 metallic paint, a $1,350 touring pack, a $2,480 sport pack and a clear protectant, for $995.

At less than 2,000 pounds and 149 inches bumper to bumper, the Elise is one of the smallest cars in America, sized between the smaller Mini Cooper and the larger Mazda Miata.

There is no federal government crash test data on this car - and probably won't ever be because of its low sales volumes. It's the same story for reliability info: Nothing available on Lotus or its cars from Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates. Caveat emptor.

Even for $40,000 plus, this Lotus s terrific performance with practicalities that add to the experience.

Lotus says it expects to sell about 2,300 Elises a year in the United States and an equal number elsewhere. Lotus raised the base price of the Elise on the 2005 model by 2.3 percent, or $945. It's now $40,930.