2005 Lotus Elise: Lotus Finally Lines Up a New Car for America


Date Posted 05-14-2004

Birmingham, Ala.

EVERY few seconds a baby boomer turns 50, demographic experts say. That's a lot of potential midlife crises, and few things soothe middle-age angst better than a fast, low-slung, open-air sports car.

A car, in other words, like the Lotus Elise, which goes on sale next month. American boomers have already noted the Elise's impending arrival by making deposits for most of the 2,000-plus cars to be imported in the 2005 model year, according to Lotus Cars USA.

Devotees of Lotus, the legendary British sports car maker, have waited a long time for the $41,000 Elise, which has been thrilling Europeans since 1996 but until now was not certified for the United States. Lotus's American operation has been hobbling along with only the larger, more expensive ($90,825) Esprit V-8, which has gone out of production after 28 years. (You may recall the Esprit that turned into a submarine in "The Spy Who Loved Me," a 1977 James Bond film.)

If you concluded that frequent model changes aren't a priority, you'd be right. The Elise is the first new Lotus to reach America since the Elan arrived in 1991, and it is the cornerstone of the company's expansion plans. Indeed, fully half of all the cars to be built this year will end up in American hands.

Through the death of its founder, Colin Chapman, and a succession of owners, Lotus lost its way. But the Elise suggests a return to Lotus's core values, for it epitomizes what made the company famous: heavyweight performance through featherweight components.

At 1,975 pounds, the rear-drive Elise is truly svelte - far lighter than either the diminutive Mazda MX-5 Miata (2,387 pounds) or the Honda S2000 (2,835 pounds). The Elise is so trim partly because it is so small. Less than 44 inches tall, it is 5 inches lower than the Miata. And with an overall length of 149 inches, it is shorter than any mass market car in America save one. (The Mini Cooper is just 142.8 inches long.)

The chassis is made of extruded aluminum - that is, the alloy is squeezed into shape, like pushing toothpaste from a tube - and weighs a mere 150 pounds. Thin, light composites make up the body, and more weight is saved by glueing the pieces together.

The four-cylinder engine, situated midship behind the seats, and six-speed manual transmission are borrowed from the Toyota Celica GT-S, a significantly heavier car. The dual-overhead-cam engine displaces 1.8 liters, and it permits the Elise to meet American emissions requirements. The Rover engine used in Europe could not be certified in the United States, the main obstacle that has kept the Elise from coming here sooner.

Front air bags were added to meet American safety standards. The car does not have side bags.

In the Elise, the Toyota engine produces 190 horsepower and 138 pounds-foot of torque, less than the S2000's 240 horsepower. But with its lower weight, the Elise rockets from a dead stop to 60 miles an hour in 4.9 seconds, Lotus says, and has a top speed of 150 miles an hour. Yet the Elise delivers an estimated 26 m.p.g. in city driving and 37 m.p.g. on the highway, better than a lot of so-called economy cars.

The Elise has had a face-lift since it made its debut, and it has a decidedly buglike appearance, its large, bulging headlamps looking like the eyes of "The Fly." The sides are cinched in to form air scoops, and the rear has a purposeful athletic look. The 14 available paints include the typical red, yellow and silver along with "lifestyle colors" like Krypton green.

The Elise comes with a canvas top that lifts off and fits in the small trunk (4 cubic feet) at the rear of the car. An optional hardtop is $1,475.

While I think the Elise is (pardon me) cute, I was intimidated by the prospect of driving it on the track of the Barber Motorsports Park here, where Lotus made early examples available for testing.

The apprehension starts before you get in. One doesn't just jump behind the wheel. Instead, because of the very low roofline when the top is in place, one carefully ducks and lowers oneself into the seat much as a professional racer gets into a car. Exiting requires ducking under the roof before standing upright; while at the track I saw a lot of drivers whack their heads.

The cabin, in the vein of a barebones weekend racer, has no frills. The door panels and floor are bare, exposing the aluminum skeleton, and there are no cup holders, no power outlets, no tilt steering wheel. For that matter, the Elise does not come with power steering or an automatic transmission, not to mention its lack of high-tech systems like traction control and stability sensors. But air-conditioning is standard, along with a Blaupunkt AM-FM-CD stereo and antilock brakes.

The molded seats adjust back and forward only, and they won't accommodate aging boomers who have bulked up around the middle and bottom. Nor are the closely spaced pedals designed for big feet.

Nevertheless, at 5-foot-2 I fit perfectly in the seat, and my small feet had no problem with the pedals.

The Elise comes to life with the push of a starter button. Engineers designed the exhaust tone to be louder and throatier than the one in European versions, and it is an appropriate note for the character of the car.

Despite my initial apprehension, I found the Elise surprisingly easy to drive - and enormously fun. At the Birmingham track, the first exercise was to speed around a curving course to get a feel for the handling. The car's tiny dimensions allowed it to squeeze through the course's sharp hairpin turns and tight lanes. Nimble defines the Elise.

Next, I headed to the park's racetrack, used for sports car and motorcycle races as well as for Porsche's driving school. The Elise felt at home on the 2.3 miles of track with its hills, sweeping bends and blind turns. It stuck like superglue to the asphalt even through pouring rain and hail. The Elise has the instant reactions of a Go-Kart: turn the wheel and the car goes precisely and immediately where it is pointed.

Then it was off for real-world driving on the slow-moving country roads around the complex. Sitting a scant six inches above the pavement, I felt every pothole and bump. After confidently racing around the track, I felt humbled as S.U.V.'s and tractor-trailers towered overhead.

The Elise feels most at home on the track, and it is best viewed as a weapon for weekend racers. Whether one sees the car as an expensive toy or a bargain-basement Ferrari depends on what you compare it with.

The Elise starts at $40,780 including shipping. A $1,350 touring package adds leather seats, electric windows, carpeting, sound deadening, an insulated top and an upgraded audio system with CD and MP3 players. A sport package adds forged alloy wheels, special Yokohama tires and a track-tuned suspension. Other extras include the hardtop and special paint. Compared with a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari Modena, the Elise is a deal.

But for spoiled boomers who like being pampered with heated seats and automatic transmissions, there are less expensive ways to go topless. The Miata, starting at $23,000, and the S2000, at $34,000, are easier to live with every day. And for those who rarely or never venture onto a track, those cars may soothe the aches of middle age just as well.

INSIDE TRACK: If the toy fits, wear it.