2004 Lotus Elise

The Ultimate Toyota MR2 is coming from Britain

by Alistair Weaver
photography by David Shepard

It's a late summer evening, and we're at the gates of the Lotus HQ in Hethel, Norfolk, ready to drive the car of our dreams, the Lotus Elise. Norfolk, by the way, is in England.

Wait, it gets better.

We're here to drive a U.S.-spec Lotus Elise, a car we've been waiting for since the original Elise hit Europe in 1996.

Wait, it gets better.

The U.S.-spec Elise isn't powered by the weak 118-hp, 1.8-liter, K-series engine sourced from MG Rover. Instead, the car we're about to drive is fitted with a 190-hp, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder Lotus has sourced from Toyota. That's right, Toyota. It'll also use the same six-speed transmission that backs the engine in the Toyota Celica GT-S.

Wait, it gets better.

The Elise is mid-engine, weighs less than 2,000 pounds and hits America this May.

Hell, yeah, we're excited. The original Elise was built as a tribute to the extreme power-toweight philosophy of Lotus founder Colin Chapman. Around here, we call him God. Everything superfluous to the pursuit of driving entertainment was ditched, ABS, air conditioning, airbags, electric windows and even carpet were out. A bonded aluminum tub and a lightweight four-cylinder enginewere very much in, The result was a sports car of brilliant simplicity that offered an unrivaled driving experience,

When the Series II appeared in 2000, it was a tad more civilized, but remained an extremely focused driver's car. Now the Series II forms the basis for the Federal Elise, codenamed 'Croft.' It's been a couple of years in the creation, but it's now all but production-ready.

Making the Elise ready for pampered Americans while keephig the car pure has been no easy task. Nick Adams, the vehicle development manager and the man responsible for protecting the car's core values, says it needed twin airbags and ABS to pass full U.S. approval while air conditioning was regarded as a must, Lotus also saw fit to develop electric windows, central locking, a decent stereo and a proper fascia, all of which are anathema to the original concept.

Adams anticipates our concerns and his defense is well prepared.

"The Elise was never conceived as a U.S. car," he says, " so we had to establish new objectives. These were to enhance the performance, while adding safety and comfort. Don't worry, it's not woolly or detuned and we haven't changed its character."

The choice of drivetrain was crucial to the realization of these objectives. The European Elise's MG engine presented a number of problems, including an inability to comply with 2006 U.S, emissions legislation. Its Toyota replacement is an excellent choice. According to Malcolm Powell, Lotus' Chief Engineer for Manufacturing Projects, when compared with the K series, the Toyota unit provides a 40-percent increase in power with a weight increase of just 14 percent.

Several different trims and setups will be available, The base car will cost around $40,000, but Johnson expects the majority of customers to opt for the $1,000 Touring pack.

This comprises full leather, carpet, an insulated soft top and additional sound-deademing material. A clip-on hard top will also be offered for $1,500.

At the other end of the spectrum is the sports pack. This features forged alloys fitted with track-biased Yokohama A048 tires and sports suspension. The latter reduces the gyroscopic loading and allows track-day enthusiasts to alter the spring height for circuit use.

Our test car is running the standard U.S. setup, except it was riding on European-spec Bridgestone Potenzas rather than the Yokohama AD07s that are still being developed for the Croft. The interior, though, was a hybrid of European and U.S. parts and bore the scars that characterize any hard-working, hand-built prototype.

Externally, the Croft is identical to the European car, with the exception of modified lights and the twin rear exhaust pipes that emerge centrally from a modified diffuser.

Our drive begins on the twisting, bumpy backroads that surround the Lotus factory. These roads have been used to fine-tune every Lotus since the '50s, but Adams is anxious to point out the car has also been tested in Phoenix and L.A. The spring and damper rates have been changed to take into account both I I.S, conditions and the car's increase in mass.

One of the finest features of the original Elise was its ride quality its minor bump absorption and compliance was nothing short of extraordinary, but the Croft takes this to a new level.

In the Celica, this engine's dearth of low-rev torque can make it a frustrating companion. But the 1,984-pound Croft weighs 25-percent less than the Toyota so the engine's torque deficiencies cease to be of major concern. The six-speed gearbox also swaps ratios with a more satisfying, mechanical clunk.

Back at the test track, the engine's top-end histrionics become a virtue. Well-chosen ratios and a slight retune of the engine's variable valve timing make it possible to keep it on the higher cam, between 6000 rpm and the 8350rpm cutoff, where the engine's strident note is matched by its thrust. Second gear no longer feels too tall as it does in the Celica. Lotus claims 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds,

The increased thrust also makes it easier to exploit the brilliance of the Elise chassis. The Series I car had brutal lift-off oversteer at the limit, but the second-generation car is more benign. It's now easier to drive, but no less exciting. Although the traction is such that trajectory on the throttle and prompt the car into a glorious four-wheel drift.

Tactile controls have been a hallmark of every great Lotus and this is no exception. The steering and throttle feel are both first rate, without the car ever feeling nervous. The brakes are equally terrific. The ABS has been tuned to engage only in extremis and its operation is much softer than it is on a normal production car. It's fair to say the system is an aid to enthusiastic driving, rather than a necessary evil that detracts from the pedal feel, which is some achievement.

At the end of the day we're still a bit bummed the Federal Elise isn't the stripped down, raw road racer the Series I was, but we also realize it would be wrong to describe it as a pastiche of the original. With the help of the new engine, Lotus' engineers have achieved their objective and developed a more complete package without destroying the soul of the original. This is a brilliant sports car. We can't wait to flog one on American soil.