2005 Lotus Elise
By Christopher A. Sawyer, Executive Editor
Up ahead, race driver and driving school instructor Doc Bundy is leading me around Barber Motorsports Park at ever-increasing speeds. At first, we brake at the “4” board leading into the corners. Now, on our fourth lap around this 2.3-mile, world-class race track, we are braking between “2” and “1.” This is getting serious.
Not long before, on the roads skirting the track’s Birmingham, Alabama, location, I noticed that the first ½-in. of brake pedal travel didn’t seem to do anything except bring the brake onto the same plane as the throttle. That and the fact that you really need to wear narrow shoes in order to use the pedals one at a time.
On the track, however, the pedals are second nature: push the throttle, then place your foot over the brake and roll it in an arc toward the throttle, and place your left foot on the dead pedal – or as much of it as you can comfortably contact – in order to brace your body in the turns after you're down with the clutch. Simple, really, especially when you consider that the resulting heel-and-toe downshifts are near-perfect and almost second nature; something I can’t say is true in most other cars I have driven, no matter the conditions. The Elise is a road car that performs like a race car without the many compromises that comparison might suggest.
Though the Barber Motorsports Park track surface is a generous 45-ft. wide, it has 16 turns – most of them blind uphill or downhill – and 80-ft. of elevation change, which makes it very demanding. Coming down the front straight under the starter’s stand in fourth gear, I see 125 mph before its hard on the brakes and down to third as the track turns left and drops away before it levels out and heads steeply uphill and to the right. Then it’s time to blast through a short section that rises as it heads toward the hairpin – where the roads drops away again. In my haste to keep up with Doc Bundy, I cross-gate the shifter under braking (at the “1” board, I should add), stay hard on the brakes as I turn in and spin harmlessly to a stop. A quick push on the starter button – part of a less than Lotus-like multi-step starting procedure that includes disarming the immobilizer with the key fob, turning the key and pressing the button – refires the engine, and I’m on my way again. No harm, no foul.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that for five years I was the PR
chief for Lotus in the U.S., and I own – and am restoring – a 1969 Lotus Elan convertible. But I’ve also driven a number of Elises, beginning with a prototype in 1995, and can say without reservation that this is the best version of the Elise ever. Not only is it quieter, tighter, and better equipped – ABS and air bags are standard whereas they weren’t even available before – the engine is beautifully matched to the chassis.
About that engine. It’s Toyota’s 2ZZ-GE, a 1.8-liter inline four with variable valve timing and lift, an 11.5:1 compression ratio, 190 hp and 138 lb-ft of torque. It mates to a six-speed manual (also Toyota), and uses a Lotus ECU. Unlike the same engine in the Toyota Celica – which produces approximately 10 less hp due to a more convoluted air intake and exhaust system – the Elise engine goes from quick to downright angry when it trips past 6,250 rpm, but produces its torque in a more linear manner. This is a good thing in a mid-engined car, where a geometric increase in torque can catapult you backward into the weeds before you know it.
For safety, the Elise has a small amount of roll-understeer built in, but this is easily damped by backing off the throttle slightly, holding it steady as the tail begins to rotate, then feeding in power when it reaches the required angle. Of course, it’s much easier to use this technique on an autocross course where speeds aren’t as high or barriers so close. Otherwise, a clean entry and exit usually eliminates the need to resort to these types of tricks. If anything, some drivers will find it unnerving at first that the Elise goes exactly where pointed and does exactly what is asked of it. But Lotuses are tuned to react as though hard-wired into your brain. If you find yourself off the road as a result, you probably asked it to do something you weren’t prepared for.
As with any vehicle, there are downsides, one being that the passenger seat is fixed in place, and its lower surface is tight on your downside. (Removing your wallet helps.) The cockpit is narrow, the pedals close together, the audio system has fiddly little buttons, you don’t see a lot out of the rearview mirror due to the high-back seats, and the chassis sides are high enough to make ingress and egress difficult when the erect-it-yourself soft top is in place. But, for a lightweight road-going sports car that can return economy car mileage numbers and embarrass cars costing more than three times as much, they’re easily dealt with when you remember the $39,985 base price.
Notes: The Lotus Elise starts at $39,985 to which a buyer can add a $1,350 Touring Pack (full leather seating with perforated trim, electric windows, Blaupunkt AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo, interior storage net, double insulated soft top, additional sound deadening, full carpet set), or a $2,480 Sport Pack (lightweight forged alloy wheels, track-tuned suspension, Yokohama A048 LTS tires), or a $1,475 hard top. It’s 149-in. long, 67.7-in. wide, 43.9-in. tall, sits on a 90.5-in. wheelbase and weighs just 1,975 lb. ABS, air conditioning and dual air bags are standard.