Lotus Elise 1.8 111R 2dr
Test Date 24/02/2004 09:00:00
Price when new £27,995
Lotus Elise 111R
When Lotus’ original Elise arrived in 1996, it stunned all-comers with levels of agility, performance and driver involvement that simply weren’t available anywhere in the market, let alone on the right side of £20,000. It was usable and refined to boot, which made it an overnight sales success. Paired down it may have been – there was no air con, music system, or heater – but that’s what made it such a true driver’s car and, although it was more reminiscent of the earlier Elan, the modern embodiment of the spirit of Chapman’s Lotus 7.
However, as its popularity grew, so did the calls to team that usable everyday chassis with higher interior spec, so that it became a more viable alternative for Boxster, TT and Z3 drivers. The 111S of ’99 brought improved seats, easier entry and a dealer-fit stereo, as well as a much needed power hike up to 143bhp. Its ’02 replacement added some carpet, air conditioning, and another 13bhp through some Lotus engine management tweakery.
That car is neither powerful nor usable enough any longer though – most significantly because Vauxhall’s Elise-fathered VX220 comes with a turbo. Lotus needs a car to put Luton’s spin-off back it its place – and that’s the task of the 111R.
The quintessential Elise will always be the original 118bhp K-series car shorn of frippery such as carpets, radio and anything else that didn’t have a damn good reason for being there. But recently Lotus has uncovered an equally powerful group of potential buyers whose sports car ideals lie along a rather different plane. Unlike the hardcore enthusiasts who embrace the pared-to-the-bone standard car, these customers see the Elise’s lack of safety and convenience features not as something to be celebrated, but as a genuine barrier to entry.
Enter the £27,995 111R, a flagship Elise that sits above the softer, slower 111S (which falls in price to £25,995 to match its new position in the line-up).
Central to the R’s character shift is Lotus’s decision to substitute a high-revving four-cylinder Toyota engine for the 1.8-litre K-series engine that has powered every factory Elise since day one and continues in the other versions of the range. The 1796cc all-alloy lump, already used in the Celica VVTL-i, received the nod for its lightweight construction and the fact that, unlike the K-series, it was already certified for use in the USA, allowing Lotus to launch a federal-spec Elise.
Hethel’s own T4 engine management system tailors the power and torque curves to suit the application. The resulting 189bhp at 7800rpm and 134lb ft at a lofty 6800rpm finds its way to the rear wheels through a six-speed Toyota gearbox fitted with the closest set of cogs available. Engine changes, however, do not tell the whole story: Lotus has equipped the Elise with servo-assisted anti-lock brakes for the first time, while air conditioning, a cutting-edge hi-fi and full carpeting are all on the options list.
Toyota's all-alloy 1.8 borrowed from Celica VVTL-i
The 111R tips the scales at 860kg, up 75kg over the standard Elise, but it still packs a real wallop: 220bhp per tonne against 200bhp for the 111S and 212bhp for the potent but porky (930kg) Vauxhall VX220 Turbo.
The VX’s 50lb ft torque advantage is enough to keep it fractionally ahead against the clock, but none of the R’s premium rivals can match its 5.1sec to 60mph and 13.0sec to the ton. And while the Elise’s torque figures might suggest the R would be hard work, in practice the superbly spaced gears mean you don’t have to bash the limiter to make progress. You’ll do it anyway, though, because, unlike the VX, the 111R positively begs you to thrash it time and again. Do so and you’ll be treated to a hefty kick in the back as the cams do their thing at 6200rpm, and unleash one of the more intoxicating engine notes. This Elise doesn’t just look like a Ferrari, it goes and sounds like one, too.
Arguably the biggest treat, however, is the gearchange. Once the Achilles heel of the Elise, it becomes one of this car’s strongest attributes, proving quick, slick and precise. And new springs, uprated by 20 per cent, retuned dampers and a stronger rear subframe and suspension mounts help shrug off the increased kerbweight. Result? A car with simply sensational body control, bags of grip and that light, sinuous steering that has long been an Elise trademark. Even the beautifully fluid ride quality remains intact despite the stiffer set-up, possibly helped by the extra mass.
If only the changes to the braking set-up had proved as successful. The four-channel anti-lock system minds its own business until absolutely necessary and the excellent overall stopping distances perfectly mirrored those recorded for the lighter 111S two years ago, but the addition of servo assistance has turned a lovely, solid middle pedal into a mushy, over-light one. Worse still, heel-and-toeing comes less naturally because the pedal now travels too far.
Other aspects of the car-driver interface work far better, including the redesigned seat, whose shoulder support gives welcome location in high-g corners. Our car also came with air conditioning (a £1295 option) and the Touring Pack (£1995) that brings extra sound insulation, carpets, full leather trim, electric windows and a Blaupunkt digital radio/CD player to lift the ambience above that of the slightly spartan base Elise.
What such niceties don’t do is magically transform the Lotus into something capable of giving a Boxster a run for its money in the refinement stakes. Wind and engine noise are constant companions, stowage space is minimal, there are no airbags or traction-control systems and getting in and out with the roof in place should only be tackled after a yoga class.
This is the most habitable Elise yet, so while stepping from a Boxster or Z4 still requires a compromise on the owner’s part, it’s no longer the rude shock it once was. Which is just as well because with options, our test car weighed in at £31,285. That’s enough to buy the first rung on Porsche’s ladder, a 3.0-litre BMW Z4, Audi TT V6 or Honda S2000. And unlike lesser Elise variants, the 111R can’t rely on advantageous running costs to boost its case. Fuel economy and CO2 emissions might be better than rivals’, but a group 20 insurance rating won’t win it many friends.
Transcending such vulgar details, though, is the knowledge that the Elise offers a driving experience no rival can touch for intimacy and involvement. The 111R isn’t the purest form of the Elise – that honour still befalls the standard car, the slowest, cheapest, humblest in the range and the one that still best represents everything company founder Colin Chapman stood for. But for drivers wanting a slice of 21st-century comfort in a package that enhances rather than weakens the sporting integrity of the basic car, it could quite possibly be the best.