Load Elise into a medium bend and it understeers a hint. Inclination says "lift," but if you keep the power on and dial in a tick more steering, the car sniffs out the apex like a hound. Powerslides don't come naturally to Elise, though it will accommodate them with VVTL-i in the full-lift zone in a second-gear corner. The steering holds the tail, and a slight reduction in throttle will pull it back without fear a weight transfer will send you into a loop.
Driven hard, the Elise is as accommodating as any car we've encountered. It is not just extraordinary balance and fluid transitions. It is the confidence it inspires. More than obvious alternatives like Miata, MR2, Honda S2000 or Porsche Boxster, Elise makes us ham-hands feel like Clark or Andretti or anyone who won the world championship in a Lotus. Restraint is hard to muster; in the Elise, elan tends not to be a problem unless it is expressed too joyfully on public roads.
We tried Elise on the road, for 45 minutes in an orchestrated convoy led by a Lotus rep. We learned the gears are fairly widely spaced, so shifts are smoothest when you wind it out, even at part-throttle. That said, we also learned the Toyota engine is more tractable than any Esprit or Elan mill ever was, with decent low-end and a nice rocket-shot in the last 1500 revs before the redline. The ride tends toward stiff, but it won't bother anyone who appreciates the handling. Big bumps generate a bit of flex in the composite body panels, though the pilot cars Lotus provided had no audible rattles or excessive vibration inside. With the top off, noise in the cockpit never exceeds tolerable.
Switches are fairly easy to hit, except for the tiny stereo buttons. Exaggerated styling themes carry over inside; sills and other aluminum bits are exposed around standard-for-Americans carpet inserts. Depending on sensibilities, it is cool or cheap-looking. Either way, Elise is certainly more appealing than the last new Lotus, the Isuzu-powered Elan that was supposed to sell for $25,000.
ONLY 2200 A YEAR
The first Elises should reach U.S. dealerships by the end of June, $40,780 with destination charge. Like the car, option packages are simple by design. The Touring pack ($1,395) delivers the full American ride, with full-leather seating, power windows, a stereo upgrade, double-insulated soft-top, additional sound insulation and full carpet. The Sports pack ($2,480) creates the 4.7-to-60 Elise (without it, Lotus claims 4.9 seconds): 17-inch forged wheels, Lotus sports suspension and Elise-specific Yokohama A048LTS tires. A hardtop is $1,475.
Lotus USA isn't quite sure who will buy Elise. About 500 deposits come from previous Lotus owners; next are hard-core baby boomer enthusiasts. The company expects some "young trendsetters" who appreciate the styling and reliability of a Toyota engine, and it insists import hot rodders are already enamored. The business plan is based on 2200 cars a year, so it should be a no-brainer. For a year or two. What happens when the hard-core has its Elises?
This car is tiny by American standards. The street-drive convoy, with all Elises in a line, might have delayed the realization, but it was driven home passing a maintenance truck at Barber Motorsports Park. The Elise can hide in the shadow of a Ford Focus.
At the pre-drive briefing, a bunch of crusty journalists were instructed on the correct way to get in and out of Elise. With two inside, the passenger must be wary of getting in the driver's way. The footwells narrow dramatically in front, restricting leg movement. There is less storage space than in nearly any car sold in the States. Elise is loud by sedan standards and the stereo isn't great, even if you manage to find your favorite stations as you're motoring along.
Elise succeeds admirably at going fast, and not much else. That's been the brief on Lotus production cars since day one, and Lotus USA has never moved more than 1000 units in a year. How many people care that Elise has it all over a Miata or MR2 Spyder on track day? Those cars cost $18,000 less. To ante for Elise, you have to "get it." For the money, you can get a BMW 3 Series with the big engine, or that jewel-perfect ES 330. Then there's Corvette. Elise can't touch its power-to-weight ratio, and while we're still waiting for C6 prices, the 2004 C5 starts only $3,000 higher. And you can take your Vette or Miata or MR2 to that dealership on the corner for service and repair. We'd guess Lotus does not have a wide reputation for reliability, merited or not, and its resale values are well below average.