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The 190-HP Hassle
Lotus's new Elise is a sports car strictly for purists—or masochists.
By Alex Taylor III
Want to feel really clumsy? Try climbing into the new Lotus Elise. To get behind the wheel, you first swing your butt over one of the two wide aluminum bars that run lengthwise through the cockpit, and drop into the driver's seat. Then you lift up your legs, squeeze them under the steering wheel, and cram your shoes into the footwells. To start the engine, twist the ignition key to the on position, disable the security lock by depressing a button on the key fob, and then push the start button.
Now the fun begins, because you are ready to motor. Watch out backing up, though—those flying-buttress window pillars really obscure your rear vision. When you're ready to go forward, you snap the shift lever into first gear, let out the clutch, and you're off. The 190-horsepower, four-cylinder engine behind your head makes all the right noises, but your upshifts are jerky because your right elbow keeps banging into the passenger sitting next to you.
Still, the racing-style wheel feels just right in your hands, and the old-fashioned powerless steering imparts an unworldly feeling of directness and control. In a mere 5.1 seconds you've reached 60 miles an hour. The Elise darts into corners and then screams out of them, while the suspension manages to keep you on an even keel without punishing your kidneys.
But you've felt a drop of rain, so you stop to install the canvas roof. You open the trunk, find the two metal spars that fit between the windshield header and the rear window brace ...
You get the idea. The Elise accelerates from annoyance to exhilaration and back in record time. It is a pure sports car that sacrifices normal standards of comfort and convenience. Built in England by Group Lotus, a hallowed sports car name that has endured some hard times the past couple of decades, the Elise went on sale in Britain in 1997. A couple of years later Lotus engineers spent 18 months refitting the car to meet U.S. safety and emission laws by installing a Toyota powertrain (in place of the original Rover 1.8-liter engine) as well as driver- and passenger-side airbags. The car has been a big hit with aficionados. More than 6,500 have been sold in Britain, and before the first Elise was sold in the U.S. this summer, customers here put down orders for 2,300 cars—one year's production.
Joining them will cost you $40,930. (My "loaded" tester was $45,200.) That's a lot to pay for a car that, realistically, is good only for speeding along open roads in perfect weather. For the same money you can get an entertaining—though considerably less spartan—Audi TT, BMW Z4, Honda S2000, or two Mazda Miatas, and you don't have to be a contortionist to drive them.
If your taste in cars runs to the masochistic—or if you have regular access to a race track—the Elise makes sense. Everyone else should choose another ride.