The Elise is a hard-core driver's car—as close to a race car as you can buy for the street—but still a car you can drive and enjoy every day.
In the 1950s and 1960s, British performance car maker Lotus built its reputation with innovative sports cars and race cars that achieved considerable success, including championships in what many consider the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula One. The basic vision of the company's founder, the late Colin Chapman, was to build innovative, lightweight, high-performance cars that are fun to drive.
The high-tech Elise extends Chapman's vision with an exotic mid-engine, two-seat roadster. Weighing less than 2,000 pounds and powered by a 190-horsepower engine, the Elise packs a powerful performance punch, but above all it is a blast to drive.
Car enthusiasts in the U.S. have lusted after this diminutive roadster ever since it went on sale in Europe in 1996. Sales went way beyond expectations, and as a result there was no capacity to produce a U.S. version. The good news for U.S. drivers: during the long wait the car has become even better.
Beginning in June 2004, U.S. drivers will be able to buy the latest iteration of the Elise, a car that Lotus insiders refer to as the "best Lotus yet"—a testament to an increased focus on quality and additional standard equipment for the U.S. market.
For the stateside Elise, Lotus adds standard air conditioning, AM/FM/CD and ABS—equipment Lotus felt was mandatory for the U.S. market. More importantly, the car gets a Lotus-tuned version of the Toyota 1.8-liter 2ZZ engine with a 6-speed transmission for proven powertrain reliability.
Make no mistake, the Elise is a hard-core enthusiast's car that excels on the race track and autocross course, with a lithe, precise feel more reminiscent of a Formula Ford race car than any other car you can buy for the street. Everything about this car is geared toward performance.
In early April I had a chance to be one of the first journalists to drive the U.S.-spec Elise on U.S. soil, in three different settings: a tight autocross course; the 2.3-mile highly technical road course at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama; and winding, bumpy two-lane roads. In all three settings I discovered what the Lotus rep first told me was true: "You can't drive this car without it putting a smile on your face."
Innovation Adds Light Weight, Performance
Through its significant history, the Lotus name has become synonymous with innovation. The Elise is no exception, starting with a chassis constructed using aluminum alloy extrusions and aerospace bonding techniques. Visible as part of the car's interior, the chassis is the first of its type used for a production car, and it weighs only 150 pounds.
With a total weight of only 1,980 pounds and 190 horsepower, Elise accelerates on par with cars that have more than twice as much power. According to performance figures supplied by Lotus, the Elise will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and reach a top speed near 150 mph.
Along with the car's light weight, braking performance benefits from the 11.5-inch brake rotors on all four corners, with AP Racing calipers at the front and Brembo calipers at the rear.
The suspension includes Eibach coil springs and Bilstein gas shocks. Providing grip are Yokohama Neova AD07 LTS tires designed specifically for the Elise, wrapped around 8-spoke cast alloy wheels. The tires are 175/55R16 on 5.5-inch wide wheels at the front and 225/45R17 on 7.5-inch wide wheels at the rear.
When I returned from the Elise program, a colleague asked me if the car has stability control. I thought for a minute before responding: "Yes. It includes the steering wheel, throttle pedal, and the brake pedal, all controlled by the person in the driver's seat." In other words the Elise does not have an electronic stability program, leaving control totally up to the driver.
The base price for an Elise is $39,985—excluding shipping—with an optional hardtop available for $1,475. The optional Touring Pack is $1,350 and includes full leather seating with perforated trim, power windows, AM/FM/CD with an MP3 player, an interior stowage net, a double-insulated soft-top, additional sound deadening material, and a full carpet set.
The Sport Pack is $2,480 and includes lightweight forged alloy wheels (6.5-inch by 16-inch front and 7.5-inch by 17-inch rear), track-tuned suspension with adjustable ride height, and Yokohama A048 LTS tires (195/50R16 front and 225/45R17 rear).
Fun, Fun, Fun to Drive!
A tight autocross course set up with cones in a parking lot is probably the perfect introduction to the nimble character and razor-sharp handling of the Elise. My first Elise experience took place on a course that could be driven entirely in second gear, allowing drivers to focus on the throttle, steering and brakes to weave through the combination of tight corners, sweeping corners, and short straights.
Almost immediately I realized this is perhaps the ultimate driver's car. The steering wheel is very small—housing the smallest airbag unit in production—and the steering so quick and precise that you never need to remove your hands from the 3-o'clock and 9-o'clock positions on the wheel.
The Elise is so well balanced I felt as if I could toss the car around at will. Because the car does exactly what you ask of it via the steering wheel, throttle and brakes, I never felt out of control. Approaching the limits of traction—even going beyond the limits—was not a problem because with one or two quick adjustments the car was right back where it should be.
On the Track, On the Street
My second chance to drive the Elise was at Barber Motorsports Park, on a natural terrain 2.3-mile 16-turn road course with many blind corners.
The Elise offered a distinct advantage for learning a new track, due to its fine balance and predictability. Another advantage was to have Doc Bundy, veteran sports car racer and Porsche Driving Experience instructor, in the lead car to show each small group of drivers the correct line around the track.
The 190-horsepower 1.8-liter pulled well around the road course throughout the rpm range, never feeling underpowered. There is a noticeable increase in power at about 6300 rpm that continues to pull strong to 8500 rpm.
The track session was my first chance to try an Elise equipped with the Sport Pack, including the stickier Yokohama tires with wider front wheels. The Sport Pack seems to have a bit less understeer, but with just two 6-lap sessions on this highly technical track I wasn't able to compare the suspension differences. The standard suspension and tires work very well, and the car responds perfectly to driver inputs, whether from the steering, throttle or brakes.
Beyond its obvious prowess on the track, the Elise remains a car that can be driven every day. Sure, there are some compromises. Riding as a passenger, I felt the need to consciously stay out of the driver's way. Getting into the seats requires extra effort, due to the aluminum frame's wide side sills. The frame also tapers toward the front, reducing the amount of room in the footwells when compared to the width of the car in the seating area. There is precious little storage space, consisting of a small compartment behind the engine.
Although the car feels a little stiff over potholes and bumps typically found on the street, this certainly is a reasonable trade-off for the car's performance on the track. Those who prefer a luxurious grand touring car need not apply.
The Elise is surprisingly quiet with the targa top removed. We did all our driving without the top and could easily have a conversation at speed. In fact, on the race track the instructor spoke through a radio mounted under the dash on the passenger side, and I could still hear easily, even with a helmet on.
A Driver's Car
For the true driving enthusiast, the 2005 Lotus Elise may be the ultimate car, at least when the $40,000 price is factored into the equation. "The Elise is confirmation that Colin Chapman's vision of building innovative, lightweight, top-performing cars that make drivers smile is very much alive," said Arnie Johnson, president and CEO of Lotus Cars USA.
You can drive the Elise hard all day at the track without ever feeling like Lotus made any performance compromises, and then drive it home on the highway without feeling like you're thumping along in a stiff race car. "With its amazing performance, competitive price and superb fun-to-drive factor, we think the 2005 Elise has the potential to convert an entire new generation of driving enthusiasts into Lotus fans," exclaimed Johnson. We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
The British are coming, and this time we can't wait for them to get here.