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Two years ago when Lotus officially announced that they were bringing the Elise to America, I saved the AutoWeek article about it. It's interesting to look back and see what's changed since then. I'll mark my comments with '>'.

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(06:38:17 April 10, 2002)
Lotus Blossom for America?
Malaysian-British Lotus Elise roadster brings basics back to the states


By MARK RECHTIN


A U.S. Elise, due in late 2003, won’t be quite the same: That distinctive nose won’t pass the safety standards, and the interior needs airbags, at least. Softer springs, leather and a/c will further sanitize it for your protection.

> Same nose as the European model, firmer springs if you order the Sports Suspension...

Today’s “sports cars” are so loaded with an alphabet soup of ABS, ESP and DSC that it is nearly impossible to make the car go FUBAR. Not so the Lotus Elise, which is raw and feral underfoot, in its element as a track car. It’s a purist’s delight.

For the United States, Lotus plans to add nice bits like air conditioning, leather seats and a CD player. Oh, and airbags—like in the Opel/Vauxhall Speedster version of the car. The four-cylinder engine from MG-Rover has never been EPA-certified, and the Elise is so low that getting it through federal crash tests is proving troublesome. The solution appears to be a redesign of the nose.

> or get an exemption

Bringing the Elise over is not a matter of choice for the U.S. arm of the sports car maker. It needs the Elise to replace the Esprit, which will depart in mid-2003. Lotus Cars USA CEO Arnie Johnson said at this year’s Los Angeles auto show that a federalized Elise will be here by fall 2003.

> or the summer of '04. Whatever.

The American Elise will have a 120-hp low-emissions engine

> or a 190 hp screamer!

and sticker at $38,500,

> or $39,995

including “everything but a hardtop,” Johnson says.

> but 'everything' doesn't include power windows, etc. unless you order the touring package.

The suspension will be a little softer here than in Europe, too,

> not so. The suspension is actually a little firmer to make up for the extra weight. And the LSS makes it even stiffer.

since Lotus has eyes on sales volume. It’s got a plant that can build 10,000 units that’s only doing half that right now. Lotus Cars USA expects to bring in 2000 Elises a year.

“We don’t want to just chase the 10 percent of the audience who are petrolheads,” says Gavan Kershaw, Lotus’ chief dynamics engineer. Maybe the British fellow, interviewed at HQ in Hethel, England, doesn’t understand how big 10 percent of the U.S. market is, or maybe he’s serious, but there’s no way the Elise is going to become anything but a car for that cadre of folks Americans call “gearheads.” We’re bound to be excited about it if the owners (Proton and Petronas, Malaysian companies) stick with the plan to bring the car here.

When the Elise is pressed hard, the driver can feel the muscle and sinew of the car. There is a physical sense of biting brakes, engaging gears, the slip and grip of tires. That sort of immediacy between man, machine and road means driving errors are swiftly punished—though rarely in a cruel fashion—but lessons regarding the laws of physics are also learned at a much faster rate.

The novice racer’s self-inflicted idiocy is forgiven a bit by understeer dialed into the suspension. Hit a hairpin corner too hot and the Elise pushes wide, though the Bridgestone Potenzas don’t feel like they are knuckling under. Snap the quick-ratio steering and let off the gas, and the back end pendulums gently around. Feed in throttle, counter steer, and you have some rather wiggy four-wheel drift getting you through the corner. You can do it all day, giggling like a third-grader with a water balloon launcher.

It is almost impossible for the engine to outdrive the suspension and brakes. Not to say the 1.8-liter Rover K-series powerplant is a wheezy old bag, but it is rough and agricultural. To most people, 120 horsepower in a sports car is something to scoff at. But with a dry weight of a svelte 1565 pounds riding on a tidy 90.5-inch wheelbase, 0 to 62 mph comes up in 5.7 seconds, and 0 to 100 mph in 17.2 seconds.

> I'll settle for 1975 lbs, 190 hp and 0-60 in 4.8 seconds.

It’s all about power-to-weight, and carrying speed into and out of corners. It’s darty, squirty and quick. Fourth gear redlines at about 105 mph, midway down the half-mile straight at Lotus Cars’ test track in Hethel, under drying conditions. Fifth gear feels tall, and there wasn’t nearly enough straightaway to whip the car to its 125-mph top speed.

> what about 6th geat? =-)

The chassis’ massive side sills evoke the feeling of a claw-foot bathtub, which the reclined seating position does little to deflect. The seats are sculpted and reinforced for hard cornering.

The Elise prefers to be caressed rather than caned, as demonstrated when Kershaw was instantly 10 seconds faster—not to mention much smoother—around the circuit. During a sound thrashing of the Elise, not once was there a hint of brake fade, and pedal feel was consistent and reassuring. Simply put, the brakes were phenomenal—not that there was much weight to bring to a halt—but still eye-bulgingly strong.

For the mad dash around the Lotus track, as well as a week-long review around London, I drove the basic 120-hp Elise. Lotus also makes a sport model with 135 hp, courtesy of polished ports and tuned exhaust, and a racing version with 190 hp—which has been offered in the States under the “for competition only” provisions of federal rules. Soon, in part because those same rules will make the Esprit V8 unadaptable for America, the Elise will be federalized.

It may be the perfect car in which to learn to race, but in everyday use it can be a pain in the butt. The seating position is so low that you’re looking up at scooters, for Pete’s sake. The immediacy of the suspension—so revered on the track— becomes busy and jolting on the commute. Inserting oneself into the Elise requires an inelegant torsion of the torso that would do a praying mantis proud. In our test vehicle, the rear window rattled and buzzed. A defective Clarion audio deck would illuminate but not function, then later went full-blast and could not be turned off. The luggage space is enough for a day-pack, but forget the quick run to the airport or grocery store. The pedals are tiny and wedged into a footwell better measured for the aforementioned third-grader.

As appropriate for a British roadster—even one built by a company owned by Malaysian interests—the roof leaked. At speed, a trickle would drop straight down from the A-pillar onto the driver’s knee. Worse was the pond in the driver’s seat after the Elise was parked in a rainstorm.

First gear was recalcitrant at a stoplight. For those with a freeway commute, the Elise gets squirrelly above 80 mph with any sort of side wind. Other notes: The mid- engined Elise suffers poor cooling in slow traffic, prompting a toasty interior. The noise level is nearly intolerable, requiring shouting to converse with a passenger. Though giving a digital readout, the fuel gauge was erratic, insisting we had used more than 1.5 gallons of gas in 10 easy miles. The headlamps gave meager support at night. And the Lotus emblem peeled off the gearshift onto my hand.

One reason to drive it on the street is the look of the car, substantially more posh than the $30,000 asking price. If there were a vehicular design of Marion Jones in the starting blocks ready to spring, it is the Elise. Driving down a well-heeled London street, I was confronted by a pack of 10-year-olds (eternally the key demographic). One succinctly shouted, “That car is ruthless.”

Quite.

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Let's hope that Lotus' quality has improved in the last couple of year.

Mick
 
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