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Sharpest Tool in the Box

By Bill Visnic

WardsAuto.com, May 27 2004

Lotus Cars at last has U.S. availability for its sharp-handling Elise roadster.




BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – The good news: North America finally gets a crack at Lotus Cars’ fabulously focused Elise roadster. The bad news: The first entry-level Lotus in more than a decade is the antithesis of what Americans currently are buying.

Lotus officials figure it doesn’t matter the Elise is the polar opposite of the overstuffed, overweight and flaccid-handling SUV that typifies the “American car” nowadays. There appears to be plenty of pent-up demand for the Elise: Lotus aficionados and track-day driving enthusiasts – not to mention those who simply want to make a genuine “niche” statement – slapped down more than 2,000 deposits (against an annual North American allotment of no more than 2,400 units) before the Elise’s mid-June on-sale date.


Elise is one of smallest, lightest passenger vehicles on the road.
Not hard to imagine, because clued-in zealots on this side of the Atlantic have been salivating for a shot at the British-made Elise since the first-generation car’s European launch in 1996. The car that makes a Mazda Miata look flabby and scorches Porsche’s benchmark Boxster S in the 0-60 mph (97 km/h) and quarter-mile runs has been a perpetual award-winner thanks to its religious adherence to Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s chief design goal: light weight above all else.

Less weight makes for easier handling. And lightness simplifies the power-to-weight equation – the car can generate scintillating performance with a smaller and less-bulky engine and transmission. The ’05 Elise comes to the U.S. at less than a ton in base form – 500 lbs. (227 kg) lighter than a Miata and a thrilling 900 lbs. (363 kg) lighter than the Boxster S.

The lack of poundage assures the Toyota Motor Corp.-supplied 1.8L DOHC I-4’s 190 hp rockets the Elise to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. The 1.8L rather famously fails to impress in Toyota’s own Celica and Matrix largely due to its torque deficiencies – just 138 lb.-ft. (181 Nm) for the Elise – and sky-high horsepower peak. But never in a car has torque felt so non-essential; rev it and something usually happens pretty quickly.

Apart from its tidy 100 hp-plus per liter, Lotus execs say the Toyota 4-cyl. was selected for another important reason: it all but guaranteed U.S. emissions compliance. That, in turn, helped Lotus engineers gestate the Elise from North American program approval to start-of-production in 16 months.

Finally, from the service and reliability standpoint, Toyota’s 4-cyl. screamer can’t be beat. “There’s a lot of comfort in having the (Toyota) engine,” says Mark O’Shaughnessy, Lotus Cars USA director of sales and marketing. Lotus also takes Toyota’s 6-speed manual transmission as the Elise’s only gearbox choice; it, too, works better than in Toyota’s own models, thanks to some esoteric linkage fettling from Lotus Engineering once the transmission gets to Lotus HQ in Norfolk, U.K. (Lotus engineers say, in fact, Toyota is examining the possibility of incorporating the Lotus transmission tweaks as a running change for its own mass-production lines).

Lotus sagely devoted most of the fourth estate’s time in the Elise to driving at the nearly new Barber Motorsports Park here, and on Barber’s challenging corners and pristine surface, the Elise unequivocally demonstrates its reason for being. The featherweight roadster virtually sails through every type of corner – the driver trifles neither with weight-induced understeer or too-much-power-for-the-chassis oversteer.

The Elise, with its delicious and vice-free unassisted steering rack, becomes a scalpel under your empathic control, and cornering is more a matter of how much cornering speed/g-force you can summon the courage to endure, because the waspish roadster almost summarily refuses to go astray of the path you’ve chosen.


Functional Elise interior provides new definition of “no frills.”
It’s not until you get onto public roads that you understand the Elise’s one weight-dictated character flaw. There’s almost no creature comfort of which to speak. The lightweight bonded and extruded tub and chassis do wonders for the power-to-weight ratio but do you no favors in absorbing even minor road imperfections.

The Elise is so dedicated to the low-weight mantra that creature comforts like power windows – carpeting, for heaven’s sake – can be had only in the $1,350 Touring Pack. With the Elise’s complex canvas demi-roof removed, travel at typical freeway speeds in a non-Touring-equipped car is an exercise in reverse sensory deprivation: you’re buffeted by wind noise, road noise, engine noise, and a host of other noises you can’t hear because of the primary noises.

The Touring Pack is worth it for the leather seat coverings (the seats, by the way, hold you immobile on the track but are not cosseting), carpet and “additional sound deadening,” but in reality offers scant additional refuge from the noise, vibration and harshness deluge when using the Elise at speed.

The Elise comes standard with a radio, I think. It may even be a good one, but short of turning it on while you wax the car in the garage, you’ll never hear it. There’s a hardtop available for $1,475 that might proffer an additional feint towards making the Elise an everyday driver, but there’s no onboard storage if you decide to remove it.

The fact is, you’d have to be incredibly, fanatically devoted to make the Elise your everyday car. Therein lies the rub. At its $39,985 base price, the Elise, even when loaded to around $45,000, is faster and much cheaper than a Boxster S or Honda’s equally intense S2000. It’s faster but much more expensive than a Miata. All three competitors could be daily drivers. The Elise could not.

For now, Lotus doesn’t have to sweat a broader market appeal for the Elise. There are enough well-heeled buyers who want this car, it must be assumed, either for its spectacular track talents or its quasi-exotic street cred. But few likely are planning to use the car to get back and forth to work. Later though, once demand is satisfied, the Elise will be a case study in whether a tiny, pricey, no-frills roadster can survive in this market.
 

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munkleby said:
The bad news: The first entry-level Lotus in more than a decade is the antithesis of what Americans currently are buying.

I don't see that as bad news...

Thanks for the article....
 

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Re: Re: Sharpest Tool in the Box / WardsAuto.com

ivan1 said:
I don't see that as bad news...

Thanks for the article....
Exactly. Bad news to whom? Bad news to people who will stare with jealousy? :)

And since when is a loaded $45k Elise "much cheaper" than an S2000?

As for not being a daily driver, other articles claim otherwise--it's very easy to drive, and docile when not "on the cam" or while cruising in 6th gear. Quote from the MSN article: "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."
 

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offroadr35 said:
sounds like this reporter isn't the sharpest tool in the box.
Ding
 

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The good news - mine will be my daily driver (we're selling the Acura and my fiancee is going to learn how to drive a 5 speed so she can have the Passat).

The bad news - work is just 3 miles from home.

Something does tell me that my fiancee will want to carpool with me since her office is down the street from mine and she'll want a fun ride to the office.
 

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Originally posted by Johnny B
The good news - mine will be my daily driver.
mine, too!

Originally posted by Johnny B
The bad news - work is just 3 miles from home.
my work is 50 miles away! That's one way! yeeeeehaaaaw!! i'm going to have so much fun with this car.
 

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My work is 20 feet down the hallway, I will have to come up with excuses to drive. :)
 

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Randy if you want to keep that power to weight ratio avoid the excuse of a trips to Crispy Kremes. .. ;) On the Audi forums, a doughnut run seems to be a fav destination that I need to resist.
 

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Re: Re: Re: Sharpest Tool in the Box / WardsAuto.com

As for not being a daily driver, other articles claim otherwise--it's very easy to drive, and docile when not "on the cam" or while cruising in 6th gear. Quote from the MSN article: "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." [/B]
C&D and R&T disagree. From R&T

"Some may argue that the Lotus Elise is not really a road car. We have to agree. It does have two seats and a radio, and these are really all the amenities it has. So driving the Elise as a daily runabout on the street is not practical."

http://www.roadandtrack.com/article.asp?section_id=31&article_id=221&page_number=3

From C&D:

http://www.geocities.com/ndahi12/elise/Image11.jpg

"Weekends--that's what the Elise is all about. As a daily driver, fuhgedaboudit. But for track days and Sunday morning missions on your favorite stretch of switchbacks, the Elise has the right stuff."
 
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