2005 Lotus Elise
The most undiluted car sold in America
by Josh Jacquot
There's a lot of aluminum in the Lotus Elise. And we don’t just mean its chassis, which is extruded from a hunk of the semi-molten alloy and bonded together with super high-tech aerospace stickum. That doesn’t matter so much. Sure, when you drive the Elise, you sit between those hunks of aluminum, but it’s the other bits you notice. Like the machined door locks, shift knob and window cranks. And the pedals. The pedals which look like Michelangelo himself was turned loose with an aluminum chisel.
It’s the details that matter here. The cold of the alloy against your skin. The way it rings in resonance with the road. The way the clutch pedal makes a nasty metal-on-metal clank when it bottoms. These are the sounds of purity. These are the sounds of rigidity. These are the sounds of the most undiluted car sold in America.
Don’t think of the Elise as a car. Think of it as a tool. A very specialized tool for unwinding the windiest roads. That’s where it’s spectacular. In fact, that’s where it’s better than virtually any other car in the world. And it’s better for many reasons. First is its weight. This car is president of a unique club of fully federalized cars that weigh in at less than a ton. Second is its rigid structure and near perfect suspension and brakes. Combine the technology of bonded, extruded aluminum chassis parts with upper and lower control arms front and rear and you’ve got a very serious machine.
Add in a 190-hp engine, front calipers from AP Racing and rears from Brembo and you’re in unique territory, indeed. All this adds up to a car that doesn’t destroy the road like an EVO-all angry with fists clenched, tires ripping the tarmac to bits and the tarmac ripping back. No. It’s easier in an Elise. Less muscle, more grace. No shredded tires, no melting brakes. There’s just less energy being expended to achieve the same velocity. The Elise is road-going efficiency in practice.
Look carefully at the Elise’s curb weight of 1,975 pounds, then re-adjust your perspective. That’s 472 pounds lighter than a Miata. It’s 957 pounds lighter than Porsche’s “light-weight” GT3 RS. And it’s a full 1200 pounds lighter than the Mitsubishi EVO RS. Most modern carmakers can’t figure out what Lotus has always known-weight matters. And the harder you drive the Elise, the more evident this fact becomes.
This weight, or rather this lack of weight, is good for so many reasons. The first is that you’ll be able to drive the balls of the Elise every day and it won’t wear out all the traditional ways. You won’t have to replace tires every 3,000 miles. You wont’ need to replace brake pads every single time you visit a track or your favorite mountain road.
It also means the driving experience is fully involving. Almost—dare we risk the awful cliché—go-kart-like. Ten-tenths driving in the Elise uses every neuron you can spare. You exercise parts of your brain you didn’t know you had. And the seat of your pants plays an equally large role. No weight, combined with the low polar moment of a mid-engine car, provide the Elise with an urgency not found in many road cars. Direction changes are instant. The engine is loud. And the brakes don’t fade. Ever.
Once settled in, there’s a rhythm, no, a zone, where everything outside the car fades to insignificance as if the Elise is a device for centering its driver on the task at hand. The steering has a weight and feedback that only comes from a full manual rack. The shifter, although a bit long on throw, never falls out of place and the chassis follows the throttle better than anything else we’ve driven.
Even small throttle openings well outside the 2ZZ’s high-rpm power surge are immediately translated into forward motion. And once the big cam lobes are engaged, the gearbox will keep the engine in the power if shifted at redline. And Lotus has allowed the 2ZZ to peak at 8500 rpm under transient conditions, eking out the last few oh-so-important revs. It’s nuances like these that make the Elise a Lotus.
You already know the 1.8-liter four cylinder powering the Elise came from Toyota, as did the six-speed gearbox. Lotus found some extra power through recalibrating the engine and rates it at 190hp at 7800 rpm and 138 lb-ft of torque at 6800 rpm. Those numbers and an increase of 10 hp and 8 lb-ft of torque from the engine’s rated power in the Toyota Celica GT-S. On our chassis dyno, it made 166 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque at the wheels.
Our car was fitted with the optional Sport Pack, which adds forged wheels as well as a 15-percent increase in damper and spring rates and Yokohama’s gumball-like A048 tires. It adds $2480 to the sticker as well and it’s worth every penny. Sure, almost $2500 is a premium for wheels, tires and a relatively minor suspension change, but these parts were calibrated to work together and the performance increase is worth the cost. With the Sport Pack our car pulled 1.05g around our skidpad and blasted through our 700-foot slalom at 73.8 mph. Both are the best handling numbers we’ve ever recorded from a stock car by a considerable margin.
Braking is equally impressive. Drop the anchor from 80mph in the Elise and it hauls to a stop in 185 feet—22 feet shorter than the last EVO RS we tested. From 60 mph, the difference was 13 feet, with the Elise stopping in 101 feet. Sticky tires go a long way in these braking tests. We’re often able to produce impressive single-stop numbers on any car fitted with grippy rubber. However, the Elise continued to improve as its brakes increased in temperature and even the nastiest left-foot brake flogging we could give them didn’t produce fade. The brake pedal engaged level with the throttle throughout our test.
Around town you don’t drive the Elise, you parade around with the subtlety of Anna Nicole Smith at Sunday mass. Its ability to stop traffic, drop jaws and produce stalkers remains unrivaled by any car before or since. It’s like rolling sex. We couldn’t go home without Lotus fans in tow wanting to talk Elise. This happened more than once, and every time we found out how many Elises would disappear into other Southern California garages before theirs showed up at the dealer.
“I’m number 27 on the list.” Terrific. Then they would return later in the day with cameras and before we knew it, our driveway and garage were posted on the Internet for Lotus geeks worldwide to see.
There’s no arguing with the Elise’s cool factor. There are few cars on sale in the world today with as much passion and purposefulness in their design. Just ask Matthew Becker. He’s the man responsible for calibrating the Elise’s suspension. Becker conducted much of the road work in the United States so the car’s ride character will match well with American roads. And it shows. Ride quality is remarkable even with the Sport Pack. We found ourselves amazed that a car this capable could have such a livable ride in everyday driving—a sure sign of superior fundamentals, as well as tuning.
The Elise has no limited-slip differential. It doesn’t need it, according to Lotus. And, for the first time in recorded history, we agree. Combine rear-bias weight distribution with an unflappable suspension calibration and Lotus is right. Never once did we find the Elise spinning one tire at a corner exit or acting unpredictable approaching the limit. It’s simply a composed machine, regardless of how hard you drive it.
And we drove it hard. Again. And again. And again. And every time it put the same smile on our faces. It’s so fast through the mountains, we can’t think of another car that can match its speed there. And even if it can be topped, there’s certainly nothing in the United States that will make you feel so good driving hard. With ridiculous grip and easily defined limits, it doesn’t encourage sliding, so there’s just no point in driving beyond its limit of adhesion. Plus, on any serious road, you won’t be able to anyway. It’s so quick you’ll reach your limit of visibility long before the Lotus gives up its death grip on the tarmac. Once you’ve achieved this kind of speed on the road, the reality of how special this car is starts to sink in.
That’s when you begin to appreciate the Elise on so many other levels. The details are amazing. The more we looked, the more we found. Look underneath the Elise. It’s flat. There’s a car-length undertray with NACA ducts for engine cooling, and under the tail there’s a diffuser, which is where the exhaust exits. While you’re down there, you can appreciate those spectacular forged wheels that come with the Sport Pack. There’s a lot to arouse the car guy in this small package. Very small. Its diminutive stature, however, belies an otherwise massive road presence. Drive it on the freeway and you stare squarely at the center cap of every tractor trailer on the road. Suddenly, Camrys look like Suburbans.
The canvas top is another brilliant piece of engineering simplicity. It removes in seconds, and even at more than 100 mph, wind isn’t a problem in the cockpit. Re-installing the roof, which stores in the small trunk behind the engine, also takes just seconds. Getting in and out of the car with the roof installed, however, takes longer, a bit of contortion and some practice.
Once you’re in, you can’t help but smile. The seats, which have virtually no padding, are shaped and sized perfectly unless you weigh more than 250 pounds. Of course if you do, you probably can’t get in the car anyway. The steering wheel, although airbag equipped, looks like it came off a TonyKart, and the air conditioning will freeze you out. Even the audio system, despite its too-tiny buttons, sounds good enough.
Do what you have to. Beg, borrow, mortgage the house. If you’re serious about driving, this is the car you want. And if you have any balls, you’ll order it in chrome orange.