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What you see on the right is the best ever Lotus Elise, and we have the Americans to thank for it. That may sound odd, given that this new model of the Elise has a Japanese Toyota engine, but this is all about rules and regulations.
When the Elise was invented in 1995 there were no thoughts of selling this back-to-basics two-seater on the other side of the Atlantic. The MG Rover K-series engine it uses has not been through the stringent US exhaust emissions tests, so when Lotus’s current owner, Proton of Malaysia, pressed the button in 2002 for the development of an Elise for America, it was to have a different power unit that was already certified for US sale.



Several were considered and eventually a deal was done with its old pals at Toyota (which had owned a fifth share of Lotus in the 1980s). The chosen engine was the 189bhp 1.8 litre VVTL-i from the T-Sport versions of the Toyota Celica and Corolla.

But while the car was developed for the American market, Lotus decided that British fans — who have bought the bulk of the 17,000 Elises to date — could not be denied the new and improved version, called the 111R and with a price tag of £27,995. The MG Rover-engined standard Elise and 111S models continue at £22,995 and £25,995 respectively.

The Toyota engine develops 69bhp more than the standard Elise, and comes with a six-speed gearbox. It is both faster and smoother than its predecessors, thus dealing with a challenge to the Elise that is, literally, of Lotus’s own making, the Vauxhall VX220. The VX220 has the same kind of aluminium construction as the Elise and is produced alongside it in the Lotus factory in Norfolk.

At first the Vauxhall was not very popular; the track-day crowd preferred the lighter and more nimble original. But the advent of the 197bhp VX220 Turbo turned enthusiasts’ heads. It is no coincidence that the performance figures of the Elise 111R and VX220 Turbo are almost identical — 150mph maximum speed and 0-60mph in 4.9sec. It is fair to point out, though, that the Vauxhall remains better equipped and is £1,500 cheaper.

Although it does without a turbocharger, the 111R’s Toyota engine has variable valve timing and variable lift, which allows it a remarkable rev range. Maximum power is at 7800rpm, with a camshaft phase change at 6200rpm — meaning that the valve timing changes to give higher power levels through the 6200 to 7800rpm band.
In the Corolla T-Sport this is irritating, because to get the best performance the engine has to be kept close to its screaming maximum revs. But it is better as installed in the Elise. Lotus has devised its own engine-control electronics, which make a gentler transition from moderate to high power.



In this lighter car the engine does not disappoint in the mid-range: the performance figures up to 6200rpm match those of the K-series powered Elise. Anyway, since this is an uncompromised sports machine most owners are serious drivers who are only too pleased to put a bit of effort into getting the best from it. They will like changing gear with the six-speed transmission, which is quick and sweet, and will enjoy the musical accompaniment. The Toyota engine sounds terrific, whereas the old K-series and its five-speed gearbox have a rough and rattly edge.

The Elise’s “uncompromised” nature used to mean it had the minimum of driver aids and equipment. It still does, although the Elise 111R makes a concession to modern safety by having a brake servo and antilock braking system (ABS). The American model has twin airbags and air-conditioning and a neater fascia design to accommodate them. The airbags and the new fascia are not yet available here and air-con is £1,295 extra.

These things add weight, as do the Toyota engine and gearbox. The Elise started out as a 1,500lb featherweight but the 111R has become a relatively porky 2,000lb. The extra power makes up for it of course but it needed the skill and experience of Lotus’s renowned chassis experts to preserve the wonderful balance and agility of the original.

Springs and dampers have been respecified and, as an example of their thoroughness, the ABS is not as might have been expected from the VX220 but a new system specially arranged so that it does not intervene during intentional hard braking until the very limit of front-tyre grip. That is important because a high proportion of Elise owners like to exercise their cars on track days.

I drove the Elise 111R on Norfolk byways and on the Lotus test track. In its price range, it is still the nearest thing to a race car that you can drive on the road and not much this side of an exotic supercar can match it on the track.

For someone used to a modern luxury car with everything power-assisted and electronically modulated, an Elise is a revelation: a pure driving experience, some of the best fun you can have on wheels.

VITAL STATISTICS

Model: Lotus Elise 111R
Engine type: Four-cylinder, 1796cc
Power/Torque: 189bhp @ 7800rpm, 133 lb ft @ 6800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: (front) Coil springs, double wishbones, anti-roll bar (rear) coil springs, double wishbones
Fuel/CO2: 32.1mpg (combined) / 208g/km
Acceleration: 0-60mph: 4.9sec
Top speed: 150mph
Price: £27,995
Verdict: The demands of the US market make a world of difference to the Elise: the 111R is the best example yet
 

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It's one thing for American journalist to say the USA Elise is great, or better or whatever, we don't know any better as we didn't have the original. But for the Times, and other British, puplications to say the Fed. Elise is better, that is encouraging. For once we are getting the best of what Europe has to offer instead of a watered down version.
 

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Great report. Thanks!
 

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tonyyoshi said:


...it needed the skill and experience of Lotus’s renowned chassis experts to preserve the wonderful balance and agility of the original.

I drove the Elise 111R on Norfolk byways and on the Lotus test track. In its price range, it is still the nearest thing to a race car that you can drive on the road and not much this side of an exotic supercar can match it on the track.

And without the LSS yet :D
 

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James A said:
It's one thing for American journalist to say the USA Elise is great, or better or whatever, we don't know any better as we didn't have the original. But for the Times, and other British, puplications to say the Fed. Elise is better, that is encouraging. For once we are getting the best of what Europe has to offer instead of a watered down version.

He might not know any better prior to this test drive either. "For someone used to a modern luxury car with everything power-assisted and electronically modulated, an Elise is a revelation: a pure driving experience, some of the best fun you can have on wheels."
 
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