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Britain’s little automaker is back – maybe to stay.


LEEDS, Ala. —
If you’re looking for a challenging track to exercise your favorite piece of semi-exotic hardware, Barber Motorsports Park just east of Birmingham has few peers. “Technically difficult” doesn’t begin to describe its off-camber downhill charges, decreasing-radius hairpins turns, and on our day driving the 2005 Lotus Elise, intermittent downpours. At least there’s a palatial motorcycle museum to hang out in between showers.

Or you might do as we did, and tough it out in the first new Lotus since 1990 — because the Elise, wet or dry, is one of those rare sportscars that feels hardwired into your central nervous system from the moment you press the start button. And whether the weather’s good or bad, the Elise begs to be driven. Provided you can get into it at all, that is.

Third coming

2005 Lotus Elise

2005 Lotus Elise

Enlarge Photo
Lotus’ hallowed name has been in turmoil for the past few decades, changing hands from the British to Americans (General Motors was a one-time owner) and today, the Malaysians at Proton. Separated into engineering and carmaking divisions, the carmaking side of the business is putting all its chips into the Elise pot, since the venerable Esprit is being sent off to pasture after thirty years on the market. Sales number in the hundreds in the U.S. each year, and yet somehow, despite its minuscule presence, the very mention of the Lotus name glazes over the eyes of the guys and gals who think a good vacation is a weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, their racecar trailered behind.

The Esprit’s place in Lotus history is solid. But it’s the failure of the 1990 Lotus Elan, a two-seat Asian-powered convertible, that sets the stage for the make-or-break Elise. That convertible’s inability to ignite enthusiast passion pretty much lies at the feet of its nondescript design and iffy quality. Still you see one or two zipping around suburban Atlanta, where Lotus’ headquarters are located, but so few were sold, it’s as if Lotus is really replacing the $90,000 Esprit with the $40,000 Elise.

The Elise’s own history is already longer than you might think. It’s been on sale in Europe for a couple of years already; U.S. sales couldn’t begin until Lotus obtained a waiver for certain NHTSA standards related to bumper and headlight height. Waiver in hand, Elises may already be appearing at the Lotus dealer near you, with sales officially due to begin in May.

Finally here

2005 Lotus Elise

2005 Lotus Elise

Enlarge Photo
So now that it’s finally here, how will the Elise fit into a dramatically changed American sportscar scene polluted by $15,000 sport coupes that can turn in sub-7-second 60-mph runs and overrun by $350,000 supercars from seemingly every brand on the planet?

One way it won’t fit in is through its body. Strikingly small and exotically built, the Elise is utterly unlike any other sportscar we can imagine. To begin with, it’s downsized even from the petite Elan — maybe you could go in on a Manhattan parking spot with a MINI? We’re talking tiny: we feared parking next to an Escalade ESV for fear it would get hungry.

It’s also unlike any other sportscar of its size because of the way it’s built. Lotus claims the Elise is the first production car in the world with a bonded and extruded aluminum chassis. The basic pieces of the Elise chassis are extruded, and then glued together with aerospace-quality adhesives instead of rivets or welds. Composite body panels are fastened to this inner structure. The core of the Elise weighs only about 150 pounds in a vehicle with a total weight of just 1975 lb, which, as you can imagine, does magic on its handling capabilities and acceleration.

2005 Lotus Elise

2005 Lotus Elise

Enlarge Photo
The Elise is also unusual in that its powertrain comes from off the vast parts shelf at Toyota. Acknowledging its past reputation for reliability and needing an engine already certified for U.S. sales, Lotus turned to Japan’s behemoth for a revvy, compact powerplant that would slip neatly into the Elise’s structure. The powerplant chosen is a Lotus-developed version of the Celica GT-S's 1.8-liter four-cylinder, enhanced with variable valve timing. In the Lotus application, it exhales 190 horsepower at 7800 rpm and twists out 138 pound-feet of torque at 6800 rpm. A Toyota-sourced, aluminum six-speed manual is the sole gearbox, with the addition of a Lotus-designed shift linkage.

The step-saving purchase left Lotus to do what it does best — to engineer the car’s structure and develop its handling and ride, an expertise that other car companies seek out the company for. To that end, the Elise arrives with an all-around independent suspension massaged with Eibach springs and Bilstein monotube shocks. It rolls on Yokohama 16-inch, 55-series tires in front and 45-series, 17-inchers in back (Advan Neova AD07 LTS tires, in case you’re already shopping for replacements). Braking is handled by twin-piston AP Racing aluminum calipers, and single-piston Brembos on the back wheels. Anti-lock control, a subject of controversy in the sportscar ether, is standard on the Elise.

Rocket ride

Whatever your opinion of the Elise’s busy front end, gilled side vents and extreme flying-wedge stance, it’s impossible to argue its singular style — particularly when ordered up in some of the “lifestyle” colors in its palette. The tangerine tint, we think, is meant for one of those sick alternative lifestyles we’d rather read about in private, thanks.

2005 Lotus Elise

2005 Lotus Elise

Enlarge Photo
The fusion of cutting-edge construction, a zippy and well-known powerplant and Lotus’ deft touch with road feel endows the Elise with stunning grip and slaps a smile on the face of anyone willing to clamber into its coffin-like cockpit. It’s not just difficult to insert yourself into the Elise’s driver’s seat — it’s damn near impossible if you’re six-foot plus and don’t roll up the removable canvas roof panel before you hop in. If you don’t, it’s a complex geometry to slot your legs under the steering wheel, then go civil-disobedience limp and gently ooze into position.

Once you’ve cleared the physical hurdles, it’s all business behind the Elise’s small-diameter steering wheel. Certainly every control feels of higher quality than the best Esprits, though roll-up windows seem like retro kitsch more and more. Plenty of aluminum graces the door panels, floor, console, and of course the pedals, made of extruded aluminum like the chassis itself. Dual front airbags are packaged tightly into the steering wheel and dash, but there’s just no room for side curtains or other heavy, complex safety gear. The composite seats are more than supportive and reasonably comfortable — but you’ll fight for shoulder space with anyone burlier than Clay Aiken.

Firing up the 190-hp four-cylinder reminds me vaguely of the Toyota application of this engine, but there’s an elemental quality missing in the MR2 Spyder that resonates throughout the Elise. Imagine being chased around a road course by a Texas-sized swarm of Africanized bees — the Elise’s four-pot turns track time into a game of aggravate the engine. You’ll want to spin it north of 4000 rpm at any opportunity — and you’ll need to, simply to reach the more breathtaking end of the powerband. Good thing the aluminum shifter slots into gears cleanly, not without a little excessive force. The clutch has some heft to it as well, giving the Elise a substantial powertrain feel that belies its size. We confess to never using sixth gear, even on a short stretch of I-459 in Birmingham where a pint-sized Statue of Liberty hailed us as we skittered by.

Exhilarating pretty much describes the force put out by the compact powerplant in the compact Elise. Dropping the clutch in first is like the pop of a rubber band, and the Elise keeps zinging through the next three gears — it’s the antithesis of a hoary musclebound V-8, so be prepared to push it to punishing engine speeds. Around Barber’s track, probing the upper reaches of the powerband was easy and entertaining enough, though we imagine an hours-long interstate drone would be just as charm-free as it sounds. Lotus promises the payoff is worth it: a 0-60 mph time of les than 5.0 seconds and top speed of nearly 150 mph land the Elise in a rare set, even before you consider its 30-mpg fuel economy.

Lotus nailed the tradeoff of handling and ride in this U.S.-spec Elise. You’d expect brilliant handling and you’d be amazed by the traction the Yokos gave in the pouring rain we experienced at the end of our track time. But the real surprise would be the Elise’s gentler ride impacts and the suppleness of its ride in a car with only 90.5 inches between its front and rear wheels. The ride is more akin to a cushier four-seat sportscar than a stubby racer. It’s all the more startling because the sportscar essentials are intact: the non-power steering is amazingly tight and neural, body roll is near zero, and as cornering forces build, the mid-engine Elise is insistent on telegraphing the exact status of its grip to your fingertips.

A stock Elise is outfitted fairly well, with a decent sound system and anti-theft control. Option packs outfit it more precisely for your intended mission: the $1350 Touring Pack, adds leather trim, electric windows, an upgraded Blaupunkt CD/MP3 player with equalizer, interior stowage net, thermal and sound insulated soft-top, additional sound deadening and enhanced carpeting, while the $2480 Sport Pack offers forged wheels, a sport suspension with adjustable ride height and Yokohama A048 LTS performance tires. A $1475 one-piece hardtop is also available for dicier climates. Most heartening is the three-year/36,000-mile warranty, which Lotus honors at a dealer network it hopes to expand into more major U.S. markets as the Elise builds into the marketplace.

Whether the big plans for this little supercar take off remains to be seen. The Elise is an all-or-nothing proposition for Lotus, and it’s not certain whether the Elise will bring back Esprit fans. Where the Esprit had its charms in the days of the big two-seat supercars, the Elise is a completely different proposition — a dart aimed at the fringe enthusiasts who spend big time and big dollars on engaging in track days and car meets. Even at its almost-reasonable price of $39,985 — try getting a slower Porsche Boxster for under $50,000 — it’s decidedly an object of fancy.

But fancy’s good, if you haven’t tried it lately. Even grown-ups need toys, and the Elise begs to be wound up and driven hard.

2005 Lotus Elise
Base Price: $39,985
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 190 hp/138 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 149.0 x 67.7 x 43.9 in
Wheelbase: 90.5 in
Curb weight: 1975 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 30 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: A/C, AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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