Will We Go Nuts For Elise?

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2005 Lotus Elise by Marty Padgett (4/26/2004)
It’s all or nothing for the sprite-sized successor to the Esprit and Elan.

In the vast terrain of the world auto industry, Lotus barely takes up a phone booth’s worth of space. Lotus has only sold 71,084 cars on the planet since 1966. And for the last decade, that number barely sustained the brand: living on a reputation and only the V-8 Esprit to sell in huge markets like the United States , Lotus nearly technically disappeared — and surely, even among enthusiasts, it came close to death.

Just as the arrival of the Elise has changed Lotus fortunes around the world, it’s making the same impact in the U.S. But how well will the Elise be received when no Lotuses have been seen in the buff books in years, or seen in movies since Sharon Stone sported around in an Esprit in Basic Instinct?

Does Lotus matter anymore?

Country time

To get those answers and to get away from our desks one muggy afternoon, we left Lotus’ suburban Atlanta headquarters in search of some authentic, unpolluted feedback. Atlanta ’s a savvy, monied place, and with its international media exposure through cable television (CNN was born here) and hip-hop music (Outkast was born here, too), it’s also city full of jaded car freaks. There’s an F1-quality track an hour outside of town; Euro brands chalk up great sales in the metro area of about four million; and not only is it the home of Lotus Cars USA, it’s also the North American beachhead for Porsche and, until recently, Saab.

North of the city, however, it’s country music, pickup trucks and small-town charm all the way. Waving our last goodbye to the last Benz SL about a half-hour outside of town, way past the exit for Jot-Me-Down Road and fifteen minutes from the nearest Home Depot I shrieked north from the city to the mountain town of Dahlonega as a jumping off point to see if the Elise stirred emotions or opened mouths — or pocketbooks.

2005 Lotus EliseDahlonega has seen gold rushes like the signal-yellow Elise before. In the 1830s, ten years before California was overrun by prospectors, they descended on this town when a vein of gold opened. The gold leaf on the state capitol in Atlanta is covered in a thin-hammered layer of Dahlonega nugget; even the town name means “yellow money.” It’s a small town growing ever closer to Atlanta, brought close by suburban sprawl and the ’96 Olympics (north Georgia hosted rafting competitions).

Dahlonega’s also home to a military college that, like the Citadel and four other military colleges across the country, called its recruits to muster this week in August — and the cadets were our first goggle-eyed gawkers at the Elise’s wedgy, fantastic shape. Parked in front of the barbershop on the square left us little time to even get settled before the first shaved heads turned in its direction.

The first to ask if they could actually adopt the two-seater for their own were a foursome of recruit parents from Columbus, Georgia , the Roots and the Bullocks. There for “frog week” at North Georgia College and State University, when freshman participating in a six-week military training course show up for orientation and the dreaded buzz cut, they’ve shed their cadets and are in search of lunch.

Instead they find us. “I thought it was a kit car!” says Jim Root. Past that backhanded compliment, he tried to figure out where in Georgia you could actually drive it near its limits. “I’d love to have one on the autobahn,” he sighs.

Meanwhile, his wife Sandy has already jumped in the passenger seat: “This is one of those cars you get in and gain five pounds,” she says as she tries to clamber out of the Elise. Even with the top rolled up and away, it’s not easy. “It’s not so tough getting in,” she cackles, “It’s the gettin’ out!”

The Roots and Bullocks are typical of the fifty-odd people who stop to take in the Elise’s zippy shape. We’ve hit the right day — the first day of school. The town is ready for them. But it’s also ready in a bittersweet way, as the yellow ribbons fastened to doors on the square are testament to the fact that the town has given a lot of men and women to the war in Iraq and will give even more to the effort.

The responses to the car aren’t surprising — what is, is that many people know about the Lotus and not necessarily because they’re headquarted 45 miles away. Adam Campbell, a photographer shooting story for Frog Week for the Atlanta newspaper, says a friend has already purchased his Elise for about $45,000 “and already sold it for $58,000 on eBay.”

Barbershop quartet

Still, a more common is the refrain that comes from barber Mike Tankersely, shearing down cadets right behind our parking space. “A whoo-us? What’s that?” he quizzes on a break from the 300 cadets set to show up in front of his shears on that day.

“It’s a little boogerage-lookin’ up front, ain’t it?” Tankersley hesitates. Then he laughs: “They trust you with it?” That’s the second time I’ve been asked that, and the third time soon after that people want to buy the raffle ticket to win one.

He agrees it’s the perfect car to shoot outside of town on Route 19/60 toward Blue Ridge. “That’s where all the bikers come up to on the weekends…they got this one corner that’s real tight…they try to see who can get their helmet closest to the guardrail.”

But before we can escape for an hour of high-g cornering outside of town, more Dahlonegans are clambering over the Elise. “It looks like a Matchbox car!” says photographer Cindy Schewbert in awe as she climbs in. “I have to read the instructions for my new car,” she says, flipping through a press pack left for us in the car. “It’s an expensive toy,” she adds, thinking it’s twice the $40,000 U.S. list price.

On cue, the cadets march into sight — “Hurry UP! Left…FACE!” — and around the corner to the barbershop by Lieut. Josh Preston, an Army National Guard reservist, or as he puts it, a “weekend warrior.” Like a lot of local reservists, he expects to be called up to head to Iraq soon — within the year for certain, possibly for six-month rotations on the ground.

Preston explains that the cadets are drawn to the school for the military training, but they’re not obliged to join up after they graduate — but if they choose to, they become 2nd lieutenants. He also offers up his cadets as a photo opportunity, but they’re not going to speak with us or even show a hint of pleasure at the Elise. Against orders, you see.

2005 Lotus EliseThe last lucky visitors to enjoy the Elise are Parker Henderson and Trey Graves, two car-savvy thirteen-year-olds from Macon, Georgia, and Hilton Head, South Carolina . Parker’s father is on the cell phone with his mother from Talil Air Force Base in Nasiriyah while he runs his hands over the Lotus’ fenders; his brother’s in line for a haircut; and they’re headed on the road back to Macon after they’re through.

I ask Parker how much it is: “$40,000?” — he nails it. He and Trey clamber in and out of the driver’s seat, take in the Elise’s disc brakes and the tiny trunk space, and admire it all around. Trey’s father’s friend has a Ferrari — a newer model, but he can’t remember which one — but he knows it’s a front-engine model, unlike the Elise. “The engine’s under that cover, right?” He knows. Trey also wins points for knowing AutoExpress by name, if not by actual reading.

I give them a short ride around the square before we leave to head back to Atlanta . The enthusiasm for the car’s dead-on — and lucky for Lotus, most people who don’t know what it is think it’s either a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, even in the signal-yellow. On the down side, they also believe it’s far more expensive than it is. But Tankersley, Schewbert and the boys all agree on one thing: it’s way cool.

If Lotus can strike its own gold in America , it’s going to take some massive PR to explain that it’s no longer unattainable. The average price of a car in America is hovering around $28,000 — leaving the $40,000 Elise not much more expensive. The enthusiasts know the deal: as you’d expect, the first-year allotment of 2300 cars is mostly spoken for. And when they’re sated, there seem to be many drivers and soon-to-be drivers interested in having one, too.

Even in Dahlonega, an Elise looks like the kind of toy no one wants to share.

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