Hitting U.S. shores as a 2005 model after being sold for years in Europe, the mid-engine Lotus Elise roadster is a quick and nimble, albeit truly tiny, sports car that can out-run many costlier competitors at what is a reasonable price. It replaced the since-defunct Esprit in the automaker’s North American lineup.
The Elise is slightly smaller than a Mazda MX-5 Miata, though it carries far wilder exterior styling, with cats-eye elongated elliptical headlamps, and sweeping broad-shouldered bodylines highlighted by large side scoops and wide air intakes on the lower fascia and at the rear fenders. A black cloth top is standard, with a removable body-colored hard top optional. Inside, the aluminum-trimmed cabin is appropriately cockpit-like, with a minimalist design that incorporates a dashboard mounted start button and a ball topped short-throw shifter on the center console.
The Elise comes standard with a Toyota-derived 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine produces 188 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque and delivers stronger acceleration than the numbers might otherwise indicate. A six-speed close-ratio manual transmission is the only available gearbox. Given the vehicle’s ultra-light weight – it tips the scales at around a ton – the Elise registers 0-to-60 mph times just under five seconds. Quicker yet is the Elise SC, which add a supercharger to the 1.8-liter power plant; it’s rated at 217 horsepower and 155 pound-feet and is sufficient to take the roadster to 60 mph in around 4.5 seconds.
With either engine, the Elise delivers remarkably frugal fuel economy that tops virtually everything in their class.
The tiny two-seater is built on a bonded and extruded all-aluminum lightweight chassis with exceptional rigidity that helps the Elise deliver uncanny ride and handling qualities. A race-inspired suspension allows the cars to pull over 1g on the skid pad, which translates into truly tenacious grip through the curves. Antilock brakes with cross-drilled ventilated discs at all four corners and a servo assist function ensure sure stopping powers.
The Elise’s performance can be enhanced by an optional Sports Pack that features an upgraded suspension and traction control, with specific alloy wheels and performance tires, along with a 20-pound reduction in curb weight.
The car’s cabin is a truly tight fit, requiring an extreme degree of limberness to enter; almost devoid of ornamentation, it’s about as close to a racecar interior as they come. Creature comforts are minimal, as the Elise is built to be driven hard, not pamper its occupants over a grueling highway commute. A short list of available features includes leather upholstery, traction control and a limited-slip differential. Ordering the optional CD audio system adds an iPod adapter and that staple of American motoring, a cup holder.
The Elise delivers maximum driving excitement and exclusivity for the money, with truly distinctive styling that’s sure to attract attention, though the roadster is among the least practical and hospitable rides on the road. It’s best suited for weekend racers or as a third “personal reward” car in the family fleet.
Lotus Elise Quick Facts
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-Cyl, 1.8-liter Supercharged 4-Cyl
Horsepower: 190 @ 7800 rpm, 217 @ 8,000
Torque: 138 @ 6800 rpm, 155 @ 5,000
City/Highway: MPG 20/26-21/ 27
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual
Wheelbase: 90.6 in
Overall Length: 149.0 in
Width: 67.7 in
Height: 45.0 in
Curb Weight: 2,010 lbs
Did You Know?
The next-generation Lotus Elise is scheduled for the 2015 model year, and will follow the reintroduction of the Lotus Esprit and Elan coupes. It will carry dramatic new styling and ride on an all-new chassis, perhaps adapted from the current Evora platform, retaining its mid-engine rear-drive configuration. Expect it to come powered by a 2.0-liter engine, again sourced by Toyota, with a seven-speed Lotus- developed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.