The Lotus Elise: Is it Still the Lightweight Sports Car Daddy?
After nearly 25 years. Is the Lotus Elise still a benchmark driving thrills? I borrowed two examples of my dream car to find out.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman was a bright fellow to say the least. His mantra of “simplify, and add lightness” when it came to making cars was revolutionary. In Colin’s mind, even washers on some of his Grand Prix cars were considered to be extra weight. However, after Chapman’s death in 1982, some argued Lotus’s move to sell upmarket luxury sports cars, did not reflect the lightweight heritage the Hethel based company was known for.
In 1996, Lotus went back to its roots with the Elise, a sports car offering the bare essentials of driving, without sacrificing day-to-day usability. 25 years on, and the Elise is still, hands down one of the most amazing purists driving experiences around.
I am a huge fan of this little back to basics mid-engine go kart, but sadly for years I have never been given the chance to drive one. That was until the owners of two Elises, an S1 and S3, got in touch and offered me the chance to at last experience my dream car. The response from yours truly? Absolutely.
So, what makes the Elise so darn spectacular? Well, as mentioned previously, in the early nineties, Lotus was far from their roots of Chapman’s philosophy of “simply, then add lightness.” In 1994, Lotus realized this and sought to create a new car which would reflect Colin Chapman’s lightweight obsession.
In 1994, Project M1-11 was given the green light and Lotus Engineers Richard Rackham and Julian Thomson got to work. Taking inspiration from Ducati’s 916 sports bike, Rackham saw Project M1-11 as car built purely for driving joy, without compromise and focused solely on the drive, just like the Ducati.
Thomson penned the lines of the Elise, borrowing styling cues from other iconic cars, including his own Ferrari Dino 246 GT. Which when you look at a Series 1 Elise, it is easy to see. The front vents mimic those found on Ford’s GT40, and the low-slung stance paid tribute to the race winning Lotus 23B from the early sixties.
Power came from the Rover K Series 1.8 litre four-cylinder engine. With 118hp on tap, it may not sound like a great deal, but when you consider the Elise’s minimalist weight of 725kg, it meant zero to 100km/h was dealt with in 5.8 seconds, greatly eclipsing the Porsche 986 Boxster and Mazda MX5 in the sprint to national NZ speed limit. Various variants came and went, such as the Sport 135, Sport 160 and Sport 190, with more power and even supercharging on the 111S. Plus, let’s not forget the hardtop hardcore Exige version.
The reason why the Elise weighed in at a snip over 725kg was down to its fiberglass clam shell body panels and bonded aluminium chassis, giving plenty of strength. With next to no creature comforts at all, the Elise is essentially a road going go kart, with power steering and servo assisted brakes nowhere to be found.
The name Elise was chosen by then Lotus Chairman, Romano Artioli, who named the new sports car after his granddaughter, Elisa. In fact, when the Elise was launched at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor show, Elisa as a toddler was presented in the driver’s seat when the car was unveiled. Today, Elisa is an Elise owner, obviously.
The Elise has been largely credited for saving the Lotus brand, they just couldn’t churn them out fast enough. The Elise S2 was released in 2001 and lost the S1’s rounded styling in favour of striking bug like headlights and louvres.
The Rover K Series engine was retained in naturally aspirated and supercharged variants until in 2005. Lotus wanted some market share in America and replaced the K Series with the Toyota 1ZZ-FE or spicier 2ZZ-GE with VVTLI found in the Toyota Celica. The latter of these finding itself in the hotter Elise 111R, with 189hp and zero to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds.
The Series 3 released in 2010 was essentially a face lifted version of the Series 2 and remains in production today. The S3 came in standard 1.6 litre form, 111S form featured here, and culminates in the current Elise Sport Cup 250, with carbon fibre add ons, and even less weight.
Right, enough technical jargon, time to get driving. First up, naturally, was the S1. At first glance you realise just what a compact car the first Elise is, also what a looker it is too. While the Elise is easy on the eye, getting in and out is not quite so easy. Due to the high sills, there is a certain technique required for entry.
It works like this. Bum on the sill, put your legs into the footwell, and then swivel your bum into the seat. Getting out, simply the repeat the process in reverse. However, after a while of getting in and out, I forgot the technique and just resorted to clambering out as best I could.
Once you are inside, you seldom want to leave however. The interior wraps itself around you, leaving you feeling cocooned and ready for the drive. Ahead of you sit a pair of simple white dials depicting speed and engine revs.
A digital bar shows your fuel level, mileage, and that’s about it. Lotus managed to scrounge from the Peugeot parts bin for the other switch gear operating the headlights, dim dip, hazards etc. Creature comforts? Well there is a heater, stereo, and floor mats, but that’s it.
The small steering wheel feels good in your hands and while the gear lever is a bit longer than you would find on a Mazda MX5, it is still a short throw between gears. If your body is of the lankier variety, maybe the Elise might not be for you. I am 5ft 10 and manage to fit snugly, but anything over 6ft 4 and you will start to feel cramped.
Anyway, time to realize a childhood dream. Turn key, and lo and behold, the K Series bursts into life before settling down to a burbling idle. Owner Malcolm has installed the spicier Sport 135 engine so you get a bit more grunt than the standard car. First gear is selected and we are off, in the pouring rain I might add.
The first big surprise was ride comfort. I was expecting it to be as rough as guts but no, the Elise manages to be quite decent in terms of a supple ride. Sure, you do feel the bumps, but its not back breaking by any means. Malcolm has done plenty of long-distance trips in the Elise, and I can completely understand why.
With no ABS brakes, you do have to stand on the anchors to get the Elise to stop, and with no power steering, the three-point turn is average at best. However, because there is no power steering, the feedback when cornering is simply telepathic. Flex you index finger left or right and you are changing direction, yet you can still relax when cruising. It is phenomenal.
The Elise makes no bones about being a raw driver’s machine, when you drop down a gear and plant boot it gets quite loud in the cabin, but the noise from the K Series four pot is a very sweet raucous sound. The K Series also puts the torque down low in the rev range, allowing you to dart out of corners and getting on the power sooner.
The gearbox and pedals are also a match made in heaven for heel and toe shifting. Lotus’s countless test laps of their Hethel test track show when you take the Elise over your favourite twisting road, in this case Gebbies Pass outside of Christchurch. As the revs rose and the corners grew in number, my smile got wider and wider. By the end of my stint in the Series 1, I was giggling like mad.
Right, time to fast forward to the modern day, and experience the Series 3 111S. Inside the S3, straightaway there is a big shift in interior quality. This 111S was one of the last Lotus Elise’s sold new in New Zealand before Lotus left the market a few years back, so it is pretty special. It also comes with the optional Touring Pack, which means things like air con, fully fabric seats, and electric windows make an appearance.
You still get the same amazing driving position; cocooned surroundings and the steering wheel feels good in your mitts. Of course, the same get in and out technique applies, though it is slightly easier in the S3 due to slightly lower sills.
Firing up procedure is slightly different here. With the key in the ignition, you press the Lotus Emblem on the key fob, turn the key, and push the engine start button. The Supercharged Toyota 2ZR-FE kicks out a handsome 217hp and gets an extra cog as a six-speed manual. Being more modern car, the weight has gone up a bit, but this is a Lotus remember? At 866kg, the S3 is a featherweight and like the original, an absolute blast on the move.
The 2ZR-FE engine requires more revs than the K Series, but when you build it up to around 4,000rpm, the supercharger makes itself known and you shoot forward. This is not just quick, its rapid full stop. A sizable wrap around windscreen shows two yellow fenders ahead of you, and despite a smaller rear window, there is ample rear visibility.
My drive in the Series 3 was more brief than the Series One, this was due to owner Mike having a prior engagement that morning. That said, every moment was utter joy. The same level of immediacy from the throttle, brakes and steering was evident, you only need to think about turning a corner and you are round it. The six-speed gearbox is like a bolt action rifle, a short throw with a snick-snick sound is so precise and it allows you to stay in the power band with ease.
In each corner, you stay planted and true. The ride is marginally more comfortable in the S3, but that is only to be expected. What really matters is the sheer amount of joy you get from wringing its neck. Few cars can excite in the same level as a Lotus Elise.
When the owners departed with their pride and joy, the feeling was bittersweet. Part of me was chuffed to bits having experienced the bookends of one of my all-time favourite cars, but the other was sad as I didn’t have one in the garage. However, with price starting at around $25,000 NZ for a decent S1, they are attainable for most.
Its only drawback is its clam-shell body panels, which if they become damaged can be expensive to replace. That said, with economy and low running costs on its side, the Elise can give you all the supercar thrills, but won’t break the bank in the process.
Would Colin Chapman be proud? Yes. Do I want one? Absolutely.