The Lotus Elise is no longer a bargain, but here's why you should buy one anyway
Alex has been a road tester and motoring writer for more than 10 years, and has written on new, used and classic cars for What Car?, Autocar, The Daily Telegraph and PistonHeads, among many others.
His favourite pastime is to bore people senseless about things with four wheels, particularly those from the 1980s and 1990s. When he's not doing that, he's usually to be found planning his next road trip in his 1988 BMW 635CSi, messing around on a piano, or chasing fruitlessly after his dog on a cold, wet hillside.
It would be wrong to say that nothing like the Lotus Elise had ever been made before.
In the 1990s, the idea of a completely stripped-out sports car, devoid of such fripperies as… well, carpets, even, was niche at best. And the idea of Lotus, which at the time was known for the sweet little Elan and hairy-chested Esprit, producing such a thing, was a bold one.
Nevertheless, the Elise turned out to be exactly the car Lotus needed to revive its fortunes. It should have come as no surprise, really, given that the company’s reputation was forged with lightweight, back-to-basics sports cars. And for the same reason, it should also come as no surprise that the Elise was bloomin’ good.
“There’s barely a road-legal car on earth that can match its delicacy and precision,” said Car Magazine. “Even by the lofty standards that Lotus has set for itself with cars such as the Esprit and original Elan, the chassis of the Elise is exceptional,” added Autocar. “It changes the way we all look at and judge the ride and handling of affordable sports cars.”
That chassis is the Elise’s biggest draw, of course, not only offering the sort of handling that means you can pretty much think it into a corner and it’ll be there, but also delivering the sort of ride comfort you can only deliver in a sports car with super-low weight.
Don’t forget the acceleration, though; the Elise can hit 60mph in less than six seconds, despite having only 118bhp to play with from its 1.8-litre Rover K-Series engine. Of course, if that isn’t quick enough for you, you can pick one of the succession of quicker special editions, all equipped with progressively fruitier versions of the same engine, right up to the 190bhp Sport 190.
Of course, an Elise lacks the usability of some other 1990s sports cars – the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota MR2 particularly. But if you really want a weekend toy with an unstinting focus on driver enjoyment, you can probably do no better.
Why you should buy one now
Elises aren’t the bargains they once were – time was you could buy a good one for a four-figure sum, but no longer. Look past that, though, because while Elises might feel a little pricey now, one day we’ll look back and wish they were still this cheap.
And few cars offer quite such a pure driving experience – a trait that’s becoming increasingly valuable as modern cars become more and more inert.
The most desirable Elise S1s – low-mileage Sport 190s – are already going for more than £40,000, but happily you don’t have to pay quite that much to enjoy an Elise.
Prices for low-mile cars start at around £15,000, though there are a handful of high-mileage cars (think 50,000-plus) that can be had for even less than this.
What to look out for
Quite a few Elises have been crashed and repaired, so look out for crash damage, especially to the aluminium structure of the car. Happily, thanks to its fibreglass and aluminium construction, rust isn’t an issue on the Elise, though the steel rear subframe can corrode.
As anyone who’s had any sort of contact with them will know, Rover K-Series engines eat head gaskets for breakfast. It’s less of a problem on the Elise than on other cars, but you should still check for overheating problems that may be a sign the gasket’s gone, or that it was repaired poorly.
The diff shouldn’t whine, but if it does, it could be a sign of a car that’s been abused. The rest of the powertrain should prove relatively trouble-free, though, and the Elise is easy to maintain, which is just another reason why a good example will make such a terrific weekend toy.