ATLANTA, Georgia — "I'd kill to drive it," said the large, matronly lady as she walked past the Elise parked outside our Atlanta hotel. "That's not just a cute car," she added, "That's a car."
I didn't have the heart to tell her she wouldn't even be able to get in the thing. And even if she could, I very much doubt that she would "get" it. Sure, the Elise is pretty, but few cars are less likely to be purchased for the purpose of being seen in it.
"Of all the people who profess to love cars," says Lotus' North American sales and marketing chief, Mark O'Shaughnessy, "very few love driving." The Elise is for those few who do. If you don't understand driving as entertainment, you're lusting after the wrong car.
Knowledgeable Canadians have been lusting after the Elise from afar for far too long. The car originally launched in the UK in 1996, and was restyled for 2001. The Americans got it two years ago, after the original Rover K-Series engine was replaced by a U.S.-certified (and reliably available) Toyota 1.8-litre unit.
Only now is the Elise finally available to Canadians, initially sold through three dealerships in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The base price is $58,550.
The Toyota powertrain is 34 kg heavier than the famously feather-like K-Series, but even so the Canadianised Elise tips the scales at just 902 kg (1,988 lbs.). That's about 150 more than the original European models, but it's still less than one-third the mass of, say, a Cadillac Escalade. Which is as it should be, for Lotus still lives and breathes the go-faster philosophy that the firm's founding father, the brilliant Colin Chapman, once iterated as: "simplicate, then add lightness."
Lightness is added to Elise by a unique chassis constructed from extruded and sheet aluminum sections that are bonded and riveted together. This structure is such a piece of work that large parts of it are intentionally left exposed inside the cockpit for the owners' viewing pleasure.
From outside, however, its nakedness is covered by high-quality glass-fibre panels, creating a shape that is both easy on the eye and capable of creating aerodynamic downforce at speed.
The 2ZZ-GE (nee Celica GT-S) engine and its matching gearbox come as-is from Toyota, with the exception of the engine-management, which Toyota preferred to keep to itself. No problem, says Elise development manager, Nick Adams: "Engine-management development is one of our core competencies."
In fact, Lotus took the opportunity to tune the throttle response to tip in more gently — long throttle-pedal travel is another L word. The Brits also tweaked the changeover from the low-speed to the high-speed cam profiles to achieve a smoother transition at 6,200 rpm. According to Adams, the original setup exaggerated the coming-on-cam kick by delaying the transition until after the low-speed power curve was dipping downwards.
Light, it seems, isn't the only L word in the Lotus lexicon. "Everything at Lotus is about linear and predictable response," says Adams.
While Toyota versions of this engine are now rated at 164 horsepower (SAE net), the Lotus interpretation claims 190 horsepower (at 7,800 rpm). Here's a couple of other interesting snippets from the official specs: "Max RPM: 8,000 (continuous), 8,500 (transient 1.5 seconds)."
"It'll run all day at 8,000," says Adams.
Lotus predicts a 0-100 km/h time of 5.2 seconds for the Elise, and it feels quite capable of it. Amazing, isn't it, what adding lightness can do for a small four-cylinder engine?
Also as-is from Toyota is the gearbox, with a set of ratios that are close but, Adams admits, not ideal. A taller sixth, in particular, would make for a less frenetic highway experience en route to the track. Custom ratios just for Lotus would be prohibitively expensive for the production model, though alternatives are available through Lotus Sport.
Double-wishbone suspension on all four corners is available in three states of tune — standard, Sport and Track Pack. Lotus recommends the upgrades only for track use by genuinely skilled drivers: for lesser mortals, explains Adams, "the Sport package masks driver errors, and they don't learn."
Suppliers of chassis parts read like an Honour Roll of the high-performance industry — Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers, AP Racing front brake calipers and Brembo rears. The 288-mm (11.5 in.) brake rotors are cross-drilled and the ABS system is tuned to allow up to seven percent wheel-slip — a figure that, says Lotus, delivers optimum grip (most ABS systems don't allow any slip).
With only 343 kg (756 lbs.) resting on the front tires, there is no need for power steering (for perspective, the front tires of a Toyota Yaris support about 650 kg).
Reflecting the 38/62-percent front/rear weight distribution, the tires are a relatively modest 175/55R16s at the sharp end, and meatier 225/45R17s out back. The Elise's surfeit of lightness required specially developed footwear, which is why the Yokohama Neova AD07s display an LTS (Lotus) suffix on their sidewalls. Optional forged wheels save a total 6.4 kg (14.1 lbs.) of weight and wear A048 high-performance Yokos, upsized to 195/50R16s up front.
You can also option up an Elise for more comfort and convenience, but don't make the mistake that one U.S. customer did: he checked every box and ended up with a fully loaded car that had no air-conditioning! Be advised that A/C is a delete option. For the benefit of the weight-obsessed, it adds about 10 kg of lightness, and $310 to the bottom line.
Forgive me if I get a little personal when it comes to Lotus. I first drove an example of the seminal Lotus 7 thirty years ago. Ten years later I even owned a kit-car replica of the 7 for a time.
Although the 7's steering wheel and seat were rigidly fixed in place, the cockpit and control layout fitted me like a glove. I remember thinking at the time that Chapman and I must have shared very similar physiques (with the obvious exception, of course, of his brain).
There's also a neat sense of continuity in the fact that Lotus's current chief vehicle dynamics engineer, Matt Becker, is the son of Roger Becker, a previous Lotus ride-and-handling guru with whom I often crossed paths in the early 1980s.
Chapman, meanwhile, died prematurely of a heart attack in 1982, coincidentally at a time when he was implicated in allegations of financial malfeasance involving Lotus' contract to help develop the ill-starred DeLorean. This has made Chapman something of an automotive Elvis — rumours persist that he is not really dead.
It's a suspicion that gains some substance when I finally get to insinuate my butt over the bulky sill, under the low-set wheel, and into the driver's seat of a 2006 Elise. This seat at least can be slid fore and aft, but nothing else is adjustable. Yet the driving position again seems to have been designed to Chapman's specifications — i.e., it fits me like a glove.
Those less perfectly formed than I may be unlucky. A Lotus person estimated 6-ft 4-in to be about the length limit for a driver to fit an Elise, and even that may be pushing it. A pair of wide-bodied occupants, too, would need to be good friends to travel amicably together in an Elise, as the seats almost touch in the centre of the car. This does mean, though, that the skewing of the pedals to the right (inevitable in a tiny mid-engined car) is less bothersome than it might be. And at least the pedal area isn't unduly cramped — there's even room for a good-size dead pedal.
Hit the road, and within a few hundred metres you fully understand the "control harmony" that Adams speaks of. The Elise isn't just easy to drive, it's easy to drive really smoothly. This is a car you control with fingertips and toes.
The clutch is a pussy-cat, matched by an equally smooth throttle. Shift quality isn't quite in the snickety-snick S2000 league but it's light, easy and quick. My only gripe concerns the lighter bias-spring Lotus used between the 5th/6th and the 3rd/4th gear planes; it's a bit too light for my taste.
Steering is just as you'd hope: telepathically precise — almost delicate on-centre in the smaller base-suspension car — yet not nervous. And of course, there's no power assistance to blur the messages passing between the tires and your hands.
Lotus tuned the handling to "do everything the high-performance driving manual says it should," says Adams. The basic attitude is understeer, though you'll hardly notice it at public-road speeds. Ease off the throttle and the car tightens its line, maybe even rotates its tail if you're abrupt enough. The slide isn't difficult to catch, as demonstrated by Matt Becker during an auto-slalom session at day's end. But with 62 percent of the mass sitting over the rear wheels, it doesn't pay to get over-confident in your countersteering talents.
We had opportunities to drive Elises in all three suspension variations, but in a neck of the woods where people have likely never heard the words "frost" and "heave" in the same sentence, the ride seemed equally excellent in all of them. The same may not apply on home ground.
A brake booster is a relative novelty for Elise — it came with the introduction of ABS two years ago. By Lotus's own admission, the booster gives more reassuring response in light check braking. Harder stops require much higher pedal effort, however, and I don't think I ever came close to triggering the ABS on the road.
The engine sounds pretty much as you'd expect of an over-achieving four-banger — not terribly musical, exhaust blaring under power, a frantic, angry howl when the hot cam kicks in at the top end, lots of snap, crackle and pop on the overrun. But the engine is also astonishingly smooth.
Cruising at 120 the engine buzzes busily but contentedly at 3,900 rpm.
It's been an unconscionably long wait for the Elise, but unlike that large lady in Atlanta at least I didn't have to kill to drive one. As for my plans to one day possess an Elise of my own, well that's another matter. Just stay out of my way, okay?
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