Test Driven: Lotus Elise (9/10)

Photo by Santiago Heyser

This isn’t a car you are looking at, at least not by most modern definitions. Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, had a famous philosophy for building a car, “Simplify and add lightness”. The idea was that in racing, having a lighter car made for a faster, better handling machine. In the context of a modern road car, things don’t get much lighter, or simpler than a Lotus Elise. Most car buyers these days want all kinds of fancy features that add weight and complexity to a car. They want big leather couches to relax in, they want to text and check Twitter while on the move, and then they all want the car’s safety systems to save them when their own inattention to driving causes a massive accident. The Elise has none of these things, and it appeals to a more competent, more serious sort of driver. So, here in 2013, if this Lotus Elise is not a bonafide “car”, what is it?

Appearance

Lotus is a legendary racing marquee, and all car enthusiasts will know it well for what it is. However, unlike Porsche, Ferrari, and BMW, Lotus hasn’t really become a widely known brand outside of the car world. This means it has, at most, a marginal value as a status symbol, and owners will find themselves having to explain what their car is quite often. I, for one, love this because it lowers the “yuppy” appeal of the Elise. The lack of brand image, mixed with the actual skill needed to operate the car generally means that someone who has an Elise will likely be a fellow car enthusiast, and not just some yob trying to flaunt their tax bracket.

 

Now, I’m sure you have noticed the most blaring feature of this particular Lotus I drove, it’s pink! Yes, yes, this Elise, which is white underneath, was wrapped for a breast cancer awareness event, and I believe it was the first pink car I’ve had the pleasure to pilot. I was actually quite excited when the people at Exotic Rides Mexico told me the car was pink, because I knew it would make for better, more memorable, photos. A girly color doesn’t bother me. In fact, on a high performance car like this, I think it even adds a bit of badass appeal, like an extra middle finger thrown up to any challenger as you leave them in your dust.

 

The shape of the Elise itself, pinkness aside, is pretty exotic. It has a mid engine layout, like most supercars, but is just smaller in size. It looks like exactly what it is, a small, focused performance machine. It will turn heads in town, but macho guys be advised, many girls may call it “cute”.

Inside

 

Honestly, there’s not much to it. It’s a bit of a pain to climb into because there is a large door sill to climb over. Once you’re in, all you’ll find is a steering wheel, three pedals at your feet, and a gear lever….. that is all. The seats have good posture, but feel hard, and you will be getting very closely acquainted with any passenger you may have. Look down and you will see the metal frame of the car in plain sight, with two bathmats at your feet to cover some of the floor. Quite plainly, this is a go kart, and anyone wanting even a little luxury should look somewhere else.

 

Happily, there is one convenience, and that is a radio with speakers planted in the wide door sills. I know Colin Chapman may be rolling over in his grave, but I like to listen to Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone” while I am driving fast. A simple stereo doesn’t weigh much, and adds a lot of enjoyment to the driving experience.

This dog also seems to fit quite nicely

Oh, and as far as practicality goes, forget it. There is no glovebox, no cup holders, and the trunk is a joke. It is in the rear, and is literally a part of the engine bay, so while you could probably fit a half gallon of milk in the trunk (sideways), it would likely spoil before you got it home because of the heat. In short, the Elise is basically useless for running errands, or doing anything of everyday practical value. Hence why I wondered earlier if most people would even consider it a “car” at this point.

The Drive

Photo by Santiago Heyser

The Elise is really only good for one thing, and that is driving. This is a raw, pure driver’s car to designed to thrill, and be enjoyed. If we cannot see it as a “car” at this point, then we can see it as a toy, and that changes the game entirely. The hell with “function”, the Elise is all about the “fun”.

I said earlier that this is basically a go kart, and it feels like one from behind the wheel. Only the brakes are power assisted, everything else, steering, traction, stability, gearshifts, etc, is all up to you as the driver. All of the controls communicate brilliantly, the steering, the pedals, and the chassis, they all let the driver know exactly what is happening on the road. Everything that most people would say this car lacks, gives it a level of driving purity that is seldom found in a modern automobile.

 

The simplicity continues under the hood, where we don’t find some exotic motor with all kinds of rare parts, but the same 1.8L four cylinder engine found in the late-model Toyota Celica. Yamaha designed a special twin-cam head for the Lotus version of the motor, with variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust sides. The car I drove also had a racing exhaust fitted, and Exotic Rides says the final output of the engine is 192hp, not a bad amount in a car weighing just under a ton.

The result is a very quick car with performance in the higher rev range. It isn’t very torquey at all, so there isn’t much of a thrust sensation as you accelerate, but when you glance at the speedo, you won’t be disappointed.

Out of the slow corner on the the main straight the engine pulls adequately, but once the variable valve timing kicks in, the thing screams, and it really takes off. A quick shift into third keeps us in the powerband, and the speed continues to pile on.  Let off briefly to turn into the chicane, and get back on the power hard up to around 80-90mph before it is time to brake for the approaching hairpin. The Elise carries speed very well, and that is its real strength. It has enough power to be quick, but it is still a momentum car at heart. It is absolutely perfect for a small road course, like the one I was on.

 

This brings me to the handling, the traditional forte of any Lotus automobile. The Elise is extremely sharp, and extremely nimble, all thanks to its light weight. Lotus is also one of the best in the business at setting up a car’s chassis. The handling is literally like that of a go kart, only at much higher speeds. There is understeer at the limit, but it’s so progressive that it allows you to place the car right on the edge and hold it there; many other companies could learn a thing or two from this car (VW, Lamborghini). In fact, I found the car stayed extremely composed, even with some questionable throttle inputs mid corner. You are really going to have to try if you want this thing to go sideways, and I wasn’t about to go that far in someone else’s car. That said, this is a short, mid engine car, so snap oversteer awaits those who succeed in getting the rear end loose; use caution.

It is the way all of this comes together that makes the Elise such a great car to drive. The quick acceleration, the raw exhaust note, the nimble handling, and the superb driving dynamics all make for a car that is literally “A ton of fun”. Then there is the added bonus of having the wind in your hair because the Elise has a removable targa roof. This Lotus is extremely enjoyable from behind the wheel, more so than many faster, more expensive cars, and that brings me to a point I have to make.

The right gearbox is everything

You see, right before my drive in this Elise, I drove a Ferrari 360 on the same track. You know what? I had more fun in the Lotus. Now, this is partly due to the fact that I had to leave the paddle shift Ferrari in automatic mode, but I’ve also driven enough such cars in manual mode to know that there still would have been something lacking.

Remember, these cars are basically toys, not practical modes of transportation.  Lap times don’t really mean much to anyone who drives their car predominantly on the street, so the real emphasis should be on maximizing the amount of fun to be had on those beautiful Sunday drives. That is where paddle shift just cannot match a manual transmission. When driving for pleasure it is more fun to work toward mastering a skill, so having the car do everything for you defies the point.

 

In this situation, I was paying to experience these two cars, and the greater skill required in the Lotus resulted in a noticeably larger smile on my face at the end of the drive. I had to master the transmission, and the technique for driving the Lotus. Its gearbox was well worn from a lot of hard track driving, but it still worked fine once I was used to it. The pedals were also quite close together, making me wish I had worn some smaller, thinner shoes for the occasion. My first few laps in the Elise consisted of me sort of bonding with the machine, I had to learn how to drive it properly, not just hop in and turn the wheel. That bonding is a magical experience because there comes a point where you heel-toe a downshift just right, and then are able to repeat that action, and you realize you have learned the car. There is a sense of achievement that you simply won’t get in any paddle shift car.

So, the Lotus, with its manual gearbox, and no driver aids, yielded a pure and fulfilling driving experience. There was just a lot more that went into driving it compared to the Ferrari. Despite having half the horsepower, the Lotus was just more fun to drive on a racetrack.

In the market

If you like what you see here, I have some great news. You can have a Lotus Elise for $20-30k. Some may have a few miles on them, but with their Toyota motors, and simple design, reliability shouldn’t be much of an issue. The Elise also gets pretty solid fuel economy for a sports car, with some owners even seeing 30mpg.

 

A Lotus Elise is great for people who love driving, and who frequently go cruise around in their cars just for fun. If you only drive your car when you have somewhere to go, then this car isn’t for you. There are better practical sports cars for the same price like a Porsche Boxster, BMW M3, Nissan Z, etc, but as a pure driving experience the Elise is hard to match. It is great for track days, and superb for cruising on nice days. It isn’t the sort of car you would want to use as a primary vehicle, so naturally most Elises will be bought as a second car. As long as your practical needs are taken care of elsewhere, a Lotus Elise is pretty ideal as a fun toy to have around for nice days.

Sum Up

 

The Lotus Elise isn’t practical, but by God it’s a lot of fun. It is one of the few modern automobiles that can be considered a “pure driver’s car”, and one of even fewer still that is feasibly affordable for the common man. The Lotus Elise a phenomenal driving experience by any standard, but that’s also about all that it is. If your love of driving is your biggest priority, then this car is for you.

WoM Score: Lotus Elise (used)

Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Practicality(0), MPG(2): 1
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 9/10

-Nick Walker

PS: If you’re near Cancun, Mexico, and you want to try out this Lotus, or a host of  other exotics, for yourself, then check out Exotic Rides Mexico. Their track is great fun, and they also have other experiences available to suit your need for speed.

Rolling shots taken by Santiago Heyser

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