April 17, 2006
Solar Yellow. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Grant Yoxon
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Duluth, Georgia – Motorcyclists know all about power to weight ratio. It doesn’t take a large engine to move a machine that weighs less than 200 kg very quickly. For example, the Suzuki GSX-R’s 998.6 cc engine will power the 166 kg (366 lbs) bike and rider to 60 mph (96 km/h) in just 2.9 seconds, and 0-100 mph (160 km/h) in 5.5 seconds.
There may be “no replacement for displacement,” as American muscle car enthusiasts are fond of saying, but taking the weight off can be an effective way to go fast without piling on the cubic inches.
This was Colin Chapman’s philosophy. The founder of Lotus Motor Cars was well-known for being able to find the loopholes in a rule book. His experiments with aerodynamics and weight reduction resulted in Formula One successes in the 60′s and 70′s. From 1958 until Colin Chapman’s death in 1982, Lotus won 79 Grand Prix championship races and seven Constructor’s Championships.
The philosophy that guided Colin Chapman still guides the company he left behind. Lotus has remained steadfastly dedicated to building innovative, lightweight cars that are fun to drive. And the Lotus Elise, the most successful sports car in Lotus history, is the epitome of the philosophy.
This is one fun car to drive.
Weighing just 902 kg (1984 lbs), the Elise is capable of 0-60 mph times of 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 241 km/h (150 mph). Under the hood, or the trunk lid in this case as the engine is located just behind the driver and ahead of the rear axle, is nothing more exotic than a Toyota 1.8-litre 4-cylinder engine. Yes, it’s the same engine that powered the recently departed Celica. The only difference is the engine management system, which was developed by Lotus in-house. The high-revving four produces 190 horsepower at 7,800 rpm and 138 ft.-lb. of torque at 6,800 rpm.
The transmission is also sourced from Toyota, with a shift linkage re-engineered by Lotus for quicker, more positive shifts.
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But building a great sports car is not as simple as pulling an engine and transmission off a Toyota parts shelf. The truly innovative features of the Elise are the chassis and body. The latter is moulded of a glass-fibre and polyester-resin composite material. It is light, strong and paints up well. The chassis, constructed from 27 aluminum alloy extrusions, is stunning in its simplicity. There are no welds and only a few mechanical fasteners. It is held together with bonding techniques borrowed from the aerospace industry. It weighs just 68 kg. And yet it is strong and extremely rigid.
As a driver, you sit within the chassis, which is evident throughout the interior. It is a minimalist approach to interior design that is both practical – there is no additional weight from unnecessary trim pieces, at least in base trim – and artful. The side rails of the chassis form the interior side panels. The foot wells are all aluminum and the passenger’s feet rest on an aluminum cross brace.
The lower portion of the dash and parcel shelf is also aluminum. Other pieces – the window handles and the door hinges, for example, are pure sculpture.
While there are very few fasteners used in the Elise, those that are used are visible. There is no attempt to hide trim fasteners. The HVAC seems placed on the parcel shelf for convenience. The radio controls look aftermarket. You could say this is less than one would expect in a car costing close to $60,000, but to my mind and others who have seen the car or the photos, these oddities work with the overall concept of the car as a purpose-built machine. They are industrial camp, engineering art.
An optional ‘Touring Pack’ adds leather door trim and full carpet set (as well as leather seats, electric windows, upgraded stereo, storage net behind the seats and additional sound insulation), but these just cover up all that beautiful aluminum.
The Elise is 205 mm (8 in.) shorter than the Mazda Miata, and though it is exactly the same width (1,720 mm/67.7 in.), there is considerably less shoulder room thanks to the extra wide side rails. My initial thought, standing, no, looming over the Elise was, would I be able to get in?
As I’m well over six feet tall, smallish two-seater sports cars are my nemesis. That which I desire is that which I can’t have. Miata? Forget it. Even when I’m able to get in, I can’t drive it, not with triple D feet. S2000?
Yes, but with my head jammed into the top, seat-back canted forward, steering wheel looming too close to my chest. Boxster? Better, but only in the most accommodating, and tiring, seating position.
The Elise is a challenge to get into, no question about it. One must straddle the wide edge of the aluminum frame, then drop down into the snug seat. But to my surprise, I found enough seat travel to sit comfortably. Six-footers might even have to move the seat forward a bit. I tried both cloth and leather seats and found the cloth to be more accommodating and more comfortable. And the driving position was excellent. With a slight bend in the knee, you sit up with a commanding view of the road and areas around you.
With a passenger and the cloth targa roof closed, the cockpit feels more claustrophobic as there is just a whisper of room between your arm and that of your passenger. But head room is plentiful, despite the overall low height of the Elise (127 mm/5 in. shorter than a Miata).
Getting out is even more of a challenge than getting in, but the trick, as I learned, is to unsnap the soft targa top and roll it back a few inches so that you can lift yourself straight up, rather than sideways out the doorway.
Chilli Red. Click image to enlarge
The targa top is another minimalist but functional piece. It is suspended in place by two fibreglass braces. You simply unsnap the top, roll it across the car, gather up the braces and place the works in the trunk. It’s easy and it’s light.
A hard top is also optionally available, should you consider driving your Elise in the winter, but you don’t need the hard top to drive the Elise in the winter. A better investment might be winter tires.
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On the road, the high revving Toyota four doesn’t feel sluggish off the line. The 1.8-litre, 16-valve engine has Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing and Lift-Intelligent (VVTL-I) that allows the engine increased low-end torque, without limiting high speed performance. But the truth is, less torque is needed to move a car weighing less than a ton. It gets up and goes just fine, and becomes real pleasant as the red line approaches.
Lotus engineer, Nick Adams, my seat-mate for part of the test drive, urged me to shift above 7,000 rpm, saying, “the car works best in that range.” The shifter is firm and a bit notchy and throws are longer than you might expect, but the firmness and distance helps make shifting quick and precise. The clutch is something you stop thinking about after five minutes. You could operate it with a wooden leg.
You wouldn’t want an automatic and none is available. There is no cruise control, no stability control, and no power steering, although there are ABS brakes, an optional traction control system and an optional limited slip differential (LSD). Adams says he doesn’t like the LSD and that the car handles better without it, but says that Lotus believes they need to offer it to sell cars in North America. Traction control can be ordered without LSD. When the Elise starts to lose traction, the traction control system cuts fuel randomly to the cylinders, but its intervention is gentle and hardly noticeable.
I haven’t driven a car without power steering since my Dad sold our ’63 Pontiac Laurentian. But in the Elise I never missed it. It simply isn’t necessary in a car this light. As a result, road feel is unparalleled and turning is a thought process, not a physical activity. And the harder you push the Elise through a corner, the harder the steering feels in your hands. Light and breezy through gentle ‘S’s', the steering becomes rock hard when hard on the gas around a switchback.
The suspension is fully-independent with double wishbones at all four corners, Eibach coil springs and Bilstein monotube gas shock absorbers. The tires are Advan Neova AD07 LTS (175/55R16 front and 225/45R17 rear) made by Yokahama specifically for the Elise. They keep the Elise firmly glued to the pavement and allow cornering at speeds well beyond what any sane person would think possible.
One needs to spend time with the Elise to learn its limits. You want to stop and go back down a twisty section of road to try it just a little faster because the first pass was so easy.
Surprisingly, the ride comfort was pretty good considering how firm the suspension is. Small abnormalities are largely unnoticed, but you will steer around the big stuff. You feel potholes in your spine.
The brake discs look small – they’re 11.5 in. cross-drilled rotors front and rear with two-piston calipers – but they are more than enough to rapidly stop the Elise.
The Elise starts at $58,550 and comes standard with air conditioning, cloth seats and minimalist interior. That’s exactly the way I would want it. Air conditioning can be deleted for a $310 charge, but it can’t be retrofitted. The wieght saving is about 10 kg or 22 lbs. There are twenty different colours to choose from – astounding considering Lotus only expects to sell 150 to 200 cars a year in Canada. Ardent Red and British Racing Green are standard no charge colours. There are ten metallic colours priced at $725 and eight ‘lifestyle’ (read ‘wild’) colours for $1,475. Odds are you will never see another one the same colour.
The Touring Pack, with its additional creature comforts adds $1,660 and will most likely be the trim of choice for most buyers. For an additional $855, buyers can add leather shift knob and handbrake handle, stowage tray pad and divider, Alpine AM/FM/XM stereo and, get this, an extruded aluminum cup holder.
Special seat stitching is available on leather seats at additional charge, as are forged aluminum alloy wheels which reduce unsprung weight by 9 kg (20 lbs). Traction control is $610, while the LSD, which includes traction control, is $2,200.
Serious racers will want to consider the Sport Pack ($3,050) which adds larger forged alloy wheels, a track-tuned suspension, wider tires and twin oil coolers. For an additional $3,070, the Track Pack adds adjustable Bilstein dampers, 5-way adjustable anti-sway bar, rear track control arm and fittings in the seat belt support structure to allow a bolt-in harness and Petty bars.
Nick Adams says the Sport Pack and Track Pack would be overkill for most drivers and that the Elise has enough sport built in from scratch to challenge the driving capability of people who will drive mainly on the street. He recommends people order a car with the base suspension and upgrade as their skills improve.
The Lotus Elise is sold through three dealers in Canada – John Scotti Lotus in Montreal, Gentry Lane Lotus in Toronto and Weissach Lotus in Vancouver. Two more dealerships should open in Canada later this year, one in Calgary and one in another city yet to be determined.
While the Elise is a blast to drive, there are a few negatives. The trunk is smallish. It’s right behind the engine and accessed through the same opening. There is no front trunk, the space being reserved for the radiator. There is no cup holder, unless you want to ante up $2500 for a bunch of options you might not need. The interior is tight side-to-side, if just fine from end to end. And getting in and out is a challenge.
But once you get in and drive the Elise, odds are you won’t want to get out.
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