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While two-seat sports cars have become more comfortable, more reliable and safer in recent decades, they have also become rather portly. If you wanted both performance and light weight in one machine, you had to give up that new-car smell and start shopping the classifieds. But all that ended with the introduction of the Lotus Elise roadster to the U.S. market in 2005. It's actually been on sale overseas since '96, but European demand for the vehicle along with stringent U.S. crash standards kept it from crossing the pond until more recently.
Meeting U.S. crash standards required the addition of airbags and other safety features that add weight. But Lotus knew that even sports car fans in this country would have trouble giving up comfort for the sake of extreme performance, so the U.S. Lotus Elise comes standard with air-conditioning, antilock brakes and a CD audio system. But don't look for stability control or power steering on this sports car. Lotus was willing to bend, but not break its "simplificate, then add lightness" rule for American tastes by keeping the U.S. Elise's curb weight under 2,000 pounds. That made it easily the lightest performance car sold in this country.
With so little weight to push around, power requirements are minimal. Most Lotus Elises feature a Toyota-sourced (and Yamaha-built) 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It's the same high-revving mill that's been used in Toyotas such as the Celica GT-S and Corolla XRS, but in this case it's been tuned by Lotus to broaden the power band and bump horsepower to 190. That's more than enough power to slingshot the Elise to 60 mph in under 5 seconds. For 2008, a supercharged version debuted, with output bumped up to 218 hp that reduced the 0-60 sprint to a mid-4-second exercise.
There's no doubt the Lotus Elise is a special car -- for the money, you simply won't find a more thrilling driving experience. Just be aware that it's also a no-frills, racetrack-oriented machine. Those desiring an exciting roadster that can provide more day-to-day functionality will want to order the Elise's optional Touring package or check out other more comfortable-riding European rivals. On the other hand, if you want even more excitement, consider the Sport package option or the track-ready Exige.
Current Lotus Elise
The Lotus Elise is a two-seat midengine roadster available in base and SC trim. The interior is understandably spartan, and the standard air-conditioning can be deleted to save even more weight. A few options packages, such as the Touring and Sport packages, offer a bit of customization. To maximize protection, a hardtop roof is available as a stand-alone option.
Power for the Lotus Elise comes from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The Toyota-sourced engine benefits from Lotus-designed intake and exhaust components and a tweaked engine controller. The result is a broader power band and an increase in output to 190 hp at 7,800 rpm and 133 pound-feet of torque at 6,800 rpm. Should the standard Elise be inadequate, there's always the supercharged Elise SC, boasting a 220-hp version of the standard Elise's engine.
As far as safety equipment, don't expect much more than federally mandated items -- antilock brakes are included and traction control is optional, but neither stability control nor side airbags are offered.
Interior accommodations are pure sports car: Lightly padded composite sport seats provide plenty of support and controls are simple enough to keep your attention on the road. The wide door sills and low steering wheel require some fancy body motions and footwork when entering or exiting the vehicle, however. Naturally, the Elise's cockpit emphasizes driving above all else and there are minimal comfort and storage features for longer road trips.
The non-power steering feels as natural as anything we've ever driven and the 1.8-liter engine is indeed tuned to be very responsive, with plenty of torque. Braking is handled by AP Racing and Brembo calipers with 11.5-inch rotors all around. It all adds up to a car that feels as race-oriented, unfiltered and capable as an Italian exotic, at roughly a quarter of the cost.
Used Lotus Elise Models
Lotus introduced the Americanized "111R" version of the Elise in 2005, enabled by a three-year NHTSA exemption as the car had failed to meet U.S. bumper regulations. Changes for 2006 included the option of traction control and a limited-slip differential, lightweight forged alloy wheels and a matte black appearance package. Daytime running lights were made standard, along with LED taillights with integrated reflectors. Inside, the seat padding was upgraded for increased comfort and a new, lighter pedal set was installed to save a few more precious pounds.
For 2007, a set of so-called "bumperettes" were added to the tail to satisfy U.S. bumper regulations. The supercharged Elise SC debuted for 2008. That year also saw a new instrument display with a trip computer, while a value-minded performance package debuted two years later. For the 2011 model year, the Elise received some minor styling updates as well as a few feature availability changes. A Roger Becker special edition Elise also debuted, honoring the recently retired head of Lotus vehicle engineering.