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The 2009 Lotus Elise delivers one of the most engaging sports car experiences available, along with head-turning styling at a comparatively reasonable price. All of this performance, however, comes at the expense of comfort and convenience.
Super-sharp handling, supercar performance without the supercar price, telepathic steering, low volume ensures rarity, relatively good fuel economy.
Spartan interior with little space, difficult entry and exit, peaky power delivery, rough ride quality, limited dealer network.
Available Elise Models
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For 2009, the Lotus Elise returns unchanged except for the addition of the very limited-edition Jim Clark Type 25 Elise SC.
To the uninitiated sports car enthusiast, the idea of a street-legal racecar sounds enticing -- that is, until they actually drive a racecar. Racecars are loud, unforgiving, rough-riding and generally intolerable on public roads. Racetracks, after all, have fairly smooth pavement and require helmets. A racecar also requires 100 percent of a driver's attention, leaving no room for you to ponder such trivial ideals as comfort or convenience.
The 2009 Lotus Elise is about as close to a street-legal racecar that is readily available. Since inception, the diminutive Elise has been touted as a true enthusiast's sports car that continues Lotus founder Colin Chapman's principle for performance: "To add speed, add lightness." Thanks to a revolutionary process of chemically bonding the stiff aluminum chassis together -- instead of bolting, welding or riveting -- the Elise's curb weight checks in at a jaw-dropping 1,984 pounds. The Elise's supermodel weight class allows for a smaller, less powerful engine to surpass the sort of performance found in exotic cars that cost several times more than the Lotus.
The Lotus Elise is undeniably one of the best-performing sports cars currently being built, at any price. It accelerates, corners and brakes with hummingbird-like urgency, but don't expect much past that. Creature comforts are few. There's no glovebox, no cruise control, no vanity mirrors, no power seats (in fact, the passenger seat is bolted to the floor) and no power convertible top. Furthermore, the ride quality is about as compliant as a shopping cart's. Getting in and out of the comically small cockpit requires a fairly high degree of flexibility, and once seated, the occupants' ears are assaulted by a cacophony of engine and transmission noise originating directly behind their heads.
For those seriously contemplating ownership of an Elise, this is pure joy. For those who aren't, this would more likely feel like some sort of medieval torture devised by a sadistic British monarch. Keeping this in mind, interested buyers should consider their racecar vs. street car priorities. A worthy competitor in the Elise's sub-$50,000 price bracket is hard to find, but a more well-rounded -- albeit more expensive -- roadster would be the Porsche Boxster S.
The 2009 Lotus Elise is a two-seat roadster that sports a removable targa-style soft top. It is offered in a standard trim level as well as the supercharged SC model. Standard Elise equipment includes alloy wheels (16-inch up front, 17-inch in the rear), high-performance tires, xenon headlights, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, a leather-trimmed Momo steering wheel, a machined aluminum shift knob and handbrake, a trip computer and a four-speaker Alpine stereo system with CD player. Besides the supercharged engine, the Elise SC adds a rear spoiler and a unique set of wheels.
Most options are grouped into convenient and sensible packages. The Touring Pack adds a bit of comfort and polish with leather upholstery and interior trim, a storage net behind the seats, a thermal- and sound-insulated soft top, additional sound insulation, floor mats, a cupholder, a storage tray divider and an auxiliary audio jack. Opting for the Sport Pack adds lighter alloy wheels (wider up front) with stickier tires, an even stiffer suspension with Bilstein dampers, traction control, sport seats, twin oil coolers and a lighter curb weight (but only by 20 pounds). Individual options include traction control, a limited-slip differential (with mandatory traction control), a body-colored hardtop, clear film paint protection and a choice of special body and interior trim colors.
New for 2009 is a special edition Elise SC to commemorate one of the most storied Lotus racers. The Jim Clark Type 25 model is offered only in British racing green with a yellow racing stripe -- the same paint scheme as Clark's Type 25 Lotus Formula 1 racecar that won the 1963 championship. This model also comes standard with a hardtop and is limited to only 25 examples in the U.S.
All Lotus Elises are powered by a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine that is sourced from Toyota and Yamaha. The standard Elise produces 189 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque, while the supercharged version increases output to 218 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is the only transmission available.
Power delivery low in the rev range is more than adequate for most drivers, but the real fun begins when the variable valve timing kicks in around 6,500 rpm. In the upper range, the engine unleashes a torrent of horsepower not unlike a turbo boost, accompanied by a fierce wail all the way to the 8,500-rpm redline.
In testing we managed to accelerate an Elise SC from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. Thanks to the Elise's superlight weight and slippery aerodynamics, the EPA estimates mileage at 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 23 mpg in combined driving, with the Elise SC rated at 20/26/22 mpg. These fuel economy ratings are impressive for a car with such amazing performance.
Since the 2009 Lotus Elise strives for light weight and all-out performance, safety equipment is as minimal as federally mandated rules allow. Antilock brakes are included and traction control is optional, but neither side airbags nor stability control is available. The most effective safety devices in an Elise, as it stands to reason, are an attentive pilot, the car's quick reflexes and the chassis' sturdy construction.
The Elise's interior is as austere as any you'll find in a modern car. The performance-focused cabin proudly displays its lack of weight-adding and nonessential creature comforts with exposed bits of the aluminum chassis. Even though occupants sit shoulder to shoulder, the lack of sound insulation and the proximity of the drivetrain to their heads still require voice levels just short of shouting to hold a conversation.
Those taller than 5 feet 10 inches or wider than a medium build may have difficulties with entry and exit, particularly if the soft top is in place. The wide door sills, low steering wheel and on-the-deck seating position require plenty of practice to transition to and from driver to pedestrian without looking like a complete oaf. Most find that sliding in feet first, then falling into the seat is the best method. Once seated, the driver and passenger are snugly held in place by very aggressive side bolsters. Seat padding is noticeably sparse, but the contoured seats manage to provide a surprising amount of comfort. Taller and wider folks will find the cabin about as accommodating as a straitjacket as they bang their knees and elbows into every unforgiving surface.
The 2009 Lotus Elise is as raw and visceral a vehicle as you'll find, and that's just the way high-performance enthusiasts like it. Every road imperfection (including some paint stripes) is transmitted directly to the driver's posterior and hands. There is simply no current production car that can deliver the Elise's level of feedback. It's as if the tires' contact patches were extensions of the driver's palms and foot soles, allowing an intuitive and athletic response to any condition. Even in standard trim, the Elise exhibits Velcro-like adhesion to the pavement with a front-to-rear weight balance that permits violent directional changes without so much as a shrug.
Because of its narrow focus on performance, the Elise makes for a truly torturous experience in bumper-to-bumper traffic and over potholes. Among the monolithic silhouettes of full-size SUVs, the feeling of dread overcomes most -- since the Elise would barely clear an Escalade's wheel well, drivers would be wise to assume that they are as invisible and vulnerable as a motorcyclist. The lack of power steering and the minuscule steering wheel turn parking lot maneuvers into an upper-body workout. Aside from these situations (say, on a twisty mountain pass or a racetrack), the Elise rewards the bold with an exhilarating burst of adrenaline usually reserved for fighter pilots.
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