One reality, and enemy, of sports car design over the last 30 years has been the inescapable escalation of vehicle weight. While two-seat performance cars have become more comfortable, more reliable and safer in recent decades, they have also become rather portly, at least by sports car standards. In 1970 you could buy a Lotus Elan, Fiat 850 or Saab Sonett with a sub-2,000-pound curb weight. But today's sports cars, such as the Honda S2000 or Porsche Boxster, tip the scales at over 2,800 pounds, and even the diminutive Mini Cooper weighs in at more than 2,500 pounds. The Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 get closer at 2,400 pounds and 2,200 pounds, respectively. But if you live in the U.S. and your ideal vehicle seats two, weighs less than a ton and still includes that new car smell, your choices are pretty limited Honda Insight (1,850 pounds).
The Insight is an impressive machine in terms of technological advancement and fuel efficiency, but it doesn't exactly inspire passion from most sports car fans. Sadly, if you've wanted both performance and light weight in one machine, you've pretty much had to give up the new car smell (not to mention modern technology, reliability and safety features) and start shopping the classifieds. But all that ends starting in June 2004 with the introduction of the 2005 Lotus Elise to the U.S. market. The Elise has been on sale since 1996, but European demand for the vehicle, along with stringent U.S. crash standards, has kept it from leaping the pond except for a limited, race-only version that wasn't legal to operate on public roads.
So for the last eight years, U.S. sports car fans could only watch with growing envy as the European press whooped, crowed and carried on about the Elise's sheer competence as a street-legal go-kart. Britain's Top Gear magazine has named it the "Best Sportscar" on four occasions, and Europe's Car magazine uses words like "utterly brilliant" and "perfectly judged" to describe the Elise's driving dynamics. Car also dubbed it "The Most Innovative New Car in Production."
As impressive as the original Euro-spec Elise was (1,520 pounds, 118 horsepower), it could be argued that the 2005 U.S. version is vastly superior. It's true that meeting U.S. crash standards required the addition of airbags. And Lotus knew that even sports car fans in this country have trouble sacrificing amenities for the sake of performance, so the U.S. Elise comes standard with air conditioning, antilock brakes and an AM/FM/CD audio system. But don't look for stability control or power steering on this sports car. Lotus was willing to bend the Elise's original philosophy for American tastes, but it refused to break it.
The carmaker also managed to not break the one-ton mark for the U.S. Elise's curb weight. At 1,975 pounds the Elise is easily the lightest performance car sold in this country. And before you purists out there start whining about an increase of 400-plus pounds in curb weight, realize that the engine power of U.S. models is over 60 percent greater than the Euro version. Rather than the 1.8-liter, 118-horsepower Rover K-series engine utilized in the base European models, the Yankee-version Elise gets a more powerful 1.8-liter Toyota engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. While the basic drivetrain is nearly identical to U.S. versions of the Celica GT-S (thus making emissions certification much simpler), the Lotus folks fitted new intake and exhaust components, as well as a reworked engine controller, to broaden the engine's power band and bump peak horsepower from 180 to 190. That's more than enough power to manage the Elise's increased weight, with Lotus folks telling us the car will sprint from zero to 60 mph in under five seconds.
Of course, the key to Elise performance remains the vehicle's light weight, a philosophy championed by the company's founder, Colin Chapman, and maintained through the use of an extruded and bonded aluminum chassis. Weighing a mere 150 pounds, yet providing all the structural rigidity necessary in a modern sports car, the chassis rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with upper and lower wishbones and co-axial coil springs. Weight reduction, as well as lower manufacturing costs, is further achieved through the use of plastic composite body components. This process takes longer than stamping steel, but for a low-production vehicle like the Elise, the increased time factor doesn't present a problem.
It should be noted that much of the advanced technologies utilized in developing and producing the Elise are standard procedure for the engineering side of the Lotus group. Though many Americans are familiar with the cars bearing the Lotus insignia (Elite, Elan, Esprit, Elise), most are unaware of the many contributions made by Lotus Engineering. The engineering side of the business actually makes up the majority of Group Lotus PLC resources, and everything from drivetrain components to automotive systems and parts components are created by Lotus for various automakers and Tier 1 suppliers. Company officials told us that 10 percent of all gasoline engines currently produced have had some level of Lotus input during development, and the Lotus production facility, built in 2000, also produces the carbon-fiber structure for the Aston-Martin Vanquish.
But if you choose to forget about the high-level engineering that went into the Elise, and instead focus on the driving experience, you won't be disappointed. We were allowed to run the Elise through the highly technical, 13-turn Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. What we quickly realized was that you don't need a road course to appreciate the newest Lotus model, but it sure helps! This is where the car's lightweight nature shines the brightest. The non-power steering feels as natural as anything we've driven, and the 1.8-liter Toyota engine is indeed more user-friendly (with a far more usable torque curve) than what you'll find in the Celica. Braking is handled by AP Racing two-piston calipers up front and Brembo single-piston calipers in back (11.5-inch rotors all around).
This all adds up to a car that feels as race-oriented and capable as the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale or Porsche 911 GT3. When you consider the Elise costs about one-third to one-fourth as much as either of those models, its true value becomes apparent. We suspect that the Ferrari and Porsche would be quicker around a given track than the Elise, but by a margin so slim it's hard to justify at three to four times the price.
Beyond its track capabilities, the Lotus manages to be a relatively civilized conveyance. The wide door sills and low steering wheel require some fancy footwork when entering or exiting the vehicle, and the ride quality is certainly more Formula One than grand touring. But items like the aforementioned standard air conditioning and audio system keep the Elise livable on a daily basis. Checking off the $1,350 "Touring Pack" on the options list adds leather seating, power windows, an mp3-capable head unit, an interior storage net, a double-insulated soft top, additional sound deadening and full carpeting. Performance fans can opt for the $2,480 "Sport Pack" and get lightweight alloy wheels, high-performance Yokohama tires and a stiffer track-tuned suspension. For split-personality types, Lotus will allow both packages to be equipped on the same car. There's also a $1,475 body-colored hardtop that improves wind and road noise isolation within the tiny cabin.
Like any new performance car, especially one with nine years of pent-up demand, it may be difficult to secure an Elise during the first year of production. Lotus plans to sell approximately 2,400 units through its 39 U.S. dealers, but pre-orders for the 2005 model year have pretty much exhausted supply. The car will go on sale June 15 at a starting price of $39,995, plus a $795 destination charge.
If you're seriously interested in racing an Elise, the good news is that spec roll cages, seats and harnesses are already being produced by Lotus to support SCCA racers.
If you're not thinking of racing an Elise, there is still more good news. Driven responsibly on public roads, the car will get more than 30 mpg. Not quite up to Honda Insight specs, but still pretty impressive for a modern-day sports car that can scare a Ferrari.