The mid 90's brought major changes to Group Lotus. GM had given up on trying to sucessfully operate the company. The Excel and M100 Elan were canceled. The established names like Mike Kimberly and Peter Stevens were disappearing. It appeeared that Lotus was about to become an engineering only company. Then an angel appeared, his name Ramano Artoli.
GM sold out and Artoli - head of Bugatti - put in place his plan to put Lotus back into the market into which it held such dominance in during the late 50's, 60's and early 70's.
Headed by young designer Julian Thompson, plans were laid out for a new, back to basics roadster and after a great deal of work the Elise was born. Virtually by itself, the Elise turned the fortunes of the company and gave the automotive world a shake up. Well almost. Those in North America were out of luck. The Elise (S1) wasn't manufactured with America - the largest sports car market in the world - in mind and US enthusiasts were left wanting.
Rumors of adapting the car for the United States circulated for years and with Proton's acquistion of the company from Artoli, it seemed to be imminient. Well like so many things, when they are just within reach they slip away. It has taken another 5 years, the death of the M250 project, and the forseeable end to the nearly 30 year old Esprit to finally convince Hethel to bring to the unique Elise to the US.
This, however, is not the Rover powered, sparsely appointed car Europe has enjoyed for the best part of the last decade. No, this is almost an entirely new Elise with little more than the chassis and majority of the body panels left from the S2 launched in 2000.
The car's biggest change comes from it's source of motivation. Gone is the "K" series engine and, reestablishing it's relationship with Toyota, a new more powerful 1800 cc 4 banger from the Celica GTS has been transplanted. The new engine, paired with the European Celica's 6 speed gearbox, has been retuned for better low end response and drivability. The result is 190 bhp (+/- 5% pending final testing) and 138 lb/ft @ 6,800 rpm. This same engine will be featured in the upcoming European only S2 Exige.
The 190 horse power unit not only delivers the required performance but makes up for some of the extra weight endowed by the US spec items. The spartan interior of the Elise may match Colin Chapman's original performance through lightweight principal but the fact remains that some people want the best of both worlds - reasonable performance and some creature comforts.
As with the "S" range, the Federal Elise features central locking, carpet, air conditioning, dual airbags, Blaupunkt CD Radio, partial hide seating, antilock brakes, and a starter button. But wait, thats just the standard car. Americans will be able to add a "Touring Pack" which will further comfort the buyer with full hide, added sound deading material in the roof and floors, an upgraded sound system and power windows. All this added equipment has added quite a bit of bulk to bring the cars weight to nearly 2,000 lbs (just over 900kg). The only option which is not adding to the weight problem is the variety of paint choices available.
Adding all this equipment has not meant the Elise has lost its edge. 0-60 mph comes at less than 5 seconds, the 1/4 mile is achieved in approxamitly 13 seconds on the way to toping out at over 140 mph. Those numbers make this Elise the fastest road going model yet and it doesn't end there. Unbelievable as it may sound, the handling is even better than before. The new car pushes the bar even higher.
With the optional 'Sport' package, which includes a lower ride height, larger diameter wheels, retuned suspension and A048 tires, the Elise should pull close to 1G on the skid pad. Food for thought for US drivers of Corvettes, Boxsters and Z4's who may be taken aback at the capabilities of the little British motor.
Before you get too excited, the sport package will be limited in production. So if you're not already in the front of the line, you may be out of luck. However, the good news is you can add the package from your dealer, albeit at an anticipated premium over the factory installed package and not including installation.
Push the button and you immediately know this is not the old Rover engine. There is a much more masculine rumble to the engine note. In the turns the car is much more neutral in its handling than the previous S2 cars. Gone is the oversteer tendancies. Any fear of low end anaemia associated with the engine when found in the Toyota Celica is gone. Lotus has massaged the engine to the point that there is a predictable and gradual acceleration available at all speeds. The car seems unflappable and has retained it's intimacy with the road. Every characteristic the road offers is transmitted through the wheel to the driver.
Some minor changes have been made to the bodywork. The stainless steel exhaust from the Toyota unit is now centralized under the rear diffuser. The rear diffuser is also now graced with rectangular red reflectors which could be the ugliest tacked on piece since the bumper extensions on the Elite/ Sprint/ Eclat models of the 70's. The good news is that with a screwdriver and some adhesive remover, these will be but a temporary inconvenience
The sides feature a new turn indicator which has also been integrated into European models for the 2004 model year. The front bonnet access panels are now at a slightly greater pitch to clear the new antilock brake servo which has been located just ahead of the driver (LH). Changes have also been made to the weather stripping around the removable roof and windows.
The inside has been treated to some updates too. It now features vents which actually face the driver and passanger directly instead of mounting flush to the dash as before. As quick as air conditioning was confirmed for the car, the discussion began regarding removing the unit. For those that perform this warranty voiding exercise in an attempts to be star in the next Fast and Furious sequel, the new "frog eyed" central vents will make lovely boost or temperature gauge holders! The passenger seat is still fixed but both seats will be new for the US market.
So I guess you are wondering what this will cost. The price of the car and major options should be made official at the L.A. Auto Show in January, but expect them close to $40,000. Options, as mentioned earlier, look to be the touring package, sports package and the hardtop. Optional "Lifestyle" colours are under consideration and may include Chrome Orange and Lazer Blue. Therefore a loaded car should retail nearly $10,000 less than a comparable Porsche Boxster S. The first dealer demonstraitor vehicles should reach the United States in sometime this spring and customer cars should be followed shortly thereafter.
The launch of this vehicle is not being taken lightly by Lotus. The car will have it's offical unveiling this January at the L.A. Auto Show. Lotus Cars USA has also committed to expanding the current 40 dealer network over the next few years to better service the future clientele the Elise will bring to the brand. Even with the limited network in place now, over 2,000 deposits (according to dealer reports) have been taken for the car. Some Lotus enthusiasts have had deposits in place for the car from as far back as December 2001!
With an anticipated first years production limited to 2,500 cars that spells a home run in the automotive industry!
The new Elise is easily the best Lotus to be exported to the US since the orignal Elan.
It will re-establish Lotus as a premiere sports car manufacturer in the largest market in the world. The Elise does beg the question; with this car so good, how will Lotus ever be able to top it? I suppose we'll have to stay tuned to find out.