- Available for £13,000
- 1.8 litre petrol inline four (Rover K-series or Toyota 1ZZ/2ZZ-GE)
- Angel on a stick handling
- Up to 217hp from supercharged variants
- Galvanic chassis corrosion can spoil your day...
- ...as can hard-to-spot bodywork damage
'It was freezing and the engine sprang a water leak after half a lap, but it was a magical moment. Even then we knew we'd created something very special.'
That was Lotus's chief engineer Richard Rackham talking about the fateful December in 1994 when the first rickety prototype of the car he and Lotus design head Julian Thomson had created - the Lotus Elise, named after Elisa, the grand-daughter of the Lotus chairman at the time - crept onto the test track at Hethel in Norfolk.
Less than two years after that bleak winter's day, the Elise went on sale. It was the polar opposite of a traditional MGB or Triumph. The core design was cutting edge, racer-for the-road stuff. Strong, light materials made up a main structure designed to keep unsprung weight to a minimum while maximising passenger safety and doing away with the need for a conventional interior.
No effort was made to accommodate tall customers, mainly because no tall people worked at Lotus. You either fitted in one or you didn't. To get in, you had to hop over wide sills which - with the sculptured door hinges and pedals and thin aluminium sheets and box sections that formed the chassis - brilliantly echoed the racy feel of the car's scaled-down 1960s GT endurance car styling. Weather protection was less rudimentary than the random assortment of sticks and bits of plastic that constituted a Caterham Seven's hood, but not by much.
The whole project was done on the cheap, based on the idea that, with luck, 3,000 cars would be made over four years. Lotus sold that number of Elises in the first 18 months. It wasn't just the answer to the prayers of all those who had been yearning for the return of an appealing British sports car. If you were a working stiff looking for a talented sports car that you afford to buy and then run, it was the realisation of a dream.
Assembled at Hethel in Norfolk and on Proton's production line in Malaysia, the Elise was a true disciple of Lotus founder Colin Chapman's 'less is more' philosophy. The lightness of the K-series motor, the feathery 70kg of Hydro Automotive Structures' glued and riveted extruded aluminium chassis, the fibreglass bodywork, the exotic silicon carbide aluminium brakes and the almost total absence of creature comforts all came together to give the Elise a total weight of just 725kg. The 118hp output of its Rover 1.8 engine may have been unspectacular, but in that platform it was enough for a sub-6 second 0-60 time and a sublime mix of ride, agility, steering purity and ballerina balance.
The S1 Elise developed through variants like the 187hp Sport 190, a £33,000 car in 1997 that could do the 0-62mph run in 4.4sec; 1998's sweet Sport 135, which at £29,000 wasn't much cheaper than the 190 but its official power output was often around 10hp less than the reality; the Sport 160 with uprated cams, throttle body and ECU; and the 143hp 111S with variable valve control (VVC), extra seat padding, six-spoke alloys, fatter rear tyres, and a closer-ratio gearbox with taller lower gears and a shorter top.
Tougher European crash regulations for 2000 meant that a new Elise had to be made. That car, the Series 2 (which ran in pre-facelift form from 2001 to 2009) is the subject of this week's buyer's guide. Some thought that the S2 wasn't quite as pretty as the more curvaceous S1, perhaps reflecting not only the fact that it was the first computer-designed Lotus but also the GM involvement in the project that resulted in a fair bit of shared componentry with the Vauxhall VX220. Whatever your view on that, the S2's lower sills did make it easier to get into and the new 'short-tail' roof was easier to handle.
One downside of the S1's extreme directness was a transition time from road to hedge that was brief to say the least, so for the Series 2 Lotus put a bit more understeer into the geometry. Engine wise, the K-series continued into the early S2s in the non-VVC 120hp base model with CR gearbox and the Sport 135 and 135R (same as the 135 but with upgraded suspension, tyres, wheels and trim), the 156hp VVC 111 and 111S (same as the 111 but with upgraded trim).
After looking at Rover's parlous state and selling Elises into the US market, Lotus made the switch to Toyota's emissions-friendly 1.8 litre ZZ-GE engines in 2004. One year later, Rover was out of business. Although the ZZs didn't come with the K-series's reputation for blown cylinder heads, they were somewhat heavier than the Rovers. That and the addition of various comfort and safety features lifted the weight of the Elise up to nearer 860kg, but the six-speed 2ZZ-GE engine made up for that by producing 189hp in the 111R model, giving it a 4.9sec 0-60 time. That iteration was the first Elise to have servo-assisted braking with ABS. A five-speed 1ZZ version in the 2006-on entry-level Elise S had 134hp, good for a 0-60 time of 5.8sec and a top speed of 127mph.
2006 also saw a few detail improvements to the range including the option of the (very good) ProBax multidensity foam seats. In 2008 the power ante was raised when the supercharged Elise SC was announced, boasting 217hp and a 4.4sec 0-60 time.
Four years ago you could still buy a Series 1 Elise for under £10,000. Today it's a sought-after collector's vehicle that you'll be lucky to find for under £14,000, with lower mileage S1s easily fetching £20,000 and sometimes a great deal more.
The good thing about Series 2 Elises is that there's not much price difference between them and S1s, and the S2 is effectively still a current car, the 2010 'Series 3' being a facelift of the S2 rather than an all-new model. Obviously there have been a fair few Elise S2 engine choices. For the purposes of our specs we'll randomly choose the Sport 135 K-series and the 189hp 2ZZ Toyota before we move into the ins and outs of 'Elsie' ownership.
SPECIFICATION | LOTUS ELISE S2
Sport 135 K-series first, 111R Toyota in brackets
Engine: 1,794cc (1,796cc) inline four, 16 valve
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, 5-speed manual (6-speed manual)
Power (hp): 134hp@6,200rpm (189hp@7,800rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 127@4,200rpm (138@6,800rpm)
0-62mph: 5.5 secs (4.9 secs)
Top speed: 129mph (150mph)
Weight: 825kg (860kg)
MPG (official combined): 45 (41)
Tyres: 185/55 x 15 (f), 205/50 x 16 (r)
On sale: 2001 - 2009
Price new: from £23,000
Price now: from £13,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty and that's especially true with the Elise, for which it appears no two sources have the same figures. We've taken our best shot here.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
White deposits on your dipstick are never a good sign, and that goes for K-series engines too. Revving the engine too hard when it's not warm will accelerate any head gasket failure tendencies. You want to see a stable reading in the mid-80s on the coolant temperature gauge. Having said all that, it's hard to believe that any vulnerable motors still exist in Elises. K-series cambelts should be changed every four years/36,000 miles, or 54,000 if you're brave.
Other problems associated with Rover-engined cars include duff alternator voltage regulators (which can do for the battery) and heater resistor packs. Original Rover radiators with plastic end tanks commonly leak. Most owners go for aluminium replacements at around £300-£320 for a twin row core item, but fitting them is not a quick job. Annual/9,000 mile servicing on a K-series should be under £400 for an A service, around £450 for a B (with new spark plugs) and under £900 for a C including new engine belts.
The Toyota engines used in the Elise are timed by chain and have a fantastic reputation for unburstability. The low torque, high-rpm characteristics of the variable valve timing VVTL-i engines made them hard work in sportier Corollas, and nobody would ever enter one of them in a Best Sounding Engine competition, but it worked well in the lighter Elise with a revised intake system, a new exhaust and a Lotus-tuned ECU, giving it 189hp and a 0-62 time in the high fours. You still needed to work at keeping it in the lift zone on the track, but the upside when pottering was good fuel consumption. Geek fact: the last ever 2ZZ VVTL-i engine to be built by Toyota lives not in a Toyota but in an Elise R which was presented to Toyota president Akio Toyoda in 2010.
Drive by wire came along in 2006-on cars, along with a new pedal box. From 2008, supercharging became part of the Elise/Toyota offering with a Magnusson M45 Roots-type blower boosting power to 218hp and torque to 158lb ft.
The gearbox on a K-series Elise can seem a little obstructive, but old-school double-declutching is a fun way of smoothing that out. Whining diffs can indicate a fair few hard starts. Gearshifts on supercharged Toyotas in particular can suffer from worn synchros, usually signalled by crunching on the 2-3 change. There was actually a Toyota recall to sort out breaking shift mechanisms.
Replacement clutch kits are a lot cheaper for K-series cars than they are for Toyotas, but VVC front downpipes will be dearer than the Toyota equivalents. Electronics can cause problems as cars get older, particularly if a car has been exposed to water.
Whether it's a Series 1 or 2, the Elise has a fibreglass bodyshell that sits on an anodised aluminium chassis with a crash structure bonded to the front. If a lift inspection of a car you're interested in reveals any one frame corner to be as little as 2mm above or below the others, think very carefully before proceeding as this is almost certainly telling you there's been an accident.
Traditional brown rust isn't going to be an issue, but sadly the Elise is not immune to galvanic corrosion. If you remember your school physics, this happens when different metals are put in close proximity to each other and then 'connected' by an electrolyte, which in technical jargon is a substance that produces an electrically-conducting solution when dissolved in a polar solvent. Salty water is a good electrolyte, and as we all know there's no shortage of that on the UK's roads in winter.
On an Elise the suspension pickup points are very vulnerable because they are essentially big holes in the aluminium chassis with mild steel bobbins bonded into them. If the paint on the steel inserts is damaged - which can happen even from a light impact to one of the front wheels - the corrosion process begins and the aluminium around the steel inserts turns into powder.
Welding this sort of aluminium is tough to say the least and repairs are complicated by the localised presence of the bonding glue which doesn't appreciate heat. Repair sections usually have to be separately made up and then bonded/riveted into place. Wobbly, bent or split edges on any the extruded aluminium sections are almost always down to accident damage and will also open the door to metal degradation. It's hard to spot this sort of thing on a car that's just parked up at the side of a road, but turning the steering to full lock and then getting your head in the arch should give you a general idea at least. Take a look at the front wishbones while you're down there as they do corrode. So do the steel rear subframes.
Any chassis damage coming up on the engineer's report that you should have carried out on any prospective purchase needs to have been sorted out by an approved Lotus operative. If your chassis is OK, there's not a lot else to scare you, but be aware that just kerbing the wheels can throw out the tracking so look for the usual giveaway of uneven tyre wear.
Even with worn bushes, ball joints and steering racks, Elises handle better than normal cars with on-point suspension, so if you want yours to reach the correct heights of handling listen out for clonking. If you find yourself replacing the clamshells (see the Body section next) that's a great opportunity to refresh as many of the other suspension and braking bits as you can afford. Rear toe-link failure is a thing on hard-driven cars. Upgraded parts are available.
S2s with the optional Sport package got stickier Yokohama tyres, a set of forged aluminium wheels that saved about 9kg, 10 percent stiffer suspension and height-adjustable shocks. Nitron and Bilstein are the replacement dampers of choice. Have a squint at the paint on the towing eye for an Inspector Poirot style clue as to whether the car's seen more than its fair share of tracking (and crashing) action.
In 2006 Lotus offered new S2 options of a mechanical limited-slip differential, traction control, and black wheels. Interestingly, Lotus suggested at the time that buyers should only tick the LSD box if they were planning on putting in plenty of track laps because they believed that it adversely affected the overall balance of the car in normal use. Negging an LSD on any car is unusual to say the least, and cynics might think it was just a cute trick by Lotus to big up the excellence of the chassis, but the proof is in the pudding. It is an excellent chassis, so why bother with LSD? Not until the Evora 400 came along was an LSD standard equipment on a production Lotus, which tells you something. Probably.
Series 1 Elises had lightweight Metal Matrix Composite brakes, but the demise of Lanxide, the American company who made them, meant that later S1s and all S2s went back to heavier conventional discs. These don't last all that long. Rattly brake pads are par for the course. The original OZ Racing rims that came on cars like the 135R are lovely.
The entire front bodywork is a single piece, or 'clamshell', of fibreglass. Same goes for the back. As at least one PHer found, it doesn't take much to crack or deform these. The repair quote you'll get from a Lotus dealer will turn your hair grey - and even then, they very probably won't be able to guarantee that you'll not get more problems with it down the line.
Anything other than a stone chip needs careful examination. 'Spider-web' stress cracks to the fibreglass go only one way if they're ignored, and it's not a good way. Owners trying to cut corners will end up with cars with a bodged, cost-saving look about them, especially at the front end.
The good news is that there are some trustworthy independent Lotus-approved bodyshops who can properly mend your ropey clam at a much lower cost. Specialised Paintwork in Reading are well regarded. Fibreglass Services in Arundel also had a very strong reputation for both quality and value, but sadly FS's Miles Wilkins has retired from the restoration side of things now. Used clams can be picked up for around £1,100-£1,200 but there'll almost certainly be some fiddling and reholing required to get it to fit on your car. Save your old clam so that you can salvage bits off it if necessary.
If the car you're looking at has the colour-matched targa top, remember to make sure that the rollup soft top (which was redesigned for the S2, doing away with the elegant but fiddly long tails) is being supplied too, because if it's not a new one will cost you over £500. If it is there, check that the tensioner cable is functioning properly. Ideally you'll be keeping your Elise under some sort of cover because the leak-free Elise roof is a rare thing. Boot release cables snap and side windows can lose alignment on older cars. Windows can fall completely off their supports, and that's a time-consuming job. Elise window rattle is pretty normal.
Factory overtightening of the screws on the side mirror arms is not unheard of, and the side vent slats are fragile. Overtightened undertray bolts will cause rattling. Check also that the headlamp units are still well lacquered. Pre-2006 lamp inners tended to melt in the sun. LED tail lights were part of the 2006 refresh, as was the option to specify the Sport package's forged wheels as standalone items.
The S2 cabin is more civilised than the S1's, which isn't necessarily a plus point for minimalist diehards who loved the S1 precisely because of its basic setup. The Touring package on the S2 included leather seats, electric windows, full carpeting and additional soundproofing. It added around 7kg to the car's overall weight.
When the supercharger became an option in 2008 Lotus brought in a few more changes including colour-reversed gauges and a new multi-function display and shift lights. The seats in the Sport package were lightened and (whisper it) a cupholder was added to the Touring package, along with an iPod adapter.
By definition those high sills get a bit of a kicking, as do the seat bolsters, so don't expect either to be in mint condition. The ProBax seats that became an option from 2006 incorporated multidensity foam layers that, along with a slightly different seat angle, greatly increased long-distance comfort for many owners, although that's not a given for everyone.
If the aircon doesn't work, check the pipes as these are known for leaking, especially on 2006/07 cars. That can be £500-plus to sort out. Throttle pedal bushings fail, and putting that right takes a long time.
Few cars have been responsible for such a thunderclap moment in history as the Elise. The wide variety of engines, packages and specifications means that there's almost certainly an exactly right car for you somewhere, but finding it for sale is another matter. Given the limited number of cars in the classifieds and the absolute necessity of getting an unbashed one you may have to compromise on your ideal spec.
If you value creature comforts over lap times, the Touring package is well worth seeking out. Many will be more than happy with the handling of the regular Elise and come to the conclusion that the Sport package isn't a must-have. If light weight and low running costs appeal, the K-series 111S is a great choice, especially as improved gasket materials have more or less relegated the spectre of head failure to the annals of history.
Looking in PH Classifieds we found this early (2001) K-series 1.8 base model car in silver with red seats. It's got 81,000 miles up but the price is tempting at £12,950.
If you're still chary about the K-series, how about this recently-serviced, 53,000-mile 1ZZ Toyota-engined Elise S from 2007 with 134hp, five-speed box and the desirable Touring package at £16,995? For another £2,000 on top of that you could be in something like this Magnetic Blue 111R with the 2ZZ 189hp motor.
Supercharged Elises attract premium prices. This first-year car from 2008 should rustle your kilt at £22,999. Some owners have converted their Elises to run on Civic Type R VTEC engines, with or without a supercharger. Here's a blown one with a claimed 350hp and a shopful of other mods, all reflected in the price of £29,500. The Vauxhall VX220 and VX220 Turbo that were based on the S2 make excellent Elise alternatives, but not everyone will prefer the styling - and of course they're not Lotuses.
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