- Available for £29,000
- 1.6-litre inline four or 1.8-litre supercharged four, rear-wheel drive
- As wondrous now as it was 25 years ago
- Series 3 packs in all that factory (and owner) development
- Usual caveats still apply...
- ...but nobody will care, and the Elise's demise is sure to boost prices
You never know you miss something until it's gone away. For fans of iconic lightweight sports cars, that 'going away' thing is about to happen with the withdrawal from sale this year of the Lotus Elise, Exige and Evora.
Designed by Julian Thomson (who went on to become Jaguar's design head) and honed by Lotus's handling genius Roger Becker, the Elise was a dream car for a lot of people. It was supposed to have been called the 111, after the Lotus type number, but the then-chairman Romano Artioli decided he preferred his playful granddaughter's name instead.
Such was the car's appeal, however, that it wouldn't have mattered if they'd called it the Lotus Dumbo. Between 1996 and 2000 more than 10,000 Elises were sold, making it the best-selling Lotus ever. It offered the rare and always alluring pleasures of low-mass sports motoring along with great styling, an industrially bare interior, 0-62mph in 5.8sec, a 126mph top speed and affordable pricing.
Sort of. Life can be unfair if you've always hankered after an Elise but have never been able to stump up the cash for one. Being just out of reach has been a common issue for many would-be buyers in the Elise's 25-year history. Series 1 Elises tantalised them by quietly depreciating in the approved manner, raising excitement about the prospect of owning one, only for the market to notice that the idea of an Elise for £10k or less was kind of ridiculous, causing prices to rise. Last summer (2020) we noted that you should have picked up one of those sub-£10k S1 Elises four years earlier, because the new S1 entry point had risen in that time to £14,000. Just over a year on, £16k is now the minimum for an S1 but you'll be swimming in risky waters at that level. Most of the S1s on sale are bobbing along in the mid-£20k bracket, with rare/hardcore models like the Sport 190 coming in at double that.
The cheapest Series 2 cars are also about £16k, also up by £2-3k over the last year. When the S2 came along in November 2000 (the S1 no longer passing Euro crash regs) it had lower sills to make entry and egress a bit easier and was powered by a 120hp 1.8 Rover K-Series engine. From June 2002, you could get a 156hp variably valve timed version of that engine in the Elise 111 and 111S. That was followed a little under a year later by the chassis-upgraded 135R, based on the 120hp car. More significantly, soon after those a Toyota engine appeared in the Elise for the first time in the shape of the 189hp VVTL-i 1.8 powered 111R.
In 2006 the 134hp VVT 1.8 from the Corolla went into the new Elise S, which at 860kg still managed to cover the 0-60 sprint in 5.8sec. Despite its low-sounding output the S was considered by many to be all the Elise you'd realistically need (for road use anyway) at under £24k new. By 2008, forced aspiration had come to the Elise in the form of the 218hp, 0-60mph in 4.4sec supercharged Toyota SC, the K-Series motors having been discharged from active service (overall honourably, despite its well-publicised issues) two years earlier.
Against the background of rising values and the imminent deletion of the Elise range - which isn't likely to reverse those rises - a squint at the Series 3 Elise as a used buy seems quite timely. The S3 has been around since April 2010. From the outside it was distinguished from the S2 by its new nose with bigger, more triangular headlights, new aluminium mesh covered air intakes and a new rear bumper/diffuser. There was a 4 per cent improvement in the Elise's aerodynamic drag. You also got nice side repeater lights with 'Elise' emblazoned thereon.
Early Series 3 prices started at £27,500 new, which a decade later with the benefit of hindsight and the always-useful pair of rosy spectacles might seem crazily cheap given that used ones are hard to find at under £30,000. There again, £18,950 doesn't seem like a high price for the first S1 of 1996 until you roughly double that to get to the 2021 cash equivalent.
In 2010 £27.5k got you the first Elise not to have a 1.8 engine. Instead, it came with the fuel-efficient, Deeside-built 134bhp 1.6-litre normally seen in the Toyota Auris. In 2016 the 10kg lighter Sport and Sport 220 replaced the old Elise and Elise S. They both had lightweight sports seats and an option of a 5kg lighter set of wheels. The engine choices were unchanged, 134hp 1.6 or 217hp 1.8 supercharged. Air-con, cruise, a hard roof and an upgraded Clarion audio were also on the options list.
Sprint models were announced in spring 2017. These cars had several features designed to reduce weight by up to 40kg - lightweight batteries and seats, polycarbonate rear window, forged alloy wheels, some carbon body parts, and only the BBC Light programme on the radio (if fitted).
The 1.6 was cut from the S3 range in 2018, by which point prices for the base Sport model had risen to £32,300. The 1.6's departure left the supercharged 1.8 Sport 220 as the entry level Elise S3. The increasingly focused Sprint, Cup and Club Racer models filled out the range, with up to 243hp in the £48k Cup 250 that was launched at the 2016 Geneva show or 250hp in the £60k Cup 260 released in October 2017. Both of those Cup cars had rollover bars to increase stiffness. The 260's big rear wing and vented front wheelarches gave it 180kg of downforce at 151mph and a slightly lower top end than the less powerful 250. It also had two-piece brake discs and adjustable Nitron dampers.
Today, as the Elise range winds down, your only choices from the Lotus website are the Sport 240 Final Edition at £45.5k or the Cup 250 Final Edition at £50.9k. We're going to centre our used guide on the 1.6 because it's the one that adheres most closely to the original S1 concept and it's still the most affordable S3 option, though not by as much as you might think. There's a lot of compression in used S3 prices. You can easily pay the same for a 134hp 1.6 as you can for a supercharged 217hp 1.8.
SPECIFICATION | LOTUS ELISE S3 1.6 SPORT (2010-on)
Engine: 1,598cc inline four petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 134@6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 118@4,400rpm
0-62mph: 6.0 secs
Top speed: 127mph
Weight (kg): 856
Wheels (in): 16 (f), 17 (r)
On sale: 2010 - on
Price new: from £27,500
Price now: from £29,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The Toyota 1.6 engine in the Series 3 had the same 134hp output as the old 1.8, but you did have to work it a little harder to get the same performance. This was no hardship as the motor thrived on life between 4,000rpm and the 6,800rpm limiter, with induction that felt more carburettor than injection. Power was more than adequate for normal road use and the big bonus with the 1.6 was its official combined fuel consumption of 45mpg with carbon dioxide emissions of just 149g/km. Lotus reckoned that, with a light right foot, you could eke 500 miles out of a 1.6 Elise's tank.
The 6-speed gearbox that was common to all Toyota-engined Elises wasn't the shortest-action box in motoring history but in the Series 3 it was a good improvement on what had gone before. There doesn't seem to have been the same degree of synchromesh wearing problems on the 1.6 as there have been on the supercharged 1.8 (usually flagged up by crunching on the 2-3 change).
Many Elises have been modified, and not always in a good way. If you're interested in a tuned or tweaked car, try to get advice from someone who knows about Elises to check that the mods have been done properly, even if it's at distance via a website like lotustalk or SELOC. Some high-mile cars have experienced engine wiring harness failure.
There was a big recall in November 2014 affecting all Elises built between May 2007 and November 2011 to fix a problem with loose oil cooler pipes that could coat the tyres in oil or cause the engine to catch fire, either of which might delay your arrival at work. In February 2020, 762 Elises built between May 2012 and June 2019 were recalled to sort out potential fuel leaks.
S3 servicing is on a 9,000-mile/12-month basis, whether it's the 1.6 or the supercharged 1.8. The cheapest A service should be under £300, the most expensive something in the region of £750. Brake fluid should be replaced every two years/18,000 miles. If you want that doing without the normal servicing (in which schedule it is normally included at the appropriate point) it'll be about £55. Coolant replacement is every four years/36,000 miles at £150 if it's done separately, otherwise as with the brake fluid changes should be included in the scheduled services.
The chassis' extruded aluminium construction would have seemed familiar to anyone in the double-glazed windows business. That design gave the Elise the highly desirable attribute of low weight. It also gave it a less desirable element of fragility.
Although we don't have any research to prove this, it's fairly certain that a higher proportion of Elises sustain damage than many other cars simply because of the sporty nature of the car. It's a car you'll want to test yourself in, and when your talent runs out there'll be a price to pay. Even light kerbing impacts can have a disproportionately large effect on the handling by throwing out the tracking. Just a couple of millimetres difference in corner heights could mean that a car has been in a shunt.
More serious chassis problems will be difficult and expensive to repair. They don't all necessarily arise as a result of a crash, either. Galvanic corrosion happens when different metals come close to each other and are then 'connected' by an electricity-conducting electrolyte. In the Elise the different metals are aluminium and mild steel. There are large holes in the aluminium chassis into which steel bobbins are bonded for suspension mounting. Salty water, such as might be found on British roads in winter, is an excellent electrolyte. It doesn't take much to chip the paint on a bobbin, starting the rusting process that will eventually turn chassis aluminium into powder.
The chassis sections also become vulnerable to decay once their edges have become bent or split by accident damage. You might be able to see this by getting down and peering into the front wheelarches with the steering on full lock. Sorting these issues out isn't easy as glued aluminium is pretty intolerant of the presence of a welding flame. Often as not, repair sections will need to be separately fabricated and offered up to the car rather than done in situ.
Front wishbones rot, as do the galvanised steel rear subframes if they've been poorly repaired, and rear toe-links loosen or break. Better engineered replacements can be had off the internet. If either of an Elise's clamshells need changing for whatever reason that's a good time to think about changing as many of the suspension components as your budget allows.
There'll be some complaining on the forum about this being a generalisation or just plain rubbish, but there is no doubt that you did occasionally need the reactions of a coked-crazed squirrel to avoid spinning an early S1 Elise around its own belly button. Many believe that the 725kg S1 was actually too light for the original Koni dampers to work properly, particularly at the front end where there was less than 250kg pressing into the ground. Whatever anyone says, the S3 still has that 360 spin potential, as does any mid-engined car, but by the time it came out Lotus's chassis development skills had gone a long way towards softening the suddenness of it, giving you a friendlier Elise experience without losing the essential gist of the car. One of the most remarkable things about the S3 is how little its overall feel has changed relative to the S1, 25 years on.
Elise tyre costs will be pleasantly low, a full set of Yokohamas coming in at under £400.
The S3 Elise had a new front end, including a new bumper, front clamshell and access panel that gave it a wider look, while the engine compartment had a new 'twin-spine' cover. Both front and back clamshells were single-piece fibreglass composite items. Innocent-looking stress cracks or even stone chips need to be identified and rectified toot sweet if you don't want the expense of replacing the whole clam. Bodgery in this area will bite you hard if and when you find yourself selling your Elise to anyone with even a light smattering of model knowledge. Specialists like Specialised Paintwork in Reading and Fibreglass Services in Arundel are rated for good value, good quality clamshell repairs. Secondhand clams used to be available for low four-figure sums, but you can take the 'low' out of that for S3 items, which are thinner on the ground. Even if you find a suitable one, don't be surprised if it doesn't fit straight onto your car's chassis without a fight, or at least without some re-holing.
Have a close look at the panel gaps. Odd looking ones suggest accident repairs. Elises don't really enjoy being left out in the open through all weathers - roofs leak - so if you don't have a garage think about a good quality cover. Paint bubbling has also been an issue with Elises that have mainly lived outside. Moisture gets trapped beneath the paint. Headlight seals used to perish, causing condensation, but we haven't seen any reports of that being a problem with the new S3 headlight design. Comment below if you know different.
Always look under the side of an Elise to make sure it hasn't been jacked up in the wrong place. Factory-overtightened undertray bolts will lead to annoying rattles so check them out while you're under there. Rusty towing posts or shiny aftermarket stainless steel replacements may suggest to you that plenty of track day action has been indulged in.
Make sure you fit into an Elise before you buy one. That might seem obvious but the fervent desire to own one of these cars can sometimes override physical health issues. Assuming you do fit, Elise seats are more comfortable than they look. Elises of Sprint spec and above had the lighter carbon-shelled seats. The way you have to get into an Elise means that door cards and seats can suffer from accelerated wear. Electric windows are known to fail.
Water can affect the electronics on any car, let alone an Elise which - with the best will in the world - did not reach Lexus-like standards of weatherproofing. Check that everything electrical works, including the key fob/immobiliser. If the screen wipers stop wiping you may find yourself replacing not only the fuse but also the motor. Indicator relays die.
Series 3 options included cruise control and air-con, which might seem odd options for this type of car, but they actually made a lot of sense for touring. You had to pay extra for Bluetooth-enabled audio. Some owners found that when they turned the engine off the radio and dash lights remained on. Hoping they would turn themselves off if you walked away resulted in a flattened battery and then you wouldn't be able to work the central locking to get back into the car. You would have to remove the front service panel and replenish the battery from the charge points there.
Any Elise is, or has the potential to be, a great car. You need to be careful when you're buying one, though. You might easily find two S3s that to all intents and purposes look the same, the only difference being that one is noticeably cheaper than the other. Having the mental fortitude not to always opt for the cheaper choice on the grounds of 'what could possibly go wrong' is what separates the wise Elise buyer from the fool. The combination of aluminium for the chassis and composite materials for the bodywork sounds ideal, and it is for driving, but you can never really know what sort of a life a used Elise has had. Crashing is one scenario in which lightweight materials are very much not ideal. Nor is advancing age. Which is why, when you're buying a secondhand Elise S3, you need to have your spidey-senses of patience, thoroughness and skepticism set to maximum.
We haven't banged on about how you can improve an Elise as that's about as movable a feast as you can get, and you'll find loads of info online from like-minded owners. Instead let's just see what's available on the good old PH classifieds, which is as good a place to look as any and (all trumpet-blowing aside) better than most based on the number of vehicles available. You won't find many S3s on the big auction sites because sellers know what they're worth and can name a price that informed buyers will be happy to pay so there's no need to mess around on auction sites with folk offering you £5.99.
The cheapest S3 on PH at the time of writing was this 2014 1.6 with a retro Elan-type 'Sprint-style wrap' on it. That and the '1.6, 1.8' malarkey in the description presumably means it's a basic 1.6 Sport underneath. Nothing wrong with that, and as the vendor says the white wrap can be removed to restore it to full Zest Yellow, leaving you with a 28,000 mile 1.6 with Probax seats and a Janspeed exhaust for £29,000.
For a little bit more (£30,250) here's a rather nice Chrome Orange 1.6 with just 11,000 miles on the clock and a full main dealer service history. If you fancy something a bit more exotique, how about this 2014 Club Racer in Daytona Blue? Seven specialist stamps in the book, air-con and a Larini stainless exhaust for £33,995.
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