Well it's been a long time coming! The Toyota engined Elise is finally here. In line with Lotus's increasingly confusing naming policy the 187bhp Toyota Motor gets the moniker of 111R to differentiate it from the 160bhp 111S.
The car is a biproduct of the project to launch the Elise in the USA. This was a project that filled Americans with excitement and Europeans with fear. More power would of course be welcome, but would loading the diminutive roadster up with air-con, ABS, electric windows and sun visors compromise the Chapman principle of performance through light weight?
The good news is that it doesn't. The air-con is essential for the USA and is a treat for hot days in the UK and Europe. 'leccy windows are also a bit of a luxury but at the end of the day these items aren't the thin end of a heavy wedge, they are just a few creature comforts (and not compulsory).
So that's the extra weight - what about the extra power? Well, from cold the engine is nothing special. Whizzing up the country lanes in near Castle Lotus in Stansted, I didn't immediately fall in love with the environment. The engine and cabin suffer from boom and buzz, and power in the low part of the rev range is adequate rather than inspiring.
Whilst I waited for things to warm up I concentrated my thoughts on the ride and handling. The abilities of the Lotus engineers to come up with a good compromise between ride comfort and handling remains unparallelled. Grasping the miniscule steering wheel gives you a direct line to the road. You can almost feel the exact placement of the wheels and it's absolutely inspiring. The overused analogy of go-kart like handling has never been more appropriate than with this car.
That feedback hasn't compromised ride quality though. Over rough surfaces the clever bits soak up the harshness of the road yet you can still feel the wheel at each corner doing its job.
The engine's warming up now and I'm warming to the car. Firmly jammed in my seat I'm comfortable but the concave shape would certainly give my back a bit of jip in the long run. Side support is excellent and the seats are good looking but those with back problems may have to give it serious thought. Then again those with back problems probably couldn't get into an Elise!
With the engine warming I had a play with the gears ready to give the car a bit of a caning. The long lever seems a little out of place in such a sporty car, and the action isn't perfect. I wouldn't go as far as calling it sloppy but there's more 'freedom' in the movement than would be ideal and the way it moves the plastic shrouding around the base makes that look cheap. It's easy enough to use though.
Some open road and it's time to see what all the fuss is about. Putting my foot down reveals a very lengthy throttle travel and I have to point my toes to eek the most of the Toymotor. All is quite K Series like to start with and then as the dial climbed to 6,000rpm and I was approaching a comfortable, yet rapid pace, all hell broke loose. Toyota's VVTL-I system doesn't get out of bed below 6,000rpm but as soon as that limit is breached it leaps up, doesn't bother getting dressed and legs it down the road at full pelt. The Elise hurtles forward when you hit the Vario-cam-thing zone like it's been hit from behind.
Like Honda's VTEC system, once into that zone everything starts happening twice as quick. The revs climb, you hurtle forwards and suddenly you need to be paying twice as much attention to not hitting the red line or a tree.
The engine really does transform the Elise. Forget how you might drive a conventional car - don't change gear. You need to hang about in second gear if you want to make the most of the 111R. Trailing along behind a car at 40-50mph waiting for an overtaking opportunity now requires use of second and an engine screaming at 6,000rpm in order to be on the power for your manouvre. Get it wrong and you'll amble past only to get a boot up the rear halfway through the process as the valves start doing their vario gymnastics.
Quite where the 111R red lines I don't know. The few times I successfully used the power band I was either holding it between 6 and 8,000 rpm or the indicator was sweeping round the guage and I was concentrating on staying on the road. A flash of a red light or the sense that I shouldn't make the engine scream any more had me grabbing for the next gear.
Slowing the car was an inspiration. I thought I'd try the ABS out but couldn't find it! 30mph on a deserted country road with a bit of dirt and grit should have seen the car grabbing for the ABS as I planted my weight on the middle pedal. No such luck, the car simply stopped in an instant. If I'd have had a sixpence I could have stopped on it. The brakes are immense but the ABS has been set up to interfere only in the most extreme conditions so that it doesn't compromise track or extreme road use.
The 111R should be a great success. The process of building a car for the US has reflected well on it. The build quality is excellent. The extra features make the car slightly less spartan and don't compromise the car.
I've said before that I'm not keen on the VTEC style engines in road cars and I could level the same criticism at the 111R. It'll be a blast on track where you can keep it in the 'zone'. For road use you'll need to change your driving style to ensure you're near the power band when you need it. That gets a bit harsh on the ears after a while and making use of the performance is always a drama. Performance could almost be described as not enough and then too much!
Personally I still long for an Elise with an easily accessible and rich power band that compliments the stunning ride and handling without me having to thrash the knackers off an engine.
That said, I'd recommend trying the 111R. The blistering performance is sure to entice some new recruits to the Lotus religion.
Thanks to Castle Lotus for the loan of the car
Car tested: Elise 111R
Retail Price: £27,995
Air Con: £1295
Metallic Paint: £595
Touring pack was fitted including: Electric windows, interior stowage net, leather, sound insulation, carpet set with passenger foot rest, auxiliary lamps, Blaupunkt Woodsotck DAB Radio, CD & MP3.