Different automakers have different approaches when it comes to designing a high-performance car. For some, it's an eternal quest for more horsepower, with bigger engines, more cylinders and high-octane fuel. Some turn to space-age technology, adding the latest turbochargers, wind-tunnel tested aerodynamics and computerized suspension components.
For British manufacturer Lotus, high-performance is all about simplicity. A lightweight, stripped-down car with a modest engine is the Lotus ideal -- the pure sports car. The new Lotus Elise fits that ideal perfectly. It weighs less than a ton and only has a four-cylinder engine, but it's fast enough for most and has handling characteristics that more than one automotive magazine has called "telepathic."
The Elise has been available in Europe for a few years (as the Elise 111R), but the 2005 Lotus Elise marks the company's re-entry into the U.S. market. In this article, we'll find out how they made the Elise so light, why it handles so well and what it takes to get behind the wheel.
Four Cylinders of Power
The Elise's engine contrasts sharply with some of the hefty engines in today's European supercars. The Toyota-made engine replaces the somewhat outdated Rover K-Series that has powered the Elise in Europe. The 1.8-liter, water-cooled, naturally-aspirated engine has an all-aluminum four-cylinder block with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and an 11.5:1 compression ratio. It is placed in a mid-engine configuration, just behind the driver.
This engine is similar to the one found in the Toyota Celica GT-S, but with an updated intake system and exhaust and an Electronic Control Unit (ECU) tuned specifically for Lotus (Road & Track, August, 2004). It's cranks out 190 horsepower at 7,800 rpm, producing 138 lb-ft of torque at 6,800 rpm. If you've been looking at the Ferraris and Corvettes of the world, those numbers might seem a bit low. Keep in mind that the Lotus isn't meant to be a roaring beast of a car -- it's meant to be incredibly agile.
The Elise comes with Toyota's variable valve timing and lift (VVTL-i) installed. This allows the engine to switch to a different profile on the camshaft when a high rpm is detected. To put it simply, this gives the engine an extra kick at about the 6,200-rpm level. Both Motor Trend and Road & Track report that the system has been refined to provide a smoother transition to the high-rpm cam profile than in previous Toyota engines.
The engine is mated to a six-speed, close-ratio manual transmission (also from Toyota), designed to offer short, quick shifts as power is transferred to the rear wheels. A shift light lets the driver know when he's getting close to the redline, which in the Elise is 8,000 rpm.
Next, we'll take a closer look at what makes a Lotus a Lotus -- low weight and great handling.
How Does the Elise Compare?
How does a car like the Elise stand up to its counterparts in the world of high-performance cars? By losing weight -- trimming away the extras and keeping the Elise under 2,000 pounds (900 kg).
If all this talk of being "light" and "fast" seems kind of vague, let's put it into perspective. The 2004 Porsche Carrera GT boasts over 600 hp, but it weighs in at about 3,200 lbs (1,450 kg). That's more than a half-ton heavier than the Elise. Even an Enzo Ferrari, with 650 hp, is a heavyweight at 3,200 lbs (Motor Trend, Oct. 2004). In a straight-line run, that horsepower would put the Elise to shame in terms of top speed. But on a tight, twisting road course, the $40,000 Elise could outperform cars that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
The stock U.S. Elise has a curb weight of 1,984 lbs (900 kg), a few pounds more than the European Elise. This is due mainly to the addition of air bags and other features needed to pass U.S. federal safety standards. The Elise Sport package drops 20 lbs. (9 kg) from the stock weight, while the Touring package adds 15 pounds (7 kg).
The Elise's light weight is achieved through several different methods. It starts with the chassis, which is made of aluminum. Formed of bonded aluminum sheets in a tub shape, the Elise chassis only weighs 150 lbs (68 kg). The Elise's weight is driven down a bit more by the use of lightweight carbon fiber on sections of the undertray.
Next, the Elise is a very small car -- a two-seat roadster with only a small stowage space for luggage. The short wheelbase (90.5 inches/230 cm) also keeps the car's profile trim and compact, and the stock Elise only has a cloth roof.
Finally, Lotus kept the Elise's weight down by stripping away many of the comforts that are considered mandatory in a high-priced car. We'll discuss the Elise's interior in greater detail later on, but for now, it's sufficient to say that the inside of this car is spartan. Much of the aluminum tub is left exposed, and many of the interior panels have large holes drilled through them to further cut weight.
In the next section, we'll take a look at the Elise's cornering and stopping ability.
Virtually everyone who has had the pleasure of test driving an Elise has noted how well it handles. The car darts through turns, is very responsive to the driver and yet doesn't feel too "twitchy." How did Lotus make the Elise handle so well?
It turns out it isn't anything fancy -- just an independent double-wishbone suspension with quality springs and shocks and anti-roll bars (exactly what kind depends on whether you have the stock or the Sport package), all carefully tuned by the experts at Lotus.
The Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 tires are mounted on eight-spoke, cast-alloy wheels in the stock version. The Sport package gets you Yokohama A048 LTS tires tuned for the Elise and mounted on lightweight wheels. Four-wheel, vented disc brakes with ABS take the Elise from 60 mph (97 kph) to a dead halt in 105 ft (32 m), a Road & Track record (Road & Track, August, 2004).
Because the Elise isn't meant to reach ultra-high speeds, Lotus did not worry too much about aerodynamics. With a top speed of 150 mph (240 kph), the Elise's smooth shape isn't as streamlined as some of the European supercars. The undercarriage has been designed to reduce lift, helping to keep the rear wheels on the ground at high speeds.
So what's it like inside an Elise? Check out the next section.
Remember what we said about the interior being spartan? Well, it's also small. Climbing in and out of an Elise can be a complicated maneuver for anyone over 5 feet tall.
The driver's seat is adjustable -- it can move forward or back. But the passenger seat, which is smaller than the driver's seat, isn't adjustable at all.
Minimal carpeting and upholstering covers certain section of the seats and the floor. The stock Elise comes with air conditioning and a CD player, but that's pretty much it in terms of driver comfort (Car and Driver, July 2004).
Combine the spartan, tiny interior with the Elise's penchant for letting the driver know exactly how the road feels (bumps and all), and you can see that this is not a car designed for the daily commute. Road and engine noise are a particular annoyance (hence the sound-dampening option in the Touring package). Nevertheless, the Elise reportedly is not an uncomfortable car -- it just isn't as comfortable as you might expect a $40,000 car to be. For some, that lack of comfort is part of the appeal. The Elise is a pure performance roadster.
How do you get your hands on one? Read on...
Buying an Elise
The Elise is different from many high-performance European cars in more ways than one. For one thing, you don't have to be a millionaire to buy one. While the stock sticker price of $40,780 isn't exactly chump change, it hardly compares to the $600,000 supercars that are available.
The main stumbling block with the Elise is a low supply. Only 2,200 Elises were initially shipped to the United States, so many potential buyers are on long waiting lists. When the first Elise was delivered to the United States in July 2004, pre-orders were already in excess of the production run. You can't just walk into a Lotus dealership and buy one -- every car must be special-ordered.
For more information on the Lotus Elise and other high-performance cars, check out the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- DeLorenzo, M., Frere, P., & Norris, I. "Euro Flash." Road & Track, May 2004.
- Sessions, Ron, editor. "Motor Trend 2005 & 2006 New-Car Buyer's Guide." Motor Trend, Oct. 2004.
- Smith, Kevin. "2005 Lotus Elise: Possibly the Best-Handling Car You Can Buy." Motor Trend, July 2004.
- St. Antoine, Arthur. "A Twist of Le Mans." Motor Trend, Oct. 2004.
- Swan, Tony. "The Lotus Elise is here at last. So where does it fit in the U.S. sports car continuum?" Car and Driver, July, 2004.
- Wolfkill, Kim. "2005 Lotus Elise: Featherweight Flyer." Road & Track, August 2004.
- MotorTrend.com: Lotus delivers first Elise - July 22, 2004
- PureSportsCar.com: Lotus Elise FAQ