BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If you take a look at a Lotus Elise sitting on a dealer forecourt, there's not a great deal of car there to get excited about. In fact, it may seem quite expensive with its modest Rover K-Series 1.8-litre engine and conspicuous lack of standard equipment. It certainly doesn't cosset its owner like an Alfa Romeo GTV Spider, or have the inherent user-friendliness of a Mazda MX-5. If you're in the market for a used Elise however, these considerations won't matter a jot. You value a chassis so pure it's 100% proof, reactions quicker than a fly and the ability to make you feel as if the Queen's highway has metamorphosed into an extended kart-track purely for your personal pleasure.
Models Covered: (2 dr roadster 1.8 petrol Series 1 1996-2001 [base, 111S, Sport 135, Sport 160]) Series II 2001 - to date [base, 111, 111S, 135bhp Sport Pack, Sport 135R]
The Lotus Elise was launched back in August 1996 as an entry-level model to a range which at that point consisted solely of the ageing Esprit product line. Using a Rover 1.8-litre four-cylinder K Series engine, it was made of glass fibre and was fitted as standard with a soft-topped targa roof. The chassis was made of bonded aluminium, and the Elise was only available with a five-speed manual gearbox. In March 1998, Lotus responded to the growing number of Elise enthusiasts who used their cars as track toys by offering a track-use only VHPD 190 model. December 1998 saw the introduction of a limited edition of 90 Sport 135 models. Available in metallic silver only, the Sport 135 boasted a tuned 135 bhp version of the K Series engine, close ratio gearbox, competition seats, stiffer suspension and uprated brakes. The Elise range was extended in March 1999 by the addition of the 111S model, which utilised the 143bhp VVC version of the Rover K Series engine - a power unit it shared with the MGF VVC. This model could be identified by a different grille with driving lamps, bigger rear wheels and tyres, a larger rear spoiler, different seats and a carbon fibre trim on the dashboard. It also received a close ratio gearbox and drilled brake discs. The Elise 111S lasted until summer 2000, when it was replaced by the Sport 160, a model which ditched the VVC engine opting instead for a tuned version of the standard unit. An all-new Elise line up was announced for the 2001 model year with sleeker styling and some modifications to the engine and suspension. The first major change for this second generation Elise came in summer 2002 when 111 and 111S models were introduced, both powered by a 156bhp version of the 1.8-litre K-series engine. Spring 2003 saw the introduction of the track-oriented Sport 135 as a model in its owne right.
What You Get
Wheels, engine, suspension, a driving position that almost sits you on the floor and a great deal of exposed aluminium and fresh air are what you're getting with an Elise. Nothing fancy, no high-tech driving aids or luxury accoutrements. Anything that detracts from the driving experience has been ruthlessly junked, and everything else has been pared down to a skeletal dimension. It's possible to specify leather seats, you can fit a stereo system (just) and you get a remarkably effective heater, but that really is about it. The Elise cabin is astonishingly stark. The standard fit soft-top is probably the car's worst feature. Requiring a complicated combination of folding, dismantling struts, locating high-tension bows and going to work with an allen-key, it might seem worth the effort if the hood looked good or was effective when it was mounted. Unfortunately the hood has been described as looking like either an ill-fitting toupee or a face-hugging nasty from Alien. As an additional bonus, it's loud and has a tendency to leak as well. Best to keep your Elise garaged unless you want to be driving it whilst sitting on a bin-bag in the mornings. Practicality is something of a token afterthought. There's a narrow space behind the front seats, and a tiny boot, but that's about it. Entry and exit from the Elise requires a fair degree of suppleness, especially with the hood up, and will deter any female occupants from wearing a skirt. Even Lotus test drivers look like they're trying to effect a sneaky exit from a curry house toilet window when getting out of an Elise. Best to leave the hood off, the windows down and just step over the door.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Whilst many Elises will show low mileages on their odometers, it's safe to assume that those miles will largely have been spent being wrung out at ten-tenths. If you know what to look for and can converse knowledgeably with its vendor, there's no reason why an Elise shouldn't make a great used buy. The mechanicals are pretty tough. The Rover K Series engine is a hardy little beast, the main problem being that later cars leak coolant from the sealings around their plastic intake manifolds. Always ensure that the engine has been treated to frequent oil checks and changes. If the owner has receipts for frequent synthetic oil changes, you know you're onto a winner. The cam belt will need changing every six years or 54,000 miles, whichever arrives first. Negotiate hard on cars approaching this mileage which have yet to have the work done, although the job only costs around £200 to do. Gear selection should be clean and easy, although many keen drivers will have modified the linkage cable for a quicker shift. The toe-link joints in the rear suspension are particularly prone to wear, but at £11 each, replacements won't break the bank. A rattly pedal box is a recurring Elise problem. Throttle pedal bushes and seizing clutch pedals are not unknown, and you may well have to fix the passenger footrest down, as this can become noisy. Window winders are another bugbear, becoming very sticky or seized. Hoods are often leaky due to errant seals and you'll need to inspect the fibreglass around the two rearmost hood mounting points. This area is prone to 'crazing' and the pins that are screwed into the bodywork have been known to tear loose. If you find an Elise with a boot release cable that works properly, count yourself extremely lucky!
(approx based on a 1999 Elise 1.8) Lotus spares are agreeably cheap, as are servicing costs. The key complaint amongst Elise owners regarding replacement parts is the long wait for replacement body panels. Given the length of the British summer, an eight to ten week wait for a body panel can become a massive inconvenience. Other spares are far more readily available. Front discs cost £90, a headlamp unit around £95 and a new windscreen is £240. A door mirror is £85, a front shock absorber retails at around £145 whilst a rear silencer, including tail pipes and trim, won't leave you much change from £400.
On the Road
Whatever faults, inconveniences or costs you'll have to contend with elsewhere, this is where the Elise cranks the equation way over onto the positive side. On the right road, in the right conditions an Elise approaches perfection. The 111S and Sport 135 are slightly quicker than the standard car, but they lack its purity, its sensitivity to the throttle in corners and its friendlier spread of torque. With a rest to sixty time of less than six seconds and a top speed of 125mph, the standard Elise is an awesome B-road tool. It's not so happy droning up a motorway, but that's what Vauxhall Vectras were invented for. The handling is an education for those who have become used to more bloated fare. The steering is telepathically rapid, there's almost no body roll whatsoever, and you can feel every grain, pebble and dimple in the road surface through the seat, the steering wheel and reverberating from the underside of the aluminium tub chassis. Drive on looser surfaces and you'll feel like you're sitting inside a tin shed under fire from the buckshot cavalry. The standard Elise has a handling 'characteristic' that may worry inexperienced drivers. Come into a corner too quickly and either brake or back sharply off the throttle, and the car will start to spin. You'll need extremely quick reactions to catch it, but a measured approach and prior knowledge certainly help. This issue was remedied with the larger rear wheels and rubber fitted to the Elise 111S and eventually ironed out completely in the second generation model. The driving position is extreme; you'll be virtually sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. At first it feels odd, but it soon becomes extremely comfortable. Step from an Elise into, say, a Porsche Boxster and you'll feel like you're sitting on a barstool. One of the upsides of a low weight/modest power setup is astonishingly good fuel consumption. Even used enthusiastically, an Elise will return over 30mpg, which is around three times as good as an equivalent priced and similarly quick Subaru Impreza Turbo.
The roadster sector of the used market is all about the feel-good factor, so it makes a strange sort of sense to plump for the most feel-good, impractical, adolescent plaything around, and that's the Lotus Elise. You won't find a cheap one; reputation and consequent demand have kept used prices pretty high, but once you've swallowed the initial purchase price, the Lotus is cheap to run, is largely reliable and you'll be able to recoup a good proportion of what you paid when the time comes to sell it on. Late standard models are probably the best choice, but whichever model you choose you'll have a modern classic on your hands.