BY ANDY ENRIGHT
When the definitive automotive history of the 20th Century is written, the Lotus Elise will be worthy of a lengthy footnote. Although the original Series I car was the version that broke new ground, the Series II is a more accomplished proposition. Better built, prettier and an even better handler, the Series II Elise is an attractive used target. Here's the lowdown on this king of light entertainment.
Models Covered: (2 dr roadster 1.8 petrol ) Series 1, 2 & 3 1996 - to date [base, 111, 111S, 135bhp Sport Pack, Sport 135R, 190, Type 23, Type 25, Type 72]
When it was first launched back in August 1996 as an entry-level model to a range which at that point consisted solely of the ageing Esprit, few realised quite what a landmark sports car the Elise would become, especially as it followed hot on the heels of the commercial flop that was the Elan. 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. The back to basics approach was an instant hit and for the next five years across a wide range of subtly different versions, the Elise racked up some very respectable sales. An all-new Series 2 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 the 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. A 190bhp track oriented version was also introduced alongside the Type 72, a special edition model that aped the JPS colour schemes of Seventies Lotus F1 cars. Although it had been offered as an upgrade kit to existing cars since February 2002, it wasn't until May 2003 that the punchy Sport 135R was offered as a model in its own right, giving customers a more affordable but no less capable trackday weapon. In 2009, the fuel economy and emissions of all the Elise models was improved. Series 3 models were annunced in late 2015.
What You Get
The original philosophy was always wheels, engine, suspension, a driving position that almost sits you on the floor and a great deal of exposed aluminium and fresh air. Nothing fancy, no high-tech driving aids or luxury accoutrements. Anything that detracts from the driving experience was excised and everything else pared down to a skeletal dimension. To a certain extent the Elise Series II adhered to that credo but there were options available for those who wanted a few extras. A 111S model was also available including niceties such as carpet, a beefier stereo system and leather trim. Those who wanted a hard top and air conditioning on top saw the new price edging towards the cost of a Porsche Boxster. For oginal buyers, it was best to stick to the standard Elise 111 and revel in its purity. The Elise's chassis was unchanged in '111' form but a few minor modifications were wrought elsewhere. The eight-spoke alloy wheels are the most obvious eye catcher, but the tyres are still the same size. The same size as the standard Elise that is, as the rears are, in true Elise style, an inch bigger in diameter than the fronts. A neat rear diffuser sits beneath the twin exhausts and this is probably the view that many drivers will get when they challenge a 111 to a stoplight grand prix. The 111 shares the redesigned hood with the rest of standard car. Stopping short of the roll bar it no longer resembles an ill-fitting toupee and looks far better integrated. 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
The accelerator pivot bolt can work loose on the complex cable mechanism under the dash. Trying to resolve this problem by adjusting the cable will result in partial throttle opening. The pivot bolt works loose gradually and if you find it early on it can be fixed by re-tightening the bolt with a 7mm spanner and some time spent on your back in the footwell. If the problem has gone undetected for a while, the bolt threads will be damaged and it must be replaced. 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. Head gasket problems have materialised on some K Series engines but the engine was modified in March 2001 to rectify this issue. 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 number of problems such as the rattly pedal box, sticking windows, steering rack wear and faulty boot release cable were addressed with the Series II car but the later cars can occasionally suffer from loose undertrays and it's recommended that the zinc-plated bolts are replaced by stainless steel ones.
(approx based on a 2001 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 £135 and a new windscreen is £240. A door mirror is £115, 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. As ever, the focus is on ultimate driving pleasure. The standard car's K-series engine is tuned to 120bhp, up a couple of horsepower on the old unit. Should you want more power, a pair of Elise 111 models exist, but most will find the standard car quite adequate. The close ratio five-speed gearbox that was such a hit with owners of the 'old' Elise 111S has found its way into the latest car, along with a remapped engine control unit to give more aggressive throttle response. This shorter gearing affects the car's performance, which means that top speed is down 1mph to 125mph, although the Elise's sprinting ability has been transformed. It's now possible to hit 60mph in only 5.7 seconds, and 100mph is attainable in just 17.2 seconds, 0.2 and 0.8 seconds quicker respectively than the best figures the old car could generate, despite a weight penalty of 22kg. The 111 is quicker still, its 156bhp version of the same engine capable of propelling the car to 60mph in 5.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 131mph. You'll recoup a tiny bit of the additional asking price back at the pumps, though as the 111 is, somewhat improbably, more economical than the standard car. Speak to Lotus nicely and they will even sell you a 190bhp warrior designed largely with track days in mind. Despite the attractions of the 190bhp rocket, the Elise 135R is probably the best balanced Elise currently available if pure driving pleasure is your bag. The Sport 135R differs from the 111S in offering less power but more poise, the stiffer suspension and close ratio gearbox making it a purer tool. Whether it would be quicker around a track is open to debate, the 135R probably having the edge on a twisty circuit where a talented driver could negate the 111's torque and horsepower advantage. The 135R isn't going to appeal to everybody - in fact the ride is so stiff over city streets that it will test the patience of all but the most committed. Anybody who has completed a fair few laps in a Mk1 car will know the meaning of 'lift off oversteer', which for the uninitiated is that moment when you lift off the gas whilst cornering at full commitment, causing the weight to shift to the front of the car thus making the back end spin out. Although a light car like the Elise will often spin innocuously to a standstill by the side of the track in a short distance, it was a trait that Lotus were determined to iron out of the Mk2 car. The 135R will benignly tuck its nose in if you attempt to provoke it in this fashion, and it requires a combination of lifting off followed by a wilful boot of the accelerator pedal to get the back end unstuck. Those who enjoy thrilling trackday spectators with a flashy display of tail out heroics should stick to their BMW M3s. What's interesting is that Lotus engineered this trait out of the Vauxhall VX220 by fitting it with relatively slim front tyres but for the 135R, they feel confident enough to fit bigger rubber up front, a testament indeed to the inherent 'rightness' of the 135R suspension set up.
Although there are plenty of rival attractions for your cash, if you want a lightweight sports car that can double up as a track car with a minimum of fuss, the Lotus Elise is still king. A little more civilised but no less serious, the Series II model makes a decent used buy, especially if you track down a car that has led a pampered existence. Believe it or not, these do exist, usually owned by those who find the car a little uncompromising for High Street posing. Find a good one and you'll wonder why it took you so long to get behind the wheel of a car that makes almost everything else look seem dull-witted and bovine. A true five-star car.