Pretend for a moment that you had access to a fleet of exotic cars. Everything from near $300,000 exotics like the McLaren MP4-12C, the new Lamborghini Huracan, the ubiquitous exotic, the Ferrari 458 and a host of other high horsepower fare. What would you choose? Naturally, you go for the 1.8L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder. Or at least that was my choice when our friends at Club Sportiva offered up a loaner while I was wandering around Northern California recently. More on who they are, and why you should care, in a future feature article, this is about a diminutive Lotus and why it’s one of the best cars you can buy. Take a look at the video first, then continue below.
I’m not going to pretend that this Louts has a racing pedigree engine. The 2ZZ-GE is a 1.8 L (1796 cc or 109.6 in³) 190 HP 4-cylinder found in the US market Toyota Celica GT-S and Pontiac Vibe XRS. It made its way into a bunch of other Japanese and Australian market cars., but the were all Corollas and Celicas. Eventually it found some forced induction for US and UK Lotus Exige models, bumping output up to 243 supercharged horsepower. Your first question, should you not have had a prior opportunity to drive an Elise, is “is it enough”. The answer is, pretty much. Weighing around 1900 pounds, you don’t need much. To put that into modern context, the latest ND Mazda Miata we drove weighs 2,332 pounds and puts out 155 rear-drive horsepower. We thought that was good fun, so imagine what another 35hp will do for you. Lotus added its own intake and exhaust to give it a more unique sound. The result is entertaining intake noises up front paired with a brap brap sound coming from (not that far) behind you. The little Lotus has never been about outright speed anyway, it’s about that chassis. I mean dat chassis, is that what the kids are saying?
Lotus produced the first run of the Elise, the “Series 1” in the late 90s. Unfortunately evolving crash test standards in Europe meant an end to the production around 2000. Thankfully the General stepped in and GM funded the production of the Series 2 cars, which I was driving in Cali. You may recall the Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220 which looks quite similar to the little Lotus, which makes sense as that’s what GM got out of the deal, a pair of (Euro-only) roadsters. The new chassis, federalized for the US in 2004 for a 2005 launch, was heavier but much more powerful and resulted in the car you see before you. To say it’s communicative, elemental, or any other adjective used to describe basic driver focused cars like this, is a gross understatement. I don’t think I’ve sat this low since I owned a Big Wheel as a kid, looking up at cars like the Fiat 500 was mind bending. Driving beside Chevy Tahoe’s was mildly terrifying. Being alongside an 18-wheeler was actually terrifying. Although at one point I thought I may be able to pull a The Fast and the Furious and change lanes underneath one I was so low to the ground.
But driving an Elise on a twisty road, it all makes sense. As you saw in the video, it’s a joy. I found myself staring up through the big California trees and just smiling as the sun broke through and warmed my (chilly) face. The double control arms front and rear suspension received a bit more damping for the US market to handle the extra weight (of the car, not the owner, Brits are fat too) and it stays flatter through the curvy bits than just about any car I’ve ever driven. There is no power steering, which really only matters in low speed turning. When this little roadster is moving, steering feel is as pure as it gets. No electric assist here. Same with traction control and (I believe) ABS, don’t have it, didn’t need it. I can only really compare it to an NA Miata, but with an even better suspension, and less weight. It makes the rest of the car bearable. Most of the time.
It has one. Just. Sitting inside of an Elise…wait, rewind a bit…getting into an Elise is a gymnastic event. You have two options and they can vary on their success levels depending on your height and build. One is ass first, and as a breach baby, that’s how I came into the world. So that was my first attempt, open the door, lean across the mile-wide sills and plop your keister into the firm bucket seat. Then it’s sort of a contortion ritual where your right knee has to get past the steering wheel to allow your foot to get to the pedals. Repeat for your other leg, close door. Option two is feet first, and only really works with the top removed. I removed said top when I picked the car up from Club Sportiva, and never put it back on! So you basically hop into the car, landing feet first on the bare metal floorboards. Then you allow gravity to do it’s job and fall straight down onto the rock hard seat. There is a third, Dukes of Hazzard version where you attempt option two without opening the doors. You just hop the side like a gymnast on a vault and try and stick the landing. The top is primitive to say the least, two bendable plastic pieces snap into place and a fabric top is rolled across, latching on either side. As I said, I learned how to take it on and off, but for the experience, it remained stowed in the “boot”.
Once inside you are greeted by, well only the crap you need to drive plus a “stereo”. The Lotus emblazoned wheel is small, but feels a little large for such a small car, it’s all relative. The metal ball shifter falls right to hand and these two tools, along with the three pedals down at your feet, will be everything you need to make the Lotus dance. The seats are surprisingly comfortable for what they are, non-adjustable racing seats. I spent an hour or more in the Lotus between Club Sportiva’s Silicon Valley clubhouse and beautiful Monterey. I never really felt as uncomfortable as I expected, and even with the top down and the heater blasting onto the floor, stayed pretty warm during chilly November drives.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “this guy went to an exotic car rental place, got the pick of the garage, and walked out with a little Lotus? I sure did, and I don’t regret it. Aside from all the obvious superlatives about it being a pure drivers car and the like, it’s also a car I didn’t see another one of during my whole trip! Ferrari 458, yep saw a few of those along the route. Porsches? Dozens. Tesla Model S’s? Even the P85D was thick on the ground. Sure that orange McLaren with scissor doors would have been cool, but it was out with a customer. During its entire US production run (2005-2011), there were just over 6000 Elise and hardtop Exige cars sent to our shores. That’s not many. So The Elise gets a lot of attention, double takes from people became commonplace. Many were likely thinking “WTF is that” or “wow that’s tiny” or “hey, bald guy in a convertible, how original” and so forth. But I don’t care, this was for me and my own driving nirvana. It’s a great looking car in my subjective opinion (I know that’s redundant) and the big fenders give you the perfect crosshairs to aim it where you want it to go. The black wheels look purposeful and the overall shape of the car makes it seem even more super than it is. You saw my thoughts on vehicle design, if they can sell a car that looks like this under $50,000, why not $30,000?
Driving an Elise is all about how it makes you feel. Corny, but incredibly true. There’s a reason why this white coupe is so popular with exotic-minded renters at Club Sportiva, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a cartoon of a normal car and could have been drawn by a kid in elementary school who’s been asked to show what all cars should look like. It’s small but brings with a huge personality and an eager “let’s go, let’s go” of a terrier or some sort of energetic dog. It begs to be driven hard, and it was. At no point did I get sideways or out of control though, that dog is also obedient and literally goes where you point it. I have never had so much back road fun in a car, save for maybe a few times parked along a country road with a female companion. And even then, it was high school, the Lotus may still have the edge since it knows what it’s doing (and neither of us did in high school) and it makes you feel like you know what you are doing.
So the big question, would I own one? Naturally it’s an answer as complex as the car, and ends with “that depends”. As a daily driver, well, um, probably not. I’ve daily driven a Miata and regularly thought “where in the hell am I going to put (fill in the blank)?” So in an even more basic car, you won’t be bringing much along with you. As you can see from the pic above, I managed to get a carry-on roller suitcase and my camera gear bag into the passenger seat. Had I had anyone with me, the small compartment behind the engine would not have swallowed my gear. I did drive up to Carmel to visit Eastwood’s Mission Ranch restaurant, and took a colleague with me. He’s roughly my size (6′, 180lbs) and we were, um, cozy in the Lotus. Plus no matter how much you practice, you’ll never look cool trying to get in, or out of your Elise. So don’t expect to pick up any chicks, literally or figuratively, in this car. Might be a great way to meet guys though, if that’s your thing! So as a 2nd, or maybe 3rd car, it’s epically good. It’s track ready, its Toyota-sourced powerplant should be pretty reliable, assuming the British wiring stays in tact, and any time you want to go bombing through a back road it will put one hell of a smile on your face.