Is the Lotus Elise still the last word in open-top British sports car fun?

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The Lotus Elise first appeared in 1996 and revolutionised small sports car design with its lightweight extruded aluminium chassis and composite body. The model transformed Lotus’s fortunes but, by 2000, European crash regs had caught up with it. Lotus needed some serious cash to bring it up to spec and, cap in hand, approached General Motors. The American giant agreed to help on the understanding that it would get its own branded version of the model, which it called the VX220.

Lotus named its revised Elise the S2. It was in production from 2000 until 2010, when the S3, essentially a facelifted S2, was launched. Purists believe the back-to-basics S1 is the original and best but the S2 is easier to live with and to drive thanks to its more compliant Bilstein suspension, larger wheels, easier roof mechanism and lower sills. It has a revised version of the S1’s chassis but the body is made from an inferior injection-moulded glassfibre composite that unfortunately holds water like a sponge.

It’s the least expensive version of the car that receives most attention

At the S2’s launch, power was provided by a revised version of the S1’s 1.8-litre Rover K-series engine that produced 120bhp for 0-62mph in 5.6sec. In 2002, the 111S arrived, powered by the same engine but fitted with variable valve timing so that it made a punchier 160bhp. It has a close-ratio five-speed gearbox and is worth seeking out. Meanwhile, track-day heroes can choose from the Sport 135 and harder-riding 135R.

7 Elise s 2008 0786b

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In 2004, the Elise R stepped out, powered by Toyota’s 1.8-litre VVTL-i engine. This produced a solid 190bhp, sufficient to drop the 0-62mph dash to 4.9sec. It had a six-speed gearbox and, new for the Elise, power-assisted brakes.

Two years later, in 2006, came a key event in the S2’s life: the demise of the K-series engine. The new entry-level model, the Elise S, was now powered by a 134bhp 1.8-litre Toyota unit. Other changes included the fitting, as standard, of ProBax seats, LED rear lights and Yokohama AD07 tyres (a big improvement on the harder Bridgestone Potenzas originally fitted). A supercharged S2, badged SC, landed in 2008 with 219bhp. This plus the aforementioned 134bhp S and 190bhp R models underpinned the S2 line-up until the arrival of the S3.

Early versions of the S2 are known as ‘long roofs’ for their, well, slightly longer roofs. In 2002, this was replaced by a shorter roof. Both roofs are easier to operate and more watertight than the S1’s but the shorter roof is more watertight still since it was developed for the VX220.

Desirable S2 extras include a sports exhaust and upgraded brakes. Good S2s that have been garaged and cherished are becoming harder to find, and with the Elise now no longer made, prices are sure to rise. Buy now before they do, and if you don’t have a garage, protect your S2 with a good-quality, breathable car cover.

How to get one in your garage

An expert's view

Barry Ely, Barry Ely Sports Cars: “I’ve been selling Elises since 1996 when the S1 came out but, for the money, the S2 is the best driver’s car you can buy. The Bilstein sports suspension is so good that S1 owners replace their Koni set-ups with it. The S2’s composite body is a liability, though, because it absorbs moisture. My favourite S2 is the 160bhp 111S: the performance of the K-series engine is very progressive and the close-ratio ’box is really sweet. At the moment, an S2 is better value than an S1, whose prices are being talked up by purists simply on the basis that it’s the original. I’d take a good S2 any day.”

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Buyer beware...

Engine: Despite the rumours, the K-series head gasket is generally trouble-free but check the dipstick for white gunk anyway. The K-series cambelt should be changed every 36,000 miles or four years. (Toyota engines use a chain.) On K-series radiators, examine the plastic end tanks for leaks.

Gearbox: K-series S2s experience few clutch problems, even in track use, although listen for bearing noise. Clutches on Toyota-engined cars can self-destruct. The same cars can suffer with sticky third gear selection.

Suspension and brakes: Check the front upper wishbone pick-up points for galvanic corrosion where they attach to the chassis. It’s impossible to repair and is often the reason S2s are written off.

Body: Check the fit and alignment of the chassis and glassfibre bodyshell. Examine the single-piece front clamshell for cracks because repairs are expensive. Inspect the body for blistering caused by moisture sweating out of the composite body. Check the hood since new ones aren’t cheap (long roof £1560, short roof £1080).

Interior: Make sure the air-con works since the jointed aluminium pipes can leak badly. Expect the sills to be knocked about. Some early S2s had the S1’s bonded floor mat. Iron filings contaminated the mat and together with moisture cause galvanic corrosion of the aluminium floor.

Also worth knowing

Lotus went to town with options packs for the S2. Among other things, the Touring pack gifted front foglights, a full carpet and extra sound deadening but added around 7kg to the kerb weight. Other packs include Sport and Super Sport, but condition and service history are all that matter today.

Read on to see what we said about the Lotus Elise in 2012


Lotus Elise headlight

In its fundamentals, the latest Lotus Elise is no different from any other produced since 1996. Its base structure is ingenious, and very strong, extruded and bonded lightweight aluminium chassis unit to which the suspension and mid-mounted powertrain are bolted. The suspension is double wishbone all round, and the Elise is almost alone among new cars in having no power steering, although it does, of course, have powered ABS brakes.

The Elise’s roof is relatively easy to demount once mastered, the properly lined fabric part-supported by a pair of removable plastic spars. Replacing it is only marginally harder, but it’s a major source of wind noise.

In its fundamentals, the latest Lotus Elise is no different from any other produced since 1996

The nose section — the ‘clamshell’ in Lotus-speak — features shapely air intakes and headlight units that feature neat LED sidelamps, an instant night-time identifier. The grille retains its distinctive shape and has a mesh in-fill. The vertical tail panel does without strakes at its ends but features attractive ‘Lotus’ raised chrome lettering.

The tail-lights contain attractive circular pattern of LEDs. The rear deck lid features twin central spines and attractive mesh vents. The engine beneath is covered with a large plastic shroud emblazoned with ‘Lotus Performance’ script.

A sizeable rear bumper section features a redesigned splitter - held in with suspiciously cheap-looking bolts - and offset ‘Elise’ script. Side repeaters, just aft of the front wheels, use LEDS.


Lotus Elise dashboard

Given the age of the Lotus Elise, it's no surprise that it looks dated and, more seriously, well adrift of the standards of quality, fit and finish that you’ll find in cars costing under £10,000 these days.

The dashboard plastics look (and sound) cheap, the heating and ventilation controls are almost comically crude (and hard to see), the door trims flex when you press the electric window switches (although the glasses rise and fall with more conviction than those of Lotuses past), the mirrors are manual (and still have that nasty black hole-covering plug in the door), and removing the roof is a fiddly process that requires some force and a knack.

The cabin looks dated and doesn't even have the fit and finish of a £10,000 supermini

The bad news doesn’t end there, either. The seats provide insufficient under-thigh support and the steering column doesn’t adjust, which soon generates an ache. That you must opt for additional sound deadening and carpets has us wondering how much interior noise an unoptioned Elise generates. As it is, the slightly tinny-sounding stereo struggles to battle serious wind noise that begins to build from just 35mph. Removing the roof, of course, will also remove that disappointment.

On the positive side, the seats hold you well during cornering, the small wheel is good to hold, the pedals are well placed, and with a little ingenuity you can get more than you’d think – although that’s still not much – into the nooks and crannies provided for storage. And the boot will swallow a couple of squashy bags with the hood stowed. Getting in and out, however, requires you to be as flexible as ever.

On the equipment front, the Elise Sport and Sport 220 come with cloth seats, a leather steering wheel, a polished aluminium gear and handbrake lever, push to start ignition, central locking and electric windows as standard, while equipping the Lotus with Alcantara, leather, air conditioning, a better stereo and insulation are all optional extras.

Opt for the Elise Cup 250 and you'll find an Alcantara-trimmed interior, while you can opt for racing harnesses, a full leather interior or a carbonfibre aero kit to finish off your Lotus, while the 250 Special Edition gains a silver and black or silver and blue leather upholstery, carbonfibre seats and front airbags. Options for this Elise 250 include a gloss black exterior pack, cruise control and a carbonfibre hard-top roof.

For those intent on using their Elise predominantly on track will have the choice of the Race 250, which includes an aerodynamically optimised body, fixed hard top roof, AP Racing and Brembo brake calipers, a fire extinguisher and FIA approved carbonfibre race seat with a six-point harness. There are options to include a 70-litre fuel tank, air conditioning, headlights and carbonfibre exterior trim.


Lotus Elise 1.6-litre Toyota engine

There are two ways to look at the performance of the Lotus Elise. A 0-60mph time of 6.7sec for a 1.6-litre car is impressive, even if it does weigh 900kg – Elises are getting heavier – and gets there in second gear. (A third-gear 30-50mph time of 4.9sec is pretty useful, too.)

However, take into account the cost of the car and how that sits next to a similarly-performing BMW Z4 (0-62mph 6.6sec) and it looks less clever, especially as the Lotus has nowhere near the flexibility of the BMW Z4, or the far cheaper Mazda MX-5.

There is almost a 2.0sec difference between the Elise Sport and Sport 220 to 62mph

The Lotus Elise Sport 220 adds another dimension, however. It his 62mph from a standstill in 4.2sec and makes 100mph far faster than the standard car. That puts it up against the Porsche 718 Boxster and Nissan 370Z Roadster, both in terms of grunt and price - but it is in a class of its own as far as handling purity and performance go.

This car is all about the driving, so we shouldn’t mind that in the standard car we have to change gear often to keep its eager engine pumping hard. On both engines the best work is done above 5000rpm, when there’s an exhilarating hardening of beat and noticeable extra zest, in the first four gears at least.

Gearshifting is an easy and satisfying business thanks to lower-friction cables, and if the lever still clacks into its gate and flops slightly from side to side, it’s accurate enough to allow for excitingly rapid shifts.



Lotus Elise rear cornering

This is what the Lotus Elise is about, and this is where it absolutely excels. The tactile pleasure begins from the moment its wheels revolve, the steering taking instant effect, its sensitivity just so, the Lotus turning with total obedience. Add lock and the lightness turns to heft as the castor and trail angle take effect, providing enough resistance that you sometimes have to put some muscle into turning the wheel, a sensation almost alien to drivers of modern power-assisted cars.

But that’s part of the pleasure of this Lotus, and the feedback that it provides is more than worth the effort. Especially as it’s such a fabulously well-balanced projectile, the mid-mounted engine (and some fat rear tyres) generating excellent traction and a neutral angle of attack that can be deliciously trimmed with the angle of your right foot. Only tight hairpins charged hard generate noticeable understeer; in faster turns it generates the kind of stability that encourages you to drive this car with exhilarating abandon.

The ride quality is far more supple than you’d expect of a diminutive sportster

Of course, this Elise is hardly a searingly rapid supercar, but the fact that you can drive it flat out more of the time makes this a hugely rewarding weapon. That its control weights are well matched and the brakes generate superb stopping power via a firm and consistent brake pedal only adds to the pleasure.

As does a ride quality that’s far more supple than you’d expect of a diminutive sportster. The Lotus absorbs most small bumps with limited physical disturbance unless the pothole is deep, in which case you’ll feel some kickback through the wheel, while long crests and dips are handled with aplomb. Ridges provoke a bit of a thump from the low-compliance rear end, and there’s a hum of road noise.


Lotus Elise

The Lotus Elise is not a cheap car in any of its guises, given its scale, engine size, finish and equipment, but it’s certainly fair value for its tactile performance.

However, the way the Elise looks and the way it’s built are a clear indication of the car’s age – in spite of tweaks over the years. A Mazda MX-5 is not only much cheaper, it’s much better built. And for not much more money, you can get a BMW Z4 (or Boxster, if comparing with the Sport 220) with similar performance, much better equipment and a level of quality that Lotus owners can only dream about.

An Elise will also hold its value well, and it’s constructed for a potentially indefinite life

Those tempted by an Elise will be further disappointed, if not surprised, to learn that air conditioning is extra, along with carpets and various other features that ought to be standard but are only available as options. This includes part-leather trim, more soundproofing, and a hard-top roof.  Its insurance group is lofty, too.

Better news is that the standard Elise is very economical – the claimed average mpg of 44.8mpg is seriously impressive and our tests showed that it’s not as much of an idle boast as from some rivals. We achieved 36.9mpg, which is some way adrift but not bad considering no attempt was made to save fuel. The Sport 220 hits around 37.7mpg officially - a reasonable drop given its extra levels of performance.

Should you opt for the Elise as a company car, that high mpg and light weight equates to low CO2. Both the Elise Sport and Elise Sport 220 are way better than any car of similar performance.

What’s more, an Elise will also hold its value well, it’s constructed for a potentially indefinite life (especially the mid-mounted Toyota engine) and now has a three-year warranty.



4 star Lotus Elise

The Lotus Elise is utterly brilliant to drive if you’re in the mood. It has one of the world’s best-handling chassis and exquisite steering. Use the gearbox and - in the Elise Sport and Elise Sport 220 - you’ll enjoy an eager, unburstable engine in a car whose size renders these assets fantastically usable.

But this Lotus is old and could be seen as expensive if you like to judge your cars objectively. For instance, an equivalent BMW Z4 may cost a few grand more, but you also get a lot more – certainly in terms of finish and equipment, even if the highs aren’t as high.

Compromised in material quality, refinement and usability, but not performance and handling purity

Relative to those rivals, the Elise is also poorly equipped, with a standard of finish that now looks like a history lesson, and suffers from huge wind noise with the roof up. At least it has proved reliable over the years and now comes with a three-year warranty for added peace-of-mind.

You do get exceptional economy though – better than you have a right to expect from a car with this level of performance.

Yet many of the Elise’s drawbacks can be overlooked when you’re in the middle of a red-mist moment.  At its core, the Elise is still magnificent, and it gets better the sportier the Elise is.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Lotus Elise First drives