Lotus has at long last designed an Elise for America. It makes its debut at the Los Angeles auto show and goes on sale midway through the year. That's the good news. The better news is bolted behind this compact, hip-high roadster's snug cockpit: Opening the hatch reveals a real humdinger of an engine from Toyota. Elises for other markets are currently powered by Rover's worthy but aging K-series engine.
Friendships forged when Toyota owned a slice of Lotus help explain why the Japanese were enthusiastic about supplying the 1.8-liter, four-cylinder 2ZZ-GE engine, which features variable valve timing and is mated to a six-speed gearbox. This package increases weight by 77 pounds, but other factors more than compensate for the burden. Precise figures were not available when we drove a pre-production car, but the final numbers will be very close to 190 horsepower at 7800 rpm and 133 pound-feet of torque at 6800 rpm. The 118-horsepower Elise is already a driver's delight, so you can imagine what a 60 percent power hike does for this roadgoing racing car.
When the Elise was announced back in 1996, Lotus boasted the world's first production-car chassis made of epoxy-bonded aluminum extrusions. The unladen weight was only 1521 pounds. The U.S. model tips the scales at nearly 2000 pounds because of the heavier engine and gearbox, air conditioning, twin oil coolers, and other features that are deemed essential for America. Despite the increase, the Elise is more than 800 pounds lighter than Porsche's Boxster S. In power-to-weight terms, it rivals the Chevrolet Corvette.
A glance at the torque figures gives the impression of a car that needs to be stirred through the gears to maintain progress. In fact, the engine's midrange flexibility has to be experienced to be believed. Contrary to expectations, the tighter of Lotus's test tracks could be lapped quite briskly in fourth or even fifth gear. At the other extreme, there's lots of top-end pull when the rev counter's needle races toward 8000. Lotus expects the Elise to reach 60 mph from rest in 4.9 seconds and go on to a 150-mph maximum.
The extra weight has not made any appreciable difference to the outstanding agility that accounts for the Elise's ongoing popularity in Britain and other markets. Lotus founder Colin Chapman was an uncompromising character, but the Elise is a reminder that the best of his cars combined scalpel-sharp handling with a remarkably compliant ride. Factors that make the Elise so entertaining include bespoke Yokohama tires and exceptionally communicative steering. The original Elise was twitchy at the limit-we recall leaving a test track backward in one-but the new version is very predictable when pushed.
Quibbles? A driver with big feet can snag the footrest while trying to depress the clutch; when the ragtop's in place, getting in and out will test many a driver's spinal flexibility; and Lotus will have to convince potential customers that the name is no longer an acronym for Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious. That said, Americans are expected to buy some 2500 Elises per year, which will account for about 50 percent of the factory's annual output. There are plans to increase the dealer network from thirty-eight to about fifty during the next two years.
Lotus has struggled to survive in America, but the exhilarating Elise represents a bold new beginning and deserves to succeed. This inspirational roadster is blessed with the magic that makes a good driver feel like a champion.