Besides being great for gratuitous throttle blipping, Bourbon Street is also a perfect venue for pedestrians to inspect the car and, since the roof is off, to ask questions about it as we inch past. I say "It's a Lotus Elise" so many times that the words start to lose meaning. "It's a Lotus Elise. It's a Locust E-Lease. It's a Hocus Elite." Outside our hotel, I approach the parked Elise to find a woman excitedly telling her friends all the key specs. She knows more about the car than anyone we've met thus far, and when she introduces herself, it's clear why: her name, too, is Elise. Elise continues her monologue on the eponymous vehicle: "She's got an aluminum tub, and she weighs about 2000 pounds. She just came over to the U.S." That's right, I think, she does have an aluminum- What? She? Elise might think that just because she's a woman, the car is, too, but she's wrong. The Anthropomorphic Cartoon Car Gender Test poses the question: When you imagine a given vehicle as an anthropomorphic cartoon car, does it have big eyelashes on the headlights or big eyebrows over them? The Elise would have big, mean eyebrows, femme name not-withstanding. I rest my case.
We restrict our Hurricane intake in New Orleans with an eye toward the next day, when we have to cover 600 miles to reach mighty Rome. By the time we're outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, highway dementia has taken over. "Why did the elephant go to the dentist?" I ask Murph. "Because he had a Tuska-loosa!" Murph is a tough crowd, but then again, he's preoccupied with trying to spit tobacco juice into an empty water bottle while shivering uncontrollably. The soft top is in the trunk, but we haven't used it yet, and I'm determined to reach Rome having gone roofless the entire way.
At our final fuel stop, a woman in a Bama sweatshirt tells us, "Y'all be careful in that itty-bitty car. I don't want it to get any smaller than it already is." Thanks for the concern, Bama Mama.
Rome, Georgia, lacks the historical trappings of the Italian version, but it has an Outback Steakhouse that's still open, and that's affirmation of civilization to us. I don't need aqueducts or a gladiator arena as long as I can get a New York strip at 8:00 on a Sunday night.
The Elise draws so much attention in car-crazed Rome that we find a crowd standing around the car after dinner. I take one local car buff for a spin around the reaches of the empty parking lot of the adjacent mall and, er, test the limits of adhesion. "Nobody in Rome has a stock exhaust or a stock stereo," he tells me as I tighten the arc of our turn and the Elise continues to grip relentlessly, despite its motorcycle-like 175-section-width front tires. One of the local kids, spying us playing skid pad in the Lotus, takes out his mid-'90s 300ZX and demonstrates the art of the donut.
Within thirty seconds, I'm handing my license to an extremely unhappy officer of the law who demands to know if (a) I want to go to jail and (b) I like to run down children in busy parking lots. There are more children in the cast of Cocoon than there are in this parking lot, but I keep that observation to myself and assume the role of polite groveler.
The cops know the tire smoke didn't come from the Lotus, so, after a few stern warnings and, strangely, some advice about the best local places to speed, my license is returned, the fuzz depart, and the Outback Steakhouse of Rome reverts to its natural state of lawlessness and depravity.
Final tally: 1700 miles, one speeding ticket, and zero mechanical issues, even after our cleanliness-seeking photographer sprayed the engine with a pressure washer while I winced and murmured incantations that it might start again. The interior is mostly bare metal, there's no power steering, and the radio is so bad that you expect Ashton Kutcher to run out from behind a bush and tell you that you've been Blau-Punk'd. None of that changes the fact that the Elise is just about the most fun you can have for $41,000. When you're driving down a twisty road, the Momo wheel alive in your hands, your eyes at the height of a Camry's plastic door cladding, and that overgrown crotch-rocket motor sitting behind your ears just begging for ludicrous revolutions, there really isn't another car you'd rather have. The highway is a different story, but it's not as if you're driving a wheeled iron maiden-toughen up a little. I certainly hope that in the Colosseum of the American market, Lotus's little gladiator manages to fend off the lions. It deserves to live.