Life After 8000 RPM: Lotus Elise and Mazda RX-8

A. J. Mueller

Nevertheless, it's been a quiet four years since the 16X rotary engine concept was shown at the 2007 Tokyo auto show, and we don't expect a rotary reveal any time soon. Mazda first needs to create a new generation of passenger cars without help from Ford -- an exercise that requires massive financial resources. Japan's fourth-largest automaker is just now launching the engines, transmissions, and platforms for the cars that form the bread and butter of the business (see page 36), and Mazda will almost certainly introduce new compact and mid-size sedans before it's ready to bring forth a new Wankel-powered sports car.

Over in England, Lotus is undergoing a similar reconciliation with market realities, hoping for newfound relevance with five new models aimed at Porsche, Ferrari, and McLaren. But until those cars arrive beginning in early 2013, Lotus's trajectory looks disturbingly similar to a going-out-of-business sale. Although the prototypes are designed around uncommon modularity and promise competitive specs, the manufacturing and funding schemes remain nebulous. Not to mention Lotus's constant state of uncertainty for the past six decades. The Elise had to bow out in 2012 because Lotus lost its exemption to sell cars without the dual-stage, weight-sensing air bags required by U.S. law, a seemingly low hurdle to clear when Nissan can package the requisite hardware in a $12,000 Versa. When Lotus couldn't come up with a car for this story, we tapped our friends at Fox Motorsports in western Michigan, and they produced a pristine 2009 Elise with just 3000 miles on the odometer.

Compared with the fiery, track-only Lotus 2-Eleven and the barely street-legal Exige that are built from the same architecture, the base Elise is a model of restraint and well-rounded balance. The most modest Elise is our favorite, and it need not apologize for the few concessions it makes to civility, because even by sports car standards, it is still radically extreme. There are no carpets, seat padding is thin, and the doors appear to be afterthoughts in this minimalist car. All for good reason, though. Whereas adding power improves acceleration, removing weight improves acceleration, cornering, and braking. Lotus's noble pursuit of low weight resulted in a sub-2000-pound car with perfect dynamic manners.

Freed of a conservative Toyota host, the 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE engine (codeveloped by Toyota and Yamaha) is an unexpectedly awesome performer. Lotus engineers added their own intake and exhaust and revised engine mapping to lift output by 20 hp and bolster low- and midrange torque. At 6200 rpm, a valve-timing shift prompts a second surge in the engine, one that you can hear as well as feel. The exhaust note crescendos and the seat pushes against you more firmly as the Lotus surges toward its 8500-rpm redline.

Then you turn the steering wheel, and the mid-engine Elise carves its way to the place in your mind reserved for the important memories in life like weddings and births and that time you picked up a girl who was totally out of your league. The unassisted steering leads to revelations about how a car should communicate with the driver. Affected only by the speed of the pavement passing beneath the tires, the effort behind every movement of the steering wheel rises and falls as your pace falls and rises. The fast rack means that even the tightest turns around the track require little more than a quarter turn of the wheel.

While the RX-8 changes directions with benign compliance, the Elise moves with rabid obedience. The difference is massive in the mind of a focused driver. The Lotus is more eager to follow the driver's commands, intentional or otherwise, into oversteer or understeer. This level of honesty and control makes it a singular driver's car. The Elise's few faults -- like a balky shifter and abhorrent ingress -- recede with every mile driven. The humble yet hungry engine, the pure steering, and the Elise's willingness to follow your every intention make it one car that changes how you feel about all other cars. I should own an Elise. I should own this Elise.

Unfortunately, that very thought has already planted itself in the mind of the Elise's handler, this magazine's former road test editor Marc Noordeloos. Now would be a wise time to invest in featherlight, mid-engine sports cars before the market makes a run on them. Every car nut with a properly calibrated brain will inevitably come to the same realization. While the future for Mazda's rotary looks promising, the Elise's ideals appear to be in jeopardy. It doesn't actually exist yet, but Lotus says the next Elise will have power-assisted steering and 400 pounds of additional stuff. That takes it halfway to a Porsche Cayman -- a great car but not nearly as special as the Elise.

These two cars do things differently from other sports cars. Each one creates a driving experience unlike any other car. Their only common bond -- being normally aspirated, high-rpm screamers -- is an increasingly rare characteristic when so many performance cars rely on turbochargers to produce performance within the bounds of fuel-economy regulations.

In adopting a different approach to internal combustion and in making a car that corners, accelerates, and brakes like the world's most respected supercars, Mazda and Lotus have done something rare in the auto industry these days.

It's too bad that you can't buy a new car with a rotary engine or one that weighs less than a ton (save for the Smart ForTwo), but when good cars can't be bought in dealerships, they trade in a market that values them as more than cars. Prized by dedicated enthusiasts and collectors, they ascend to a legendary status. Even if the Lotus Elise and the Mazda RX-8 aren't quite legends yet, their retirement certainly puts them one step closer.


The Final Countdown
Mazda RX-8
U.S. Introduction 2003
Total sold 73,242
Peak Sales 23,690 (2004)
2011 sales* 705
Price at introduction $25,700
2011 price $27,590
Assembly Hiroshima, Japan

Lotus Elise
U.S. introduction
Total sold 5400**
Peak sales 3300 (2005)**
2011 sales* 200**
Price at introduction $40,780
2011 price $52,970
Assembly Hethel, England
*through October 2011 **est., per Lotus PR

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That was a tear jerking video. I own a rotary. The insight on the history of the Elise and its purpose was great. Kudos to Automobile Mag, you are one of the few that write about the rotary from the heart. I've been reading since the 90's. thx

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