Chances are you already know just about everything you need to know about why the Lotus Elise is probably the best handling sportscar in the world, but just in case you’ve been on Mars for the past 20 years, here’s the lowdown.
Launched in 1996, the Elise is the back to basics sportscar that helped Lotus re-discover its old mantra “Simplify, then add lightness”. With previously untouchable levels of poise and handling, the little roadster rocked up to the supercar party and bruised a few Italian egos along the way.
Lotus wanted a very stiff, lightweight chassis for the little roadster, so naturally their first thoughts ran to Double Glazing. Ok, they weren’t interested in the glass, but the Aluminium extrusion manufacturing process that spits out the frames (imagine hot metal being squeezed through a shaped die like toothpaste coming out of a tube).
Most aluminium chassis’ are built by welding aluminium panels together, but the Elises chassis is made up from aluminium extrusions that are bonded (and riveted) together rather than welded. This has its benefits; the tooling to produce the extrusions are much cheaper than that required to press aluminium sheet into complex shapes and an extruded part can also be designed with thickness where you it and thin areas where you don’t, marrying strength with lightness. Bonding also has benefits, it doesn’t heat up critical areas like welding, eliminating warping and allowing for very accurate geometry, it also spreads the load across a larger area than traditional welding. All good. Put simply, the Elises chassis is simple, cheap, stiff and light.
Put simply, the Elises chassis is simple, cheap, stiff and light.
Power came from the 1.8 litre Rover K-series as seen in the MGF. An in-house (Julian Thompson) designed body clothed the sexy exposed chassis with lightweight Glass Fibre panels. Even though the K-Series “only” put out 118bhp as standard, the Elise could still hit 60 in 5.5 seconds due to it’s featherweight sub 800kg mass. But the real revelation was how the car handled. Critics raved about it’s phenomenal steering feel, sublime chassis and beautiful balance. No other car at this price range could even come close, and very few at any price could match the Lotus’ magical qualities of ride and handling. The Elise very quickly became a legend in it’s own lifetime and remains the mid-engined sportscar benchmark to this day.
The S1 ran from 1996 until the launch of the S2 in Feburary 2002. The new car was an evolution rather than revolution, a more modern looking body encompassed tweaks to the chassis that made the car a bit less “raw” and edgy than the original yet still maintained its DNA. The K-Series remained with the car in various guises until the launch of the Toyota engined 111R in January 2004. The new 190bhp VVTL-i unit changed the character of the Elise. Gone was the linear grunt of the K-series and in was a much more “Type-R” experience. Utilising the V-TEC-like Variable Valve Timing and Lift technology designed by Yamaha, the Toyota engine essentially has 2 states: up to about 6000rpm, it’s a nippy engine, over 6000rpm the “fast” bits of the engine wake up and it revs maniacally up to 10,000 rpm. The 111R also featured ABS for the first time on an Elise, specially tuned by Lotus not to cut in too early so that drivers could enjoy on-the-limit braking without a nannying braking system spoiling their fun too early.
The Elise is a simple car underneath, no complicated electronic stability management or fancy gizmos, this means easy maintenance and good reliability. The fact that engines are either K-series or Toyota means no worries there either. There have been overblown horror stories of blown head gaskets with the K-series, but most of those were when they were fitted to the Land Rover Freelander, a much heavier car that put way more stress into the lump. I’ve personally owned 2 S2′s (thats me in my S2 Sports Tourer in the main picture!) and had very little problems and a whole heap of fun. Theres a strong community with Lotus and the Elise in particular which means cars can be run and maintained very cheaply by enthusiasts at a fraction of the cost of more “exotic” brands.
Theres plenty of scope for personalisation and tuning, from simple exhausts and induction kits up to full on engine swaps, the Honda V-TEC K20 from the Civic type R is a popular choice. Check out the video at the bottom of this page for an example.
S1 Sport 190.Introduced in 1997 with a 190bhp version of the K-series, lowered, stiffened suspension, lightened bodywork, uprated wheels and tyres and cast iron brakes in place of the original lightweight MMC (Metal Matrix Composite) disks used in the first cars. This boosted the power to weight ratio from around 163bhp per tonne to around 300, and 0-60 came down from 5.5 to 4.4 seconds.
S1 Sport 135. Launched 1998. 135bhp, Close ratio gearbox, Sports seats, Sports Exhaust, Drilled disks.
S1 Sport 160.
Launched 2000. first 50 cars were SVA approved and had 160PS with factory fitted catalytic converters and sport exhaust. Subsequent cars were WVTA (Whole Vehicle Type Approval) and had 150PS, 111S exhaust and a dual air cleaner/muffler. These later cars can be converted to 160PS by modifying the airbox and fitting the sports exhaust. Characteristically “lumpy” engine on idle.
Launched June 2002. 156bhp VVC K-Series engine, close ratio gearbox (1st and 2nd closer together for lower 0-60 time of 5.1 secs), new lightweight wheels reduced unsprung mass.
Launched May 2003. 135bhp K-Series engine, Stiffer adjustable Bilstein dampers with adjustable spring platforms, stiffer adjustable anti roll bar, Lightweight O.Z. Racing wheels fitted with Yokohama AO48 track biased tyres (front wheel width increased from 5.5 to 6.5 inches), New design of rear diffuser, Colour coded grille, Blue alcantara interior. Available in either Silver Mica or Blue Mica only.
Launched February 2004. 190bhp Toyota 2ZZ-GE VVTL-i engine (0-60 in 5.2 secs), 6 Speed gearbox, re-tuned suspension, Lotus developed ABS, orange backlit instruments.
Pistonheads S1 Buying guide
Elises.co.uk Model Info
Elises.co.uk Great resource
SELOC Elise Wiki page (excellent resource)
lotusdriverguide.com Elise geneaology
Sandsmuseum Elise press articles (extensive)
Parkers Guide Elise S1
How Stuff Works Elise
Fantastically detailed TV documentary covering the design and production of the original Elise.
Honda K20 engine conversion Elise.