It would be inaccurate to describe life at Lotus as being a rollercoaster ride. The Lotus business cycle doesn't leave room for gradients; everything is just a peak or a trough. Last time I visited the HQ at Hethel in Norfolk, I was banned from talking to the production staff because 15% of them were about to lose their jobs. Today, scarcely 6 months later, the place is buzzing again as Lotus prepares to introduce the Elise into the U.S. market.
The importance of the Federal Elise project, codename "Croft," shouldn't be underestimated. The Esprit will be dead by the end of the year, so the new model is crucial to Lotus maintaining a U.S. presence and its 38 dealers. The volume implications are also crucial to its long-term survival.
At present, Lotus builds around 2,200 of its own cars each year, of which 1,300 are sold in the UK. The company is confident of selling 2,200 Federal Elises in the first year, which would double annual production. Solid sales of its home-grown products should also help diminish the company's reliance on consultancy work, which is notoriously reactive to the prevailing economic conditions. Everyone at Hethel is aware that the company must remain viable-parent company Proton will not prop it up ad infinitum.
I'm led through reception and into a conference room, where I'm introduced to Nick Adams, the vehicle development manager, and Malcolm Powell, Lotus' chief engineer for manufacturing projects. This pairing has been responsible for federalizing the Elise concept and preparing it for the U.S. market. To some extent, at least, the success or failure of the project rests on their shoulders.
"The Elise was never conceived as a U.S. car," explained Adams, "so we had to establish new objectives. These were to enhance the performance, while adding safety and comfort." The most obvious problem facing the engineering team was the choice of engine. The Rover K-series used in the existing Elise is belt driven and would therefore be outlawed under 2006 U.S. emissions legislation. It's also not sold in any capacity in the U.S., so parts and expertise would be difficult to source. Clearly, an alternative had to be found.
After the death of Lotus founder and lifeblood Colin Chapman, Toyota bought a 20% stake in Lotus. The shares were sold in 1986 but a good relationship was retained, and the strength of Toyota in the U.S. made it an obvious source for an alternative powerplant. The Lotus team focused its attention on the 1795cc VVTL-i engine used in the flagship Celica coup and the European Corolla. Developing 189 bhp at 7800 rpm and 133 lb-ft of torque at 6800 rpm, it promised to complement the Elise's track-inspired character. As a bonus, this engine also comes with Toyota's excellent C64 six-speed gearbox, whereas the K-series car makes do with a notchy five-speeder.
Powell explained the benefits: "Compared with the 118-bhp K-series car, the Toyota engine provides a 40% increase in power with a weight increase of just 14%." This differential is doubly important given that the Croft must also carry hefty safety and luxury equipment, which has not traditionally been part of the Elise armory. Twin airbags are a Federal requirement and so is ABS, neither of which have featured on an Elise before. In addition, all U.S. cars will be specified with electric windows, an alarm, central locking, air conditioning and part leather trim as standard. A twin oil cooler system has also been introduced to cope with the hotter U.S. climate.
To accommodate the changes, the fascia styling has been revised, and the structure is now injection molded to improve quality. Air vents and a centralized stereo, not to mention electric window switches, are a far cry from the simplicity of the standard Elise, and I expressed my concern that the car's character has been diluted. "The original Elise was designed as a stripped-out track-day car," explained Adams, "but the high-spec versions sold the most. The Federal car is a step forward from the European car. It's not woolly or detuned, and we haven't changed its character." He claimed, for example, that the electric windows actually weigh less than the manual alternative.
U.S. customers will also be able to tune their cars to taste. The base model will cost around $40,000, but Arnie Johnson, the CEO of Lotus Cars USA, reckons that the majority of customers will opt for the $1,000 Touring pack. This comprises full leather, carpet, an insulated soft-top and additional sound-deadening material. A clip-on hardtop is also on offer for $1,500. At the other end of the spectrum is the Sports pack. This features forged alloys fitted with track-biased Yokohama A048 tires and sports suspension. The latter reduces the gyroscopic loading and allows track-day enthusiasts to alter the spring height for circuit use.
So much for the theory-few things in life are more frustrating than sitting in a conference center at Hethel while the company's products await outside. I had been promised an exclusive drive in a Federal prototype, and word reached us that the car was ready. The test car was mechanically complete, except that it was running on European-spec Bridgestone Potenzas rather than the bespoke Yoko AD07s that are currently being developed for the U.S. market. The interior, though, was a hybrid of European and U.S. parts and bore the scars that characterize any hard-working, hand-built prototype.
Externally the Croft is identical to the European car with the exception of modified lights and the twin rear exhaust pipes that emerge centrally from a modified diffuser. It remains a fine-looking car. While the original had cutesy retro appeal, the latest version has a more grown-up, contemporary feel. It's not difficult to imagine it seducing the occupants of Ocean Drive, Miami Beach.
Our test drive begins on the quiet country lanes that surround the Lotus factory. It's on these roads that every car since the original Lotus Six of 1953 has been analyzed and refined. The scene is quintessentially English, but Adams is quick to point out that the car has also been tested in Phoenix and L.A. to ensure that it's suited to U.S. conditions. The springs and dampers are different to those fitted to European models, but Lotus has worked hard to maintain the "feel" of the Elise.
One of the marvels of the original was the ride quality. Its minor bump absorption and compliance was nothing short of extraordinary for such a focused car, but the Croft takes this to a new extreme. This car's ride is much quieter than the European models, which adds to driver confidence. It deals with an undulating road surface quite brilliantly, which bodes well for America's less than perfect blacktop. The steering, which is lightweight at the straight ahead, still jiggles a little, but it's no longer necessary to make constant, corrective inputs.
My preconceptions about the engine are also being challenged. When fitted to the Celica, this engine feels disappointingly breathless and needs to be worked hard to deliver its best. The Croft is 419 lb heavier than a stripped-out, base Elise, but with a curb weight of 1,984 lb, it still weighs 25% less than the Celica. With less mass to haul around, the engine's torque deficiencies cease to be of major concern, and what you notice most is the welcome improvement in refinement when compared to the Rover-engined car. The six-speed gearbox also swaps ratios with a more satisfying, mechanical clunk.
I return to the factory to be presented with an empty test track and a permit to play. The prototype was on the standard suspension, but it would be ridiculous to describe it as too soft for circuit use. The Series II Elise is easier to drive hard than the original-which boasted hyperactive lift-off oversteer-but it still demands to be driven well. The correct gear ratio and considered inputs are crucial if correct progress is to be made.
Its natural balance is neutral and power oversteer is almost impossible to achieve in the dry, but its stance can be adjusted on the throttle, and the skilled can tempt an Elise into a glorious four-wheel drift. Such tasks are made easier by the wonderful linearity of response that's a feature of every great Lotus. The brakes are equally terrific. The ABS has been tuned to engage only in extremis, and its operation is much softer than that of a standard car. It's fair to say that the system is an aid to enthusiastic driving rather than a necessary evil that detracts from the pedal feel, which is some achievement.
The test track also draws the best out of the engine. The gear ratios have been well chosen so that it's possible to keep the motor spinning on the higher cam between 6000 and the 8200-rpm redline. At these speeds, the engine's four-cylinder thrum takes on a more strident, engaging beat, which suits the car's character. It also produces performance that makes the European Elise feel pedestrian.
Lotus claims 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 sec. for the Federal car, compared with 5.6 sec. for the standard 118-bhp Elise and 5.1 sec. for the 156-bhp 111S. By the time 100 mph arrives after 12.6 sec., the Federal car is well ahead of the 111S, which takes 2 sec. longer to achieve the ton. Importantly, the U.S. car also feels much faster, which has much to do with the improved soundtrack, the slick gearchange and the high-revving nature of this engine. Lotus's biggest problem may be convincing European and Japanese buyers that they still want to buy a car equipped with a Rover powerplant.
Convincing U.S. buyers to part with $40,000 for an Elise should prove to be less of a problem, at least in the short term. Johnson expects the Elise market to be similar to the MINI's. In other words, it's likely to be chosen by both the ultra-wealthy and by those who have scrimped and saved to buy the base model. The latter are likely to be enthusiastic diehards who chose the Lotus as an only car. The U.S. version is massively more refined than the Series I and the quality is good, but the boot is still small, the roof is fiddly, and gaining access to the cabin with the hood up still requires considerable manual dexterity. Living with one on a daily basis will require commitment, and Johnson figures, "Most people will buy the Elise as a third car."
The CEO has 1,200 orders in the bank, and the first cars arrive this May. "The dealers will get a car each, and I want them to hold on to them for at least 90 days so people can have a chance to have a look. Some of our customers have had cars on order for 5 years," he continued. The big test for Johnson and Lotus will be when the hardcore Lotus aficionados have had their tastebuds satiated. Will the brand then be able to attract enough customers out of their Porsche Boxsters and BMW Z4s and into the charismatic Brit?
Only time will tell for certain, but there's no doubt that the Elise is a different and convincing proposition. There's a puority about its driving experience that even the seminal Porsche cannot match, and this, coupled with its style, exclusivity and the enduring kudos of the Lotus badge, should ensure its long-term appeal. The Federal Elise has been a long time coming, but it's been worth the wait. This is a genuine Lotus and a fabulous sports car.