In the future, when the masses are in autonomous cars and have over-developed thumbs to go with their under-developed driving chops, people who own a Lotus Elise are going to feel pretty pleased with themselves. They will guard a secret knowledge.
Few cars are so visceral, so plugged in to the road and the physical world in general. Power steering, automatic transmission, sound deadening... who needs them? Just a small steering wheel, a neat little instrument cluster, engine at the back of your neck, nether regions close to the ground, rear-wheel drive and super-light weight (a tad under 2,000 pounds)—that's the recipe for real driving. Double wishbones at both ends and an antiroll bar at the front give a ride that balances agility with precision, along with some relative degree of comfort. The seats are thin, but they're well-shaped and supportive.
Americans weren't allowed the joys of Elise ownership until 2005, when the Series II came over. The Series I launched in Britain in 1996; the Series II in 2001. The Feds eventually let in the Series II because it now had a Toyota-sourced, all-aluminum, 1.8L four-cylinder engine (the 2ZZ-FE, also found in the Celica). This was much cleaner than the previous generation's British Leyland/MG motor, and no doubt more reliable as well.
The ECU was tuned by Lotus to bring 190 hp at 7,800 rpm and 133 lb-ft of torque at 6,800 rpm. The intake and exhaust are also Lotus parts. If those numbers don't sound particularly impressive by themselves, remember the Elise is one of the lightest cars around—and one of the most nimble.
The most interesting bundle of extras is the Track pack, adding adjustable Bilstein shocks with remote reservoirs, five-way adjustable antiroll bar, reinforced rear suspension, a Petty bar, and mounts for racing harnesses. The options of a limited-slip differential and traction control came in 2006. In 2008, a supercharged version, the rear-spoilered SC, debuted with 218 hp at 7,800 rpm and 153 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm, enabling a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds. In all cases, the transmission is a six-speed manual.
A California Edition also arrived in 2008, with a silver grille mesh, color-coded side vents, large rear spoiler, 16-spoke alloy wheels, and leather seating; Lotus made 50 examples. The '11 model year brought a mild face-lift.
Unfortunately, buying a used Elise is trickier than with most other cars. They're enthusiast machines, and sometimes enthusiasm overcomes driving abilities, so pay special attention to crashed-and-repaired examples. The Elise has a fiberglass body over a lightweight aluminum-and-steel frame where much of the pieces are not welded but glued together. Getting fiberglass fixed is one thing, but if the frame has been knocked out of shape even by as little as a couple of millimeters, don't bother with it. There is a front crash structure that's meant to absorb the energy, but getting it replaced is a pricey project.
It might be tempting to pick up a salvage car for a song, but even then a front or rear fiberglass clamshell could still cost $3,000 just for the unpainted part. Stress cracks that look like spider webs are signs of damage to the fiberglass beneath the paint finish.
Obviously, no need to worry about corrosion with one that's been written off because of flooding, but the electrics would have suffered, and everyone knows how frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive it can be trying to isolate an electrical problem. Overall, it would be ideal to get a car that's just been used as a weekend runabout.
There is the fixed-roof sibling, the Exige, which is also wonderful, but we'll stick with the convertible Elise here. The fabric roof, incidentally, is a rigmarole of stretched fabric, side rails, and bars—the kind of thing that could cause anxiety in a sudden rainstorm. Make sure all the parts are present, correct, and in decent condition.
Because the Elise is so light, it doesn't usually work the brakes (two-piston AP Racing calipers at the front, single-piston Brembo calipers at the rear) and tires too hard. But some cars will have seen track time, so be just as diligent with these parts as everything else. One area where track work will take its toll is the rear toe-link, which might fail due to a design flaw (not a problem with Track pack cars). Check the steering; there should be no play whatsoever. And there should be no slippage of the clutch.
In later years, the bushing of the throttle pedal has been known to fail. Replacing it is fiddly. Another design flaw in the headlights of '05 cars magnifies sunlight and could melt the inner section (rarely a problem in Britain). Replacing them with more modern units is easy enough.
The Elise has a virtually smooth aerodynamic tray that covers most of the car's underside. Over-tightened bolts may strip and cause this component to rattle.
Some owners have experienced sudden jumps in coolant temperature. Routine maintenance of the system will help in most cases, but if the problem persists it's time to call in an expert.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recalled just over 5,000 '05 and '06 cars because oil cooler lines might become disconnected and create a fire hazard.
The Elise is considered too low volume for Kelley Blue Book values. A look at the classifieds brought a range of prices from $23,500 (2005, with only 31,600 miles on the odometer) to $54,985 (2011/1,600 miles). An '08 SC with 15,000 miles was selling for $47,950. We also found an '09 California Edition with 4,000 miles priced at $50,000. As always, keep a cool head, get a specialist to look over any contenders, and history, history, history.