Lotus Elise owners just can’t leave their toys alone which is why Elise tuning is booming. We took modded cars from Raceline and Motobuild to the Lotus proving ground to let the Elise Engineers have a thrash. Euan Sey reports on this and the new 111S and 135 Elise from the factory.
The Lotus Elise was a project destined for success from the start. Despite impending competition from the likes of Renault, Rover, Fiat, and BM@, the motoring press began hailing it as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the car to beat’ even before they’d driven it.
It encapsulated everything the enthusiast ever wanted from a sports car – before they knew it themselves: mid-engined, rear wheel-drive handling characteristics, distinctive styling and a price tag of under L20,000.
As with all good relationships, through the honeymoon perid had to end sometime. People began to make complaints about the chassis: it seemed it was so good that it was making the high-revving, 118 bhp 1.8 litre engine seem a bit short of get up’n go.
This left he way clear for aftermarket tuning companies to make money by squeezing more power from the twin-cam Rover 16v. Performance exhaust systems and air filters were the first to appear on the scene, swiftly followed by custom camshafts and eventually entire conversion packages.
Most manufacturers would argue that addons like these merely compromise the integrity of their flawless creation. But Lotus take a slightly different stance: as we discovered while chatting to the company’s executive Project Engineer, Dave Minter. "We’re not naïve. When we first launched the Elise, we knew there would be demand for a higher performance version, but didn’t want to give too much too soon. It’s only natural that companies should seek to fill the gap in the market with their won upgrades."
Besides the minor flaws in the Elise’s powertrain, the very nature of the car was always going to encourage the weekend tweaker. It’s an enthusiast’s wet dream, a hobby to beat all hobbies- who could resist the temptation to make something this good even better? Certainly not us, not the tuning companies and not, it seems, even Lotus themselves…
As part of our ongoing quest for truth, justice and a free ride. CCC has tested more of these converted cars that most over the last three years: starting with Raceline’s 150 bhp demonstrator in July'97, and culminating in our feature on Bell and Colvill's awesome 220bhp Elise Turbo back in March of this year.
This month our quest continues with three new entries into the rapidly growing market Raceline's latest evolution of their Elise 150, a similarly developed 140bhp conversion from Mato-Build Racing and last, but certainly not least, MotoBuild's 188bhp Supercharged Elise demonstrator.
It isn't just each other that these cars have to compete with, however, as Lotus has recently launched its own assault on the rapidly growing market in the form of the Elise Sport 135 and 111 S. This sounded like the perfect excuse for a mammoth five-car test to us, so we blew the cobwebs off the ageing CCC crew (do you mean Martin? Ed) and dragged ourselves off to find out which one is top dog.
The master plan was to take the three aftermarket conversions back to their spiritual homeland; Lotus's Hethel research and development facility, near Norwich. There we could test them back-to-back against the two factory models, as well as get first-drive input from the engineers that designed the Elise in the first place.
As we drew up to the gates, we were greeted by our two chaperones for the day- Executive Project Engineer Dave Minter, and Ride and Handling Engineer Alistair McQueen. Dave Minter was in charge of the original team of engineers who developed the Elise's chassis characteristics back in late '95, and Alistair was heavily involved in the design of the both the Sport 135 and I I 1S. The group test was divided into two halves; one conducted at Lotus's on-site test track, and the other on the sweeping, open roads of the Norfolk broads surrounding the remote factory facility.
Moto-Build Elise 140
Moto-Build has been working on its 140 conversion since we tested it in September'97, and this is the latest evolution. It uses the cast alloy inlet manifold from the VVC engine for better breathing, fed by a Pipercross Vector cone filter in the bay. Alistair McQueen had a few words of advice on this subject: "We hook up an air feed to the filter from outside the car, because otherwise performance actually decreases as the air in the bay heats up and gets sucked into engine." Presumably, this handy tip came to light while Lotus was playing with the car for its racing application, but more about that later...
The remainder of the power increase can be attributed to a new mild steel exhaust system (which has had the cat replaced by a straight through silencer), a custom-mapped Superchips Icon box connected to the ECU, and revised-profile camshafts.
So for so good, but what did the Lotus technicians think? Dave Minter was first in the driver's seat: "Not bad, but it loses out a little because of the standard gearbox. I'd estimate about 130-135bhp, but more could be released with a little head work."
Alistair seemed to concur with his colleague's assessment: "The power comes in nice and progressively, but it suffers slightly from a lack of torque in the bottom end."
Certainly the Moto-Build 140 is the mildest of the three aftermarket conversions, and carries the smallest price tag to match atiustE1725 including fitting and VAT.
The first thing that struck us about the car was its driveability. Other than a deep exhaust note, you'd be hard pressed to tell it apart from a standard Elise up to 3500rpm. From this point onwards there's a tangible increase in torque, and the car pulls itself along with more urgency.
The new cam profile is a big improvement over Moto-Build's previous effort, and gives a nice, crisp delivery right up to the rev limiter at 6750rpm. The exhaust sounds good, too, and revs, without becoming irritating at motorway cruising speeds.
The carbon-fibre detailing on the dashboard, binnacle, door cards and gear knob received mixed reviews from the CCC crew, with descriptions varying from
Moto-Build Supercharged Elise
We were really looking forward to driving this one. The Dakar yellow paintwork and colourcoded wheels weren't to everyone's taste, but the prospect of piloting a 1 88bhp supercharged Elise had us clamouring for the keys.
Age came before beauty, however, and first drive duty fell to Lotus's Alistair McQueen: "The lack of low down torque is really disappointing - I was expecting a hefty kick in the back. Supercharging should give increased torque all the way through the rev range, but this feels flat."
A bit harsh? Probably. There's no real appreciable torque increase at low rpm, but if s a different story when the engine hits the mid range. The gentle nudge in the back becomes more forceful, and the discreet whine of the beltdriven impeller builds rapidly as the supercharger gains momentum.
It's rampant charge seems to run out of puff at around 60OOrpm - by which time the gruff, businesslike tone of Moto-Build's mild steel exhaust system has escalated into a satisfying howl - so you have to be pretty rapid with the gears to keep it on the boil. One annoying trait the car displayed was a tendency to keep its speed when you lift off the throttle; a trait more reminiscent of a heavy automatic than a lightweight sports car. This may have something to do with the additional engine management in place: a separate ECU has been installed downstream of the factory unit (just before the throttle body), containing a Superchips Icon box which retards the ignition. This also activates a fifth injector which pumps in the necessary extra fuel when the boost from the supercharger reaches a certain level.
As well as its unique powerplant, the car also boasts an all-new suspension set-up. Developed by Spax in conjunction with the Jim Russell Racing School at Silverstone, it comprises adjustable-platform coilovers with variable damping and ride height.
Pushing the supercharged Elise to its limit on the track, it tended to understeer at first, then whip - a little too quickly for comfort - into oversteer. With such a precarious balance, you'd need to be a pretty skilled pilot to keep it on the edge.
On the sweeping country roads surrounding the Lotus test track, the chassis felt more composed - although over pitted surfaces the front end seemed reluctant to settle, making you hesitant to commit with the right foot when the apex point approached.
Further inspection revealed that the front suspension was practically resting on the bump stops, and we suspect the kit will work a lot better with some more fine-tuning.
Racellne ISO Elise
We tested Raceline's 150bhp demonstrator in July '97, and have been following the company's progress with the car ever since. At the heart of the 1999-spec kit is pair of high lift, short duration camshafts, ground to the company's own spec by Kent Cams. The standard air filter has also been replaced with a performance item, and the air box's restrictive, 2in wide intake pipe ditched in favour of a 4" duct feeding cold air from the air scoop behind the passenger door.
The exhaust is also new for '99, and features a special four-into-one manifold connected to a mild steel, straight-through system. This operates without a silencer unit but retains a 'sports'version of the factory catalytic converter, to ensure it doesn't fail its MoT.
But the real magic behind this conversion lies in the engine management. In contrast with the other systems which are 'spliced-in' downstream of the notoriously untunable factory MEMS unit,' Raceline has spent a year and a half designing their own, unique programmable ECU on Mountune's engine dyno facility.
Editor Bennett tipped this as the car to beat, but what did the boffins at Lotus think? "Pretty good. Where it falls down, though, is in throttle response. There's plenty of power there, and it's not too peaky, but you have to wait for it to come in," revealed Dave. He goes on: "Steering is a little imprecise on turn-in, but the car has a nice, together feel and plenty of grip. The damping is also excellent, especially on the longer turns."
Eager to find out for myself, I jumped into the sculpted bucket seats for a blast round the track. The first thing that hit me was how zesty and alive the engine felt. Right from word go there's more oomph to the delivery, and the exhaust sings like a scalded banshee on heat.
Above 4500rpm the revvy 16v really comes on song and pulls like a train - I know it's a clichd, but there really is no better way to describe the sensation. Drop it into second gear for an overtaking manoeuvre, and it gives the impression it's on the verge of wheelspin even in the dry. The acceleration just keeps building and building, and you find yourself reluctant to, change up when the limiter approaches.
For the first few minutes of track driving, however, I wasn't entirely at home with the suspension set-up. Shifting the load from one side of the car to the other - as you would while negotiating a chicane, for example -the car appeared a little indecisive and floaty.
Once I'd got over the initial impression and committed to the bends, though, I found it dug in and settled extremely well. The set-up is Raceline's first attempt at tuning the Elise's suspension, and consists of the company's own, higher-rate lowering springs.
Elise Sport 135
As Dave Minter told us earlier, Lotus recognized the need for a high-performance Elise right from the start. While tuning companies were busy designing upgrades for the standard car, Lotus was busy developing its own kit. T6 idea was to provide a package of parts that would tackle the Elise's weaknesses head on, and make the car more suitable for track users and enthusiasts alike.
The main area targeted by the manufacturer for improvement was air flow. Firstly, the cast alloy inlet manifold from the VVC was fitted because of its greater internal capacity and overall efficiency. To further improve induction, the kit uses a free-flow air filter in a carbon box, which has the added advantage of being lighter.
The cylinder head has also been modified, using traditional gas-flowing and porting techniques for better flow. Unwanted gases are expelled via a road-legal, competition silencer complete with catalyst replacement pipe.
As the kit's name suggests, this boosts powerup to a healthy 135bhp at 5750rpm and 121 lb/ft of torque - not bad, but hardly a wild increase in performance. However, the revised engine package isn't the only thing up the 135's sleeve: there's also a new close-ratio gearbox. First gear has been shortened from a ratio of 3.167 to 2.923, second is now 1.75 instead of 1.842, and third and fourth have been left alone. Fifth has also been altered for better performance, from 0.765 to 0.848, and the final drive ratio increased from 3.938 to 4.2.
Engage first gear and slip the clutch and you're immediately struck by how smooth the delivery is. Put your boot in and, before you can say "how much? I want one!" the insanely revvy K-Series catapults itself into the red zone, and has you snatching frantically for second.
It feels like a completely different gearbox, especially in second gear, Whereas before it felt good, if a little slow to get going at low rpm, with the close-ratio gearbox the feeling of acceleration is simply sublime. As addictive as the strongest narcotic, you find yourself inventing any excuse to plant your foot and get another hit.
The modifications to fifth gear are equally effective, and convert the ridiculously tall gear from a motorway-only cruising aid into a bona fide performance gear. To give you an idea; at 40OOrpm in fifth with the standard 'box you can expect to be doing over 90mph, while the close-ratio unit wouldn't even hit 80mph at that engine speed.
The throttle response is so quick that it seems to react before your foot muscles do, and the exhaust gives out a potent, smooth-sounding symphony right from idle. Any minor flat spots in the torque curve have been completely eliminated, leaving only accessible power permanently on tap. The revised handling characteristics proved to be almost as impressive as the engine and transmission, providing exceptionally stability with little or no body roll. This can be attributed to an uprated anti-roll bar at the front, complemented by higher-rate front and rear springs and modified Koni dampers. The bump and rebound valving has been tweaked for extra cornering stability, and the dampers have adjustable spring platforms so the ride height can be altered for competition.
All this translates into a firm, yet supple ride which promotes supreme confidence from the driver. Within minutes I found myself pushing the car far harder round the Lotus test track than I had with the previous three test cars. It was a similar story on the road, and the seemingly effortless 135 made short work of the sweeping Norfolk country lanes.
If you're wondering about performance, Lotus claim it'll go from 0-60mph in 5.01 seconds (a 0.7 second improvement over standard) and max out at a smidge under 130mph. The kit also includes cross-drilled brake discs all round, and weighs in at just under L5000.
People have speculated about what the Elise would be like with the MGFs, 143bhp VVC engine since it was launched in '96. Well, after satisfying its own production needs with the MGF, Rover finally gave the go ahead in 199§ for Lotus to fit the Variable Valve Control 1800 K-Series into the Elise. But is it a case of too little, too late, or is this the performance revelation Elise owners have been waiting for?
It sounds impressive enough on paper. Unlike the 135, which is available only in kit form, the 111S is a brand new model. At L26590 it's about L5500 more than the base model, and works out at about L500 dearer than the cost of a new car fitted with the 135 conversion.
For your money you get the VVC engine, for starters. This uses the same aluminium block as the I 18bhp engine, but boasts a sophisticated cylinder head with continuously variable cam lobe profiles.
In addition, the VVC unit houses larger inlet and exhaust valves than the stock 1800, as well as the new cast alloy inlet manifold and plenum chamber used as an upgrade on the two MotoBuild cars and the Sport 135. All this adds up to 143bhp and a peak torque figure of 128 lb/ft.
This, however, isn't the whole story. Whereas the 135 hits makes max power at 5750rpm, the VVC needs to reach 70OOrpm to unleash its full 143bhp potential. This is just 200rpm short of the 7200rpm rev limiter, which means you have to be pretty sharp not to bounce off it when you're really going for through the gears. This is reflected in Lotus's own performance claims for the car. 0-60mph has been measured in 5.38 seconds - a full 0.37 seconds slower than the 135 - despite the 11IS's 8bhp advantage. This is probably a symptom of the extra 7kg the VVC carries over the standard powerplant, compounded by the engine's top-heavy power delivery.
The VVC and close-ratio gearbox aren't the only features that distinguish the new model from its predecessor. There are some neat little visual touches, including a subtle rear wing attached to the existing spoiler, a new front grille, smoked front indicators and plastic headlamp fairings for a smoother front profile.
Chassis-wise, the IIIS remains largely unchanged. The six-spoke alloys are a new design, and are half an inch wider at the rear. The 7.5xl6in rear wheels are wrapped with specially, developed 225145-profile Pirelli rubber, which has also meant a 12mm increase in rear track.
Out on the test circuit, these minor alterations proved to have a far greater effect than we'd expected. Turn-in is much sharper, and it has a similarly stable feel to the 135. Despite lacking the other car's uprated anti-roll bar, it also suffers from little or none of the wallowing effect the original Elise sometimes displayed when shifting loads at high speed. The additional rear wing has also improved matters, and contributes extra downforce to keep the back end firmly on the road.
To be honest, it was hard to tell the two cars apart on the circuit, and we were hoping the road test would shed more light an the matter. It did to a certain extent; the 111 S feels a little more compliant along twisty sections of road, whereas the 135 really comes into its own on the longer, faster bends.
One thing currently unique to the 11 IS is the revised seat design, which hugs the body, and provides extra support in that all-important buttock region. This is good news, as the regular seats can become a little uncomfortable on long journeys - as we discovered when driving the other cars up the M 11 the night before the test.
OK, but what about the VVC engine? Surprisingly, it felt quite similar to the 135:same superbly flat torque curve, but with a slightly different driving style. Somehow, the VVC felt like it was working a bit harder than its135bhp sibling, which delivers its sparkling performance with effortless aplomb.
That's not to take anything away from the 111 S, though; it's an extremely smooth customer, and feels leagues above the normal Elise both in terms of handling and performance. The engine simply revs forever, and if it does lose a little in the mid-range to the Sport 135, then you'd be hard pressed to tell.
Moto-Build's supercharged Elise was a disappointment. 188bhp is a lot of power in something as light and nimble as an Elise, and supercharger conversions should theoretically build on the original power curve right from idle speed.
But in reality the power delivery was quite peaky (almost like a mild turbo), leaving you tapping your fingers until 40OOrpm when the promised power hike finally arrived. It's definitely a lot quicker than standard, but somehow you expect more than it actually offers - particularly when you consider the E5280 price tag.
The supercharger would probably work a lot better if it was incorporated more permanently into the set-up. A lower compression ratio with uprated pistons would allow much more boost (it's producing less than 10psi at the moment), and the right profile cams would bring the power in earlier.
Ultimately, though, we have reservations about the whole concept. It seems to defeat the whole object of fitting a lightweight sports car with a zesty, high-revving engine. Although being proved wrong could be a lot of fun...
Moto-Build's other demonstrator, on the other hand, delivers exactly what it promises. The new cams work well within the K-Series, releasing more power in the mid and high-range without compromising bottom-end torque. The power is every bit as accessible as in the standard car, and there's definitely more of it. It's also the cheapest of the five conversions we tested and represents good value for money at just E1750 all in.
Raceline - who are known primarily for Zetec tuning - spent eighteen months developing their tuning package for the Elise, and it's paid off. Like the Lotus cars, every component combines well with each other to eliminate many of the Elise's (admittedly few) weaknesses.
Even without the close-ratio gearbox, the Raceline 150 wasn't far behind the two Lotus tuned cars in terms of driveability and acceleration. Its programmable ECU, which has been properly mapped to the rest of the engine modifications, is a revelation. At just E2644 fully fitted, it also represents seriously good value for those who can't stretch to a 135 kit or 111S.
As good as the Raceline car is, though, it just couldn't quite compete with the finesse of the Lotus factory tag team. On the face of it, the two Lotus conversions may seem a bit pricey in comparison. However, the L5000 price tag for the Sport 135 does include uprated suspension, roll bar and brakes, as well as the extra power and close-ratio gearbox. Similarly, the 11IS comes with a number of improvements to the interior, cosmetics and brakes, all of which perfectly complement the new box and powerplant.
It's difficult to decide which one of these pair is the better car. You have to ask yourself what you're really spending your money on. Personally, we'd rather see all of it go towards increased performance, and in that respect the 135 wins it by a nose. It offers slightly more punch per pound than the 111 S, and every penny of the price goes into making the Elise go faster and handle better.
So, the Sport 135 is king of the heap. However, things might have been very different if the Raceline 150 had been fitted with a close-ratio 'box. The feisty engine showed a lot of potential, despite the huge disadvantage of the standard transmission. In fact, as this goes to press Raceline have just finished designing their own close-ratio 'Sport' gearbox.
Unlike the Lotus unit, it utilises the factory final drive, and requires only changes to third, fourth and fifth. Raceline reckon it offers exactly the same gearing and rpm drop between gears as the Lotus upgrade, but costs significantly less at just E495 excluding fitting and VAT.
With the already excellent 150bhp engine mated to one of these, and a fully adjustable suspension kit on its way, Raceline's Elise 150 could well become the car to beat.