OF THE MOST OFTEN ASKED questions of an automotive journalist is, "So, which is the best car you've ever driven?" And providing a definitive answer is virtually impossible...it's a bit like asking Ben Cartwright who his favorite son was (although we all know it was Hoss). In the past, I responded by supplying a long list of automobiles mostly too obscure for anyone to recognize, thus making them regret ever attempting to converse with me. However, I now welcome the op-portunity because I have a clear-cut response: the Lotus Elise.
Sure, I've driven a number of high-strung exotics in the recent past, including those from Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche, but I have yet to experience a car that provided such an immediate jolt of excitement as the Elise. As soon as you drop into the car's bucket seat, you feel as if you've become part of the car.
So what makes the car so special? For one, it looks great, with a stylish nose that smacks of the Lotus Europa, and an aggressive rear end highlighted by small round taillights. The Elise's exterior design was inspired by a Ducati motorcycle, which is evident when looking at its racy profile.
And on the road? Well, it's about as pure and simple as a sports car can get. There is no stereo sound system, cruise control or computer-designed cup-holder-hell, there's not even a proper fuel gauge-but only what's necessary for you to get from Point A to Point Z with maximum enjoyment.
Because the Elise is the smallest of this group (overalllength is 146.7 in.) and has the least powerful engine (its 1.8-liter inline-4 produces a mere 118 bhp at 5500 rpm and 122 lb.-ft. of torque at 3000), one would assume that it's the proverbial class wimp surrounded by bullies. However, messing with the Elise would be like picking a fight with Bruce Lee because, despite the car's diminutive nature, the Elise kicks serious tail when prompted. Thanks to its remarkably lean 1635-lb. curb weight, the Lotus screams to 60 mph in a scant 5.6 seconds and reaches the quarter-mile mark in 14.4, smok-ing all but the BMW M roadster.
And when the roads become twisty ...bye, bye, Bimmer.
On the scenic switchbacks around Mount Hood, the little Lotus carved up corners as if it were a razor-sharp Ginsu. The car responds immediately to the driver's inputs; the steering is precise and quick, and the structure rock-solid; a result of Lotus' revolutionary chassis bonding technique (for more on this, see Road Test, Septem-ber 1997). The Elise will understeer slightly in slow-speed corners, but it displays nearly perfect balance on most others. If you want to kick the tail out, lift off the throttle in midturn; that said, because of the lack of engine torque, sustained power-on oversteer is well-nigh impossible. (Note: Lotus now makes a more powerful 190-bhp version of this car called the Elise Sport.) The Elise demonstrated its cornering prowess by taking top hon-ors around the skidpad (at 0.92g) and through the slalom (at 66.1 mph).
On the Interstate, the Elise exhibited a remarkably civil ride, with the suspension system-upper and lower A-arms, coil springs and tube shocks at both front- and rear-adequately absorbing potholes and other road irregularities. I must confess, however, that I would prefer the sumptuous confines of the Mercedes- Benz SLK or Porsche Boxster on multi-hour drives, because a long stint in the Elise does tend to wear the body down. A significant amount of wind, road and engine noise fills the Lotus' cabin at speeds higher than 60 mph, and installing the car's removable soft top takes a quite a bit of time and patience (not to mention that with top in place, the car's appearance goes from a ten to a two). Still, this car is more than capable of being a daily driver, especially in the warm climes of my home turf Southern California.
In England, the Elise sells for about $33,000, making it a relative bargain. The sad part of this story is that the Elise isn't officially available in the U.S. However, Lotus has informed me that bringing the roadster here is still a serious consideration, and before long we’ll have the Elise, or a car based on the Elise. If or when the car does arrive, you can be sure many car enthusiasts will be beaming with joy. Somewhere, I feel Colin Chapman already is.