A New Elise on Life

by Ian Kuah, photos: Ian Kuah

March 2004

“Toyota power not only opens the door to the Lotus Elise’s long-anticipated U.S. debut, it gives the little roadster a real shot in the arm in terms of performance.”

A few Euro-spec Lotus Elise and Exige cars have trickled into the U.S. in recent years, personal imports that either come under the limited-mileage “show and display” scheme or are for track use only. A handful of others have been smuggled in and falsely registered as Lotus Elans. Beginning in mid-2004 that is going to change, as a U.S.-spec Elise is finally in the cards.

The biggest hurdle has been finding an engine for the little mid-engine roadster that meets U.S. emission standards. Since the Rover and MG brands are not sold in the U.S., the 1.8-liter K-Series 4-cylinder motor used in the Euro Elise is not federalized here. Type approval would have been a very expensive process considering the overall low volume of cars involved. The Esprit V8 unit apart, Lotus has traditionally adapted an existing mainstream manufacturer’s motor to its own purpose. So the search began for an alternative powerplant with low weight and a suitably sporting character.

Lotus evaluated Honda and Toyota engines and decided to go with the latter as the engine was already EPA certified, and Lotus has a long-standing relationship with Toyota. Die-hard Lotus fans will know that Toyota owned a 30-percent stake in Lotus in the early 1980s, just after Colin Chapman died. Lotus helped Toyota to develop the Supra back then, and some of the Toyota managers from that era are now vice presidents on the board today.


While the K-Series motor, particularly in its current form with the Lotus-specific ECU, has never felt underpowered, the more powerful Toyota engine brings a whole new dimension to the petite Elise. In its basic form, the 1.8-liter K-Series makes 120 bhp at 5,500 rpm and 121 lb-ft of torque at 2,750 rpm; Lotus also offers a tuned version with 135 bhp. Toyota’s 2ZZ-GE 1.8-liter 4-cylinder 16-valve engine with Variable Valve Timing and Lift-Intelligent (VVTL-i), tuned by Lotus specifically for the federalized Elise with its own ECU, comes with 190 bhp at 7,800 rpm and 133 lb-ft at 6,800 rpm out of the box and is mated to Toyota’s C64 6-speed gearbox.

The motor adds 64 pounds, the gearbox 13 pounds, air-conditioning 22 pounds, and twin oil coolers are worth 29 pounds. Although these and other modifications add 154 pounds to the weight of Euro-spec Elise 111S, the U.S.-spec Elise still only tips the scales at 1,973 pounds. This compares favorably to the much less powerful 135-bhp Toyota MR2, which weighs 2,195 pounds. Overall weight distribution is hardly affected since the air-conditioning system and oil coolers up front roughly counter the heavier engine in back.

With old-school sports cars, fun usually costs you money, especially at the pump. The Lotus philosophy with the federalized Elise is more eco-friendly. The Elise sips from a 10.5-gallon fuel tank at an average of 36 mpg in normal driving. It easily breezed through LEV 1 and LEV 2 certification is underway. Talk about having you cake and eating it.

It is also interesting to note just how much difference vehicle weight makes to the way a given engine performs, and this is something we have noticed before in many cars where a particular motor is shared across a model range. In the near 3000-pound Celica GT-S, from whence this engine comes, the motor feels lacking in low-rpm torque and does not really get going until you have revved it hard into the upper half of its powerband. So although the Toyota engine makes its peak torque fairly high up on the scale, the much lighter Lotus allows what is being produced at moderate crankshaft speeds to be put to good use. The Toyota-powered Elise has excellent tractability and pretty lively performance from the word go, and we found it hard to believe that this was the same motor we had disparaged when we drove the Celica a couple of years ago.

Performance is strong right up to 6,000 rpm, the point where the variable valve timing kicks in. Then it is like a switch has been thrown as the engine note takes on an even harder edge and a distinct power step produces a noticeable shove in the back, which continues right up to peak power at 7,800 rpm.

The Lotus Elise has always had a slick gearshift, and coincidently, so has the Toyota Celica. In this application the stubby lever can be moved swiftly and surely across the gate, totally in keeping with the light, fluid and tactile Elise experience that we have come to know and love-the Toyota 6-speed is a good fit.


The Elise has very good passenger cell protection, with its high sills and progressively collapsing impact-absorbing sections in front. What is not generally known is that not only does Lotus design and develop suspensions and engines for other manufacturers, it also does secondary safety work as well. In fact, it only recently got permission from Aston Martin to reveal that it designed the crash structure for the Vanquish!

The only safety additions to the federalized Elise have been the driver and passenger airbags. The new airbag-equipped steering wheel is the smallest unit containing a full-size airbag we have ever seen.

The incorporation of airbags prompted Lotus to completely redesign the dashboard, which is precision injection molded and now also contains a pair of decent audio speakers, firing upwards at the windshield, powered by a Blaupunkt CD head unit. The instrument pack is all-new and has warning lights for the tire pressure monitoring sensors and race style engine rpm upshift.

A new center console carries the controls for the lightweight air-conditioning system that came onstream last year when the Euro Elise 111S was launched. A/C comes standard on the U.S. car, as do power windows.

Interestingly enough, while the U.S. will now get the Elise, the car continues to be denied to Canadian buyers because of a 5-mph bumper requirement, which the U.S. government repealed some years ago.


The chassis required recalibration to accommodate the different surfaces peculiar to U.S. roads, i.e. big bumps and gaping potholes. The rear subframe is new and now reaches forward to the bulkhead and rear of the fuel tank. Spring and damper rates have been raised slightly to compensate for the extra curb weight and the new dampers have 10mm extra travel.

“The bushes in any Elise are 50-60 percent stiffer than most road cars’, and the impact noise of expansion joints was a particular bugbear,” explained Simon Newton, Lotus’ development engineer for ride and handling. The cure for this was to use more compliant bushings for the forward of the two lower wishbone mountings on each corner to cope with “wheel recession,” which is how Lotus describes the phenomenon of the wheel and suspension being pushed backwards when they encounter a short, sharp obstacle like an expansion joint. The brackets seating the bushes are wider and other minor changes have been made to optimize the chassis for U.S. road conditions.

The Yokohama tires are specific to this car. These are the same 175/55ZR16 and 225/45ZR17 sizes as the European version but are the upper end of the width tolerances for their sizes. Lotus always tunes its suspension and tires as a single entity for a specific application, and this is the case here.

The blue car we drove was an early prototype and, engine and suspension apart, it was far from the finished product. Although it was left-hand-drive, this prototype had the old Euro interior, lacked exhaust tail-pipe ends and was on a different make of tire from the production model. That said, Lotus was keen for us to get a snapshot impression of the car that will fly the Lotus flag in the U.S., and we weren’t about to say no.

Poise into and through fast bends and the delicacy of steering feel are unaffected by the changes, but the extra thrust out of bends can be readily felt and straight-line speed is most impressive. At last the chassis has the engine it was crying out for. The official 0-60 time of 4.88 seconds, 0-100 mph in 12.57 seconds and 141 mph top speed seem credible. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that despite its extra weight the U.S.-spec Elise is even faster around the Lotus test track than a European 111S.

Lotus cars have always had good brakes, but the federalized Elise takes this to a new level with the incorporation of power assist and ABS. “We worked very hard on this system,” Newton explained. “A few years ago we were against ABS, as it interfered with the purity of the car on the track. But things have moved on and current technology allows us to develop a system that suits this car.”

“Our major criticism of most ABS systems is the way they perform on a circuit,” he continued. “We originally wanted an on/off switch, but this was not possible because of the legal liability in case of an accident. The alternative was to develop a better system ourselves, and our benchmark was the Porsche 911.”

Basically Lotus has designed an ABS system that does not trigger too quickly, which makes it especially suited to track use. The system actually allows a bit of lock before triggering and keeps the pedal from going hard while the ABS is pulsing in order to preserve brake feel. Ultimately this allows you to go deeper into corners. As with the engine and other changes that have been made to the Elise, the added weight and complexity was justified.

The very last batch of U.S.-bound Esprit V8 Turbos was being checked prior to shipping during our visit. These cars mark the end of one era for Lotus in the U.S.; the coming of the Elise will mark the beginning of the next.

Sports Car International