At long last Lotus

By Steven Cole Smith | Sentinel Automotive Editor

Posted April 22, 2004

In just a moment, I'll tell you all about the 2005 Lotus Elise, a wonderful, blisteringly quick sports car that costs less than $40,000, and is undeniably the finest British sports car ever built by the Malaysian government and powered by a Japanese engine designed by a motorcycle company.

Oops! Too much information. But the story of Lotus in general, the Elise in particular, is Hollywood-caliber bizarre.

Lotus was founded in England in 1948 by Colin Chapman, an engineer determined to build road-going cars to help fund his desire to race. Lotus did indeed become a huge force in motorsports, entering Formula 1 in 1958 and winning the championship in 1963 and 1965 with Jim Clark, who died in 1968 when he crashed his Lotus. That year, Graham Hill won the F1 championship for Lotus, Jochen Rindt won in 1970, Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972, and Mario Andretti in 1978. Future three-time champion

Ayrton Senna won his first Formula 1 race with Lotus in 1985.Chapman, himself, died of a heart attack in 1982, in the midst of a nasty controversy over his role in developing the star-crossed DeLorean sports car. Lotus designed much of the vehicle, and Chapman was facing an investigation regarding money laundering along with company founder and former General Motors executive John DeLorean. After Chapman's death, Lotus struggled, both in motorsports and its side businesses of building cars and selling engineering expertise.

General Motors bought Lotus in 1986, but had no idea what to do with it. Lotus was selling its Ferrari-like Esprit in the United States in very small numbers -- and still is -- but GM figured the name was worth something. So it had Lotus build the Elan, an odd little sports car powered by a four-cylinder Isuzu engine, which Lotus tried to sell in the United States for $40,000. Unfortunately, the 1991 Elan looked a lot like the 1991 Mercury Capri, which cost about $27,000 less. The Elan was a disaster.

In 1993, GM sold Lotus to a company in Luxembourg owned by an Italian businessman, who also owned what was left of Bugatti. The company went bankrupt. In 1996, Lotus was sold to Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd, otherwise known as Proton, the state-owned Malaysian car company.

Lotus purists were appalled, but after one major setback -- the company's Malaysian chairman was killed in a helicopter crash in 1997 -- Proton, which builds some good small cars for the European market, turned out to be a pretty good curator of the Lotus legend. Without Proton's money, Lotus may well have folded its tents for good, but now the company is threatening to become profitable in a major way with the U.S. introduction of the 2005 Elise.

Ah, finally, the Elise.

Throughout his career, Colin Chapman fixated on one aspect of automotive engineering: If a vehicle was light enough, it wouldn't have to have a 500-cubic-inch engine to go fast. Chapman was the acknowledged master at saving weight, and his disciples at Lotus learned that lesson well.

The Elise debuted in England in 1996, and since 1997, Lotus has promised the Elise would come to America any day now. There were many reasons why it didn't. One of the most important was that its engine, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder built by Rover, wouldn't pass U.S. federal emissions standards without a lot of expensive work.

In the 1980s, Toyota owned a quarter of Lotus for a few years, and a friendly relationship remained. Lotus executives sorted though the Toyota parts bin and found the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine called the VVTL, which stands for variable valve timing and lift.

That engine, designed and developed in part by Yamaha, the motorcycle company, has been available since 2000 in several Toyota vehicles, including the Celica, the Matrix and the Matrix's twin, the Pontiac Vibe. That aluminum engine, plus its six-speed manual transmission, was light, dependable and, with 190 horsepower, potent. And it passes U.S. emissions laws.

But the Matrix and Vibe weigh about 2,800 pounds. Using Chapman's weight-saving secrets, including a gorgeous, 150-pound aluminum chassis that is nothing short of a masterpiece, the Elise weighs just 1,975 pounds. Lotus clams a top speed of about 150 mph and a 0-to-60 mph time of less than five seconds, performance comparable to the 5,150-pound Dodge SRT-10, which needs 500 horsepower and an 8.3-liter V-10 engine to go that fast.

Outright speed, though, has never been a Lotus long suit. The company is much better known for its handling, and the Elise does not disappoint. The engine sits just behind the driver, leaving the front end light enough to allow Lotus to eliminate power steering. Consequently, the driver feels exactly what the car is communicating, unfiltered through electric or hydraulic boost.

Lotus suggests the Elise is basically a toy, but really, that is selling the little car short. While the suspension is plenty stiff, the Elise is surprisingly accommodating as a daily driver, especially if you pass on the $2,480 "sports package."

In fact, the base car is just fine, priced at $39,985. The stiffer suspension and slightly more aggressive tires that come with the sport package don't make a lot of difference in performance. The $1,380 "touring package" adds leather upholstery, power windows, a better stereo, full carpets and more sound insulation, but you don't need any of it. Plus -- to channel the spirit of Colin Chapman -- that stuff adds weight. The base car comes with air conditioning, a good Blaupunkt stereo with CD player, and fabric-covered seats with leather trim. A hardtop costs $1,475, but in warm climes like Florida, save your money.

There are, however, some drawbacks. You sort of assemble the soft top into a roof, which takes a little practice. And those aluminum side rails are so high that you must perform an awkward ballet to get in and out of the Elise, much as in the fourth-generation (1984-1996) Chevrolet Corvette. Some taller drivers just step over the Elise's door. Also, finding a Lotus dealer may be a challenge. The company Web site ( lists dealers in 20 states, including five in Florida, the closest being in Jacksonville and Clearwater.

So the stars in England, Malaysia and Japan are finally in alignment, and the 2005 Lotus Elise goes on sale here next month. It's about time.