Title: A Ferrari feel--at Toyota prices
Two years ago, Steven Stander put a deposit on a car with exotic looks and enough power to sprint from zero to 60 in under five seconds. It isn't a $450,000 Porsche -- but a $40,000 Lotus Elise, a British car with a Toyota engine and a chassis put together with glue. "It's everything you need," says the 51-year-old loan officer from Manalapan, N.J. "But nothing more."
After 20 years of building ever more powerful and expensive sports cars -- and still falling behind its rivals -- Britain's Lotus is going back to its minimalist roots. Its new Elise has less than half the horsepower of today's fastest cars, but it's also so much lighter it can keep up with them. Lotus expects to sell about 2,400 Elises a year in the U.S., and many buyers such as Mr. Stander, who plans to get his in June, have been in line for years.
See how the Lotus Elise stacks up against other two-seat roadsters, and our assessment of the roadster.
This less-is-more approach has failed Lotus before. The company built its reputation on feather-light race cars with just enough strength to last through a day of competition, winning the Indianapolis 500 and a string of Formula One championships in the 1960s and '70s. When it applied a similar idea to its production road cars, though, many buyers complained they broke easily and spent too much time in the shop. Although James Bond's Lotus Esprit turned into a submarine and Richard Gere used one to pick up Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," sales in the U.S. slipped to almost nothing through the '90s.
Hold the extras: The lightweight Lotus Elise get big performance from a small engine.
To see if the new version could give a Ferrari feel at Toyota prices, we headed to Birmingham, Ala., where we put the Elise through a twisty autocross course and around the 15-turn, 2.3-mile racetrack at Barber Motorsports Park.
It was clear the Elise is about the smallest car we've ever seen -- even before we crawled behind the wheel. It's several inches shorter than a Mazda Miata or Toyota MR2 and four inches lower. It's also more stylish than those other small cars, with swooping, Speed Racer-style front fenders and a muscular rear end. It reminded us somewhat of a race car from the 1960s, though its overall look still was modern.
Inside, there's nearly nothing extra -- no wood trim, power outlets, cup holders or soft lighting. The basic Elise costs $39,985 and comes with air conditioning and a CD radio but also has an unassisted steering wheel and only enough carpeting to cushion the feet. Much of its door panels and aluminum floor is exposed. Cloth-covered molded seats adjust only forward and back. Noise from the engine, wind and road make it difficult to listen to the radio.
It is possible to make the Elise cushier: A $1,350 "touring pack" adds more carpeting, leather seats, a fancier stereo, noise-cutting insulation and electric windows. But Lotus has made the Elise's minimalism appealing enough that add-ons seemed to cheapen the car. We liked the fast-feeling bare aluminum floor, and the switches in the electric-window version look chintzy compared with the sleek, modernistic feel of the basic version's aluminum window cranks.
Pressing the starter button prods the four-cylinder engine to life with a crackling growl that makes it seem bigger than it is. The 1.8-liter motor, in fact, comes from the Toyota Celica GT-S. When we drove that car a few years back, the engine seemed weighed-down, yet it makes the lightweight Elise feel like a hot rod. Up steep hills and around sweeping bends, it felt solid and stable. On a course of traffic cones, the Elise was agile as it darted around an impossibly sharp hairpin turn.
The car stood out the most on the racetrack, which had several blind curves and rapid elevation changes. Rain made conditions more difficult, but our sticky tires gripped as if the asphalt were dry. The pedals weren't ideally suited to our size-13 feet, but they felt smooth and gave good feedback as we braked and downshifted into one turn and accelerated toward the next. Even when we pushed too hard and started to slide, its movements were so gentle it was easy to recover.
Lotus says the new car is tough enough for daily driving. (The body is held together in part with epoxy bonding, which the company says works better on aluminum than welding.) We still think the Elise is better suited to the track, where it won't have to contend with potholes and Hummers. In either setting, it appears ready to smoke similarly priced cars, from the BMW Z4 to the Honda S2000. And with luck and a good driver, we think the Lotus stands a chance of beating more expensive minimalist racers such as the $200,000 Ferrari Stradale. Which, by our rough calculation, leaves $160,000 left for celebratory Champagne.