Lotus blooms in SA with two Elise models
By Dave Abrahams
British sports car brand Lotus was launched in South Africa on Friday (May 27) at the Kyalami race circuit near Johannnesburg - where else?
The lightweight two-seaters will be sold by Pearl Automotive, already the SA distributor of MG, Rover and Bentley.
Initially the range will have two variants of the Elise, one powered by an 89kW, 1.8-litre Rover K-Series engine coupled to a five-speed gearbox, the other (the Elise 111R) with a Toyota 2ZZ-GE engine with variable valve timing and lift, suitably breathed on by Lotus to deliver 141kW at 7800rpm through a six-speed manual transmission.
* Elise - R375 000
* Elise 111R - R480 000
The even racier Exige will complete the model line-up later this year.
Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Engineering, believed in achieving performance through light weight, superb handling and innovative engineering – but most of all his cars had to be fun to drive. That credo informs Lotus cars to this day.
The Elise has no power steering and no electronic driver aids to insulate him from what the car is doing. It weighs only 785kg, giving it a power-to-weight ratio of 114kW/ton, and 0-100km/h sprint of 5.9sec and a top speed of 202km/h.
Lotus Cars general manager for international business, Glen Moir, explained at the launch that the 89kW Rover engine was chosen for the Elise because it was the lightest on the market at only 95kg.
The 151kW Toyota DOHC 2ZZ-GE engine endows the 111R variant with a 164kW/ton power-to-weight ratio, acceleration from 0-100km/h in 4.9sec and a top speed 241km/h.
The original business plan for the model, drawn up in 1995, estimated production of 700 units a year over a three-year period. The chassis was updated in 2000, together with fresh styling and interior trim; to date more than 17 000 have been sold.
The Elise is built around an aluminium tub made up of extrusions and sheet material bonded and riveted with a composite front crumple zone and body panels.
The engine and gearbox are mid-mounted for ideal weight distribution and the Elise rides on double-wishbone suspension all round with Eibach springs and Bilstein shock absorbers.
In deference to its blistering performance, the 111R does have anti-lock brakes – but in typical Lotus fashion it's set to activate only when tyre slippage reaches seven percent, rather than the four percent industry standard, so you have to get it really out of shape before the ABS kicks in.
This was the model that Lotus let the motoring writers loose in at Kyalami – and it's a tribute to the car's astonishing roadholding that only one driver managed to spin it.
On the track
It's a driver's car, pure and simple. Once you slip over the high sill (so high that when you're belted in you can rest your elbow on it) the deep bucket seats enclose you so firmly that you can feel the outline of your wallet in your back pocket.
You don't so much get into a Lotus as put it on.
All the controls are exactly where they should be and the two big white-faced analogue instruments are right in your vision. The only adjustment available is moving the seat backwards and forwards but that's all you need.
Push the stubby, turned aluminium gear lever into first – it's notchy but very positive – let out the light clutch and the Elise almost jumps forward.
The steering is light, incredibly direct and superbly accurate; the car goes exactly where you point it and once you get used to the gearshift, which requires some precision of operation to get it in smoothly every time, especially on down-changes, you can pitch this little roadster into corners harder and later than you'd believe possible.
1.2g sideways force
Turn in some more and the Elise will clip the apex at the same place every time and come out with as much power dialled in as you want - or dare; on good tar the maker claims it will pull 1.2g of sideways force before anything lets go.
Lotus has been refused homologation for the SA National Production Car series for this thing and I can see why.
The Toyota engine pulls willingly through the mid-range, giving you the sort of inputs you'd expect from a medium-sized sports bike and making the car immensely driveable.
Then you get it beyond 6800rpm for the first time, the variable valve gear operates and the Elise leaps forward like a superbike.
Before you're ready for it the red shift-light on the rev-counter (the first one I'd seen on a car) is on and the next corner is coming up very quickly indeed. The transition is very sharply defined and great fun on dry roads; I would be a little nervous of it in rain.
The faster you go the smaller the Elise seems to get. I know how clichéd this sounds but you really do become one with the car.
Yet the ride is supple and surprisingly comfortable; it might be less so on some of our country's less well-maintained secondary roads but on Kyalami (which is not as smooth as it looks on TV) the seat and steering tell you about every ripple in the tar without transferring them to the chassis.
As a package it's very impressive indeed.
The Elise is not a kit car; it's a beautifully fitted sports car with all the right stuff but no frills. The standard model comes with cloth seats and door trim, a turned aluminium gear lever knob and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Optional extras include a half-leather interior (leather and Alcantara seats, leather door inserts), sun visors, central locking, a Blaupunkt Lausanne radio/CD and high-performance Blaupunkt front and rear speakers.
The 111R comes with auxiliary front driving lights, full leather trim, electric windows, an upgraded Blaupunkt Woodstock radio, CD and MP3 player, interior stowage net, sound insulation and full carpeting with a lightweight aluminium passenger footrest.
Metallic paint, air-conditioning and a body-coloured hard top are available (at a price) for both models.
The standard soft top, by the way, simply rolls up into its own little storage bag and is stowed in the tiny boot behind the engine. Colin Chapman would have been proud; it's the simplest, most elegant soft top I've seen.
And that's the essence of Lotus; Chapman always emphasised reducing weight by using innovative engineering and materials to find the simplest possible solutions to design problems, using the minimum number of components.
And the Elise is great fun to drive, as he always insisted a Lotus should be.
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