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Car reviews - Lotus - Elise - convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Light, sexy looks, clever use of advanced build systems
Room for improvement
Tricky to enter, unexciting engine note, hilarious weather protection

14 Feb 2001

JUST add lightness. This is what Lotus founder Mr Colin Chapman is famous for.

Today, the Lotus Elise would make him proud.

Like the original cars designed and built by the tiny British sports car-maker in the 1950s and 1960s, it is light, efficient and high on driver enjoyment.

It also lives up to the company's reputation for delivering affordable but leading-edge technology.

For the Elise this high-tech image is more than justified.

The car features an all-aluminium chassis that is bonded rather than welded to form what is said to be one of the lightest and strongest tubs around.

Stripped of engine and the sexy fibreglass panels, the car's space frame chassis weighs a minuscule 70kg which keeps the overall weight down to a skeletal 690kg.

Since the Elise's 1996 debut other manufacturers have followed the bonded chassis route, making the littlest Lotus a trendsetter too.

The car's bonded platform is left exposed along the side beams, under the dash, in the foot wells and behind the seats. The pedals are also all-alloy.

The exposed alloy looks fantastic and proves its strength by offering a totally tremor and shake-free cabin, something no other chop-top model can offer.

No doubt the strength of the car's chassis is helped by the wide side beams which get larger as they head down the footwell. However, this does not allow a graceful entry or exit.

It helps if you are a contortionist but even then with the canvas roof on - and it takes some time to put in place - you will struggle. It is not a case of getting in or out, it's more like taking the Elise off and putting it on.

Once inside there is more than enough room. The wafer-thin driver's seat moves forward and back but that is about it.

It is a one-piece unit so the backrest stays put. The seat does have a pump to adjust the lumbar.

Those who are thin of rear cladding may find the seats a bit uncomfortable on a long run but they do hold you in place and a comfortable driving position is easy to find.

Cast your eye over the cabin and owners of a Holden Barina or Astra will recognise the control stalks and some other minor bits and pieces.

In front of the driver is a racing car-like pod that offers a speedo, a tachometer with no redline and a digital readout for odometer, fuel and temperature, as well as some warning lights.

An engine immobiliser is standard.

Behind the driver is a net which can hold hats and even a small bag.

Overall, the quality of the cabin is good but the door handle - a recess in the door - has a rough edge and window winders feel like they are about to come off in your hand.

But this car is made to be driven.

Start the 88kW, 1.8-litre, twin camshaft Rover engine and you are met with a bland exhaust note that never really gets tuneful no matter how fast you rev it.

The power figure may be low but the lack of flab means this wee Lotus flies off the line or through the gears. The company claims a 0-100km/h time of 5.7 seconds.

Driving through a five-speed transaxle, the gearshifts long lever needs just a push forward or back to slot into the next gear. Fifth takes a little more effort and is best left for higher speed work.

The short-action clutch allows any driver to make the smoothest of gear changes and ensures you will delight in stroking the car up and down through the gearbox.

It has been described by one European magazine as the best handling car in the world - and the Elise lives up to expectations.

At normal suburban speeds understeer and oversteer are not worth considering.

At higher speeds the driver can dial in at will how the car will tackle a corner and if you do get overly excited any slide is signalled so far in advance - through the steering and seat - that you are correcting your mistake well before it becomes a catastrophe.

The ride, although firm, soaks up all but the biggest bumps. It is more comfortable than an MX-5.

The race-bred, non-assisted brakes require a bigger than normal shove. They work like brakes from a racing car. Sure-footed stops are always on offer from any speed.

More and more cars come these days without power steering but this one is the only car we have driven that really never needs artificial assistance.

It is light enough at parking speeds yet remains well weighted and communicative at higher speeds.

At around $70,000 you could buy a more practical car or even one with a bigger, more powerful engine.

But if you want a real sports car, one that offers the performance, handling and looks that even most supercars fail to deliver, then the Elise is for you.

- Automotive NetWorks 06/06/1999

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FOR: Light, sexy looks, clever use of advanced build systemsAGAINST: Tricky to enter, unexciting engine note, hilarious weather protection

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