Lotus Elise & ExigeLotus Elise & Exige Published: 11th Apr 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!
- Best model: Anything cherished
- Worst model: One that’s been crashed
- Budget buy: High-mileage cars
- OK for unleaded?: Yes
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 3785 x 1719mm
- Spares situation: Generally good
- DIY ease?: Mechanical only
- Club support: Good
- Appreciating asset?: Very much so
- Good buy or good-bye?: Lotus at its glorious best
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Modern interpretation of Seven that many hail as the greatest modern classic. S1 most wanted but the S2 replacement is the better all rounder say specialists. Plenty around but buy with care
If you were asked to think of a manufacturer of focused, lightweight sports cars, the chances are you’d instantly think of Lotus – and more specifically the Elise. Until the arrival of the Elise,a staggering 21 years ago, Lotus had a ran ge of cars that were fast and great to drive, but the company had lost its way a bit. After its legendary lightweight Six and Seven, Lotus had turned to cars that were fast and handled well, but in some cases were closer to GTs than outright sports cars. Then the Elise arrived in 1996 and changed everything.
At a stroke, Lotus rearranged the goal posts. Until the appearance of the Elise, sports car fans had to settle for cars like the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota MR2; worthy enough machines that were great to drive, but relatively heavy and soft. The Elise put driving pleasure above all else, so while long-distance touring might not be its forte, it was perfect for B-road blasts and track days.
When the first-generation Elise was replaced after little more than four years, there were some who feared that Lotus might have watered things down a bit – but not at all. While the new car had a much sharper new look, it was pretty much the same to drive even though attention had been paid to every aspect of it, from the soft top design and door seals to the suspension, brakes and wheels. With a much longer production span these later cars are far more common and more usable too; if you’ve been hankering after an Elise but you don’t know which way to turn, here’s everything you need to know.
1996 The Elise is launched in July, a strict stripped out two-seater on the mould of the Caterham, albeit but with state-ofthe- art body and chassis design powered by a 118bhp 16-valve Rover-built K-Series engine as used in the MGF. Alloy wheels, immobiliser and cloth trim are all standard, while leather trim and metallic paint are extra-cost options.
1998 The first high-performance Elise is unleashed in March, the 187bhp Elise 190 VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative). Although it’s more of a track day special, with race seats and harnesses, roll cage and adjustable suspension, it is road-legal.
1999 Elise Sprint appears in March, but it’s quickly rebadged the 111S, with a 143bhp version of the VVC K-Series engine. That means variable valve timing is standard, plus six-spoke alloys, an additional rear spoiler and wider rear tyres. At the same time, the Sport 135 appears but just 50 are built, each with uprated brakes and suspension.
2000 Final versions of the Series 1 Elise are released in May. The Sport 160 produces 160bhp from a non-VVC version of the K-Series engine; it also features a higher rear wing and metallic grey five-spoke alloys. As well as these standard production editions, there were all sorts of series 1 special editions such as the Type 49, Type 79 and GT1. All built in tiny numbers, they were all mechanically the same as the regular Elise models, with the only differences being cosmetic.
2000 Elise S2 arrives in November with the same K-Series as its predecessor but it’s redesigned and slightly bigger, with attention paid to every aspect of its design and construction.
2002 The 156bhp 111 and 111S appear in June, both with a VVC (variable valve timing) K-series engine, the 111S featuring more standard equipment.
2003 Hard-core 135R variant on sale.
2004 The 111R appears, now with 1.8-litre Toyota power.
2005 The K-Series engine is superseded by a 134bhp 1.8-litre Toyota unit – as used in the MR2 – in July and the 111R becomes the Elise R at this point.
2008 The supercharged 218bhp SC débuts in June.
2010 In April the 1.8-litre engine in the standard Elise is superseded by a new Toyota 1.6-litre unit, but still 134bhp but with reduced CO2 emissions.
Driving and press comments
Top Gear magazine’s road testers aren’t easily impressed, but when they drove one of the first Elises they knew Lotus was onto a winner. “Drive the Elise and you cannot help but smile. There’s something magical about the way the scenery glides past and how close you feel to the road… It feels compact and tight, yet thumping along busy A-roads and motorways, mixing it with bigger traffic, it also feels surprisingly safe, stable and not at all vulnerable”.
Testing the car back to back with Renault’s outrageous Sport Spider, the Elise took the spoils for its lower price and more engaging chassis, along with its better usability. It was also sensational to drive of course: “When you drive the Elise you realise you only thought you had driven neutral-handling small cars before. It’s simply brilliant. If you could sneak it onto a kart track you’d clean up. Not only is the steering informative, it’s lightning-fast and direct. With this car you can change direction at the flick of a wrist”.
When the same magazine tried out the heavily revised Series 2 Elise in 2000, any concerns it had about Lotus softening things up too much were proved unfounded. “The instantly responsive, agile feel of the old Elise is immediately obvious. There were fears that Lotus would go soft by fitting the new Elise with lardy extras, destroying its appeal in the process. Not so. This car weighs 765kg, scarcely different from the last one and a noticeable contrast to the 875kg Vauxhall VX220 and the decidedly weighty 975kg Toyota MR2.
“It’s very quick too. The rapidly-shifting five-speed gearbox borrows its low ratios from the outgoing VVC-engined 111S. With such a low overall mass to haul around, the engine picks up well from gentle revs and builds to a heady fervour above 6000rpm. Where in the previous Elise the unpleasant mechanical racket would have left you convinced that the engine was shaking itself apart by this point, here the added sound deadening, tweaked engine brain and (optional) sports exhaust give it a smoother edge matched to a more encouraging bark at the top end”.
When Lotus decided to start selling the Elise in the US it had to adopt a powerplant that could rack up 120,000 miles reliably, to pass Federal regulations. A Toyota unit was chosen and because of American rules, anti-lock brakes had to be fitted too, along with a driver’s airbag.
Evo magazine drove one of the pre-production prototypes and immediately loved it: “The shift action [of the new six-speed gearbox] is wonderfully slick and positive; unlike before, there’s now never any doubt that you have actually selected a fresh ratio.
“Even in a tall gear at low speeds there’s no hesitancy of faltering, just an easy-natured tug that subjectively feels to have a keen edge over the 156bhp K-Series engined Elise. With Toyota power the Elise exhibits a new-found vitality, a punch to go with its poise”.
It’s not lazy journalism when pundits call the Elise a modern day Seven (Caterham) because that’s what it is and scarcely more civilised, but that’s part of the considerable appeal to many owners, a fair wedge who are prepared to use one everyday despite the contortions needed to get in and out and the basic yet effective hood.
Values and marketplace
John Crook runs the sales showroom at Paul Matty Sportscars. He comments: “Whether you’re buying a Series 1 or a Series 2, the start point for a good car is £15,000 – and even then you’ll struggle to find much at this price.
“To secure something nice you really need to be budgeting closer to £20,000, but the best Series 1s are now fetching over £30,000, although good Toyotaengined cars start at £18,000. Mileage makes a big difference to an Elise’s value while most of the limited editions will fetch a premium too, even though most of them offered little more than unique wheels and an exclusive paint job”.
If these prices seem steep, and you’re feeling a bit out of touch, that’s understandable. According to Crook, prices are going up constantly – he reckons values have doubled in the last three or four years, at the top end of the market. However, even average cars are worth significantly more than they were in the recent past.
Crook continues: “Because they’re older, and also because the production run was relatively short, Series 1s are especially hard to find in superb condition; most of the cars we’re offered we turn down because they need too much work. The issues we tend to come up against include tatty bodywork with crazing and stone chips, kerbed wheels and worn seats, although relatively few cars are neglected mechanically”.
Both Series have their dedicated fanbase. The earlier cars are more collectable but not as usable because they’re less refined and more basic, but for many that’s part of the appeal. They’re also smaller and lighter although you’d probably be hard-pressed to tell.
The Series 2 was initially fitted with the Rover K-Series engine but when the Toyota unit came in it brought with it standard anti-lock servo-assisted brakes – which weren’t even an option on the earlier models. These later Elises also brought the option of electric windows and air conditioning, neither of which are unusual fitments. While this might seem to fly in the face of the Elise’s ethos, plenty of buyers like their creature comforts which is why there are plenty of takers.
Cars that have had official Lotus Motorsport parts fitted are usually worth more than completely standard cars. However, an Elise decked out with parts produced by unknown aftermarket suppliers will normally be worth less than a standard car because the quality is so variable.
According to Crook, quite a few Elise owners use their cars every day, especially Series 2 models. It helps that these later cars have far better hoods, much better seals and they’re also easier to get in and out of thanks to wider doors. Priced significantly higher than the K-Series cars, the Toyota-engined Elises tend to feature more options. However, this higher price point is one of the reasons why Lotus sold fewer cars, which is why finding exactly what you want might take some time.
Most Elises have been upgraded in one way or another. The stuff that tends to get swapped includes the wheels, brakes, suspension and exhaust. That’s not necessarily a problem because these modifications tend to make the car even more enjoyable to drive and sometimes more usable too.
What you need to be wary of is an engine that’s been upgraded to the point where reliability is compromised or it’s very peaky to drive. Also be wary of major brake upgrades; the standard set-up is excellent so a massive increase in stopping power suggests the car has been absolutely hammered.
The suspension is also pretty good for road use, but definitely needs changes for track days. If you try out a car that’s got ultra-hard suspension, ask how often it’s been taken on the track; the chances are that it’s spent more time going round circuits than it has on the public road.
The best Elises are those that have had a few sympathetic upgrades rather than wholesale replacement of major parts. Also, genuine Lotus upgrades is the best route to take, as some aftermarket modifications can make an Elise much worse instead of better. After all, when the base vehicle is as good as this, you need to be very careful before meddling with the mix.
Exige and 340R - Even harder core classics
The Elise is one of the most driverfocused sports cars ever created, but if you fancy something even more hard-core you’ve got two options. One is to try to track down a 340R, of which just 340 examples were made, or you could go for an Exige instead.
All 340Rs were built in 2000 and they rarely come up for sale thanks to many having been exported to Japan. A bonkers machine with nothing in the way of practicality or comfort, this Elise-derived sportster was so named because it was meant to offer 340bhp per ton, but didn’t quite manage it. That doesn’t matter though because it’s reckoned by many to be the best Elise derivative of the lot when it comes to a sublime driving experience.
Also introduced in 2000, the Exige was effectively a fixed-head Elise with a 177bhp version of the 340R engine, but there was an option to upgrade to 190bhp if the 0-60mph time of 4.7 secs was a bit on the slow side. The Exige also features a close-ratio gearbox and much more downforce thanks to a huge rear wing. Another significant difference over the Elise is the steering, which is more direct thanks to a different steering rack, giving just 2.3 turns between locks.
In both cases the focus is on a scalpelsharp driving experience above all else; comfort and practicality went straight out of the window, not that the 340R has any of those (or doors). With these cars being so rare you’ll have to dig deep to secure one, although prices are hard to pinpoint as they come onto the market so rarely.
Just 583 examples of the Exige S1 were made (499 in 2000, 84 in 2001) and John Crook reckons you’ll be doing well to buy one for less than £20,000 at all, while £30,000 is nearer the mark to secure something that isn’t a liability; 340Rs are priced even higher.
Crucially, mileage is important with these cars because of their highly stressed engines, which often do not last as long as a normal Elise. So before buying a high-mileage example with an untouched engine, make sure you won’t have to fork out for a very costly rebuild any time soon. You might find that the Exige is a bit too extreme so have a good drive in one before you take the plunge!
What To Look For
- No Elise is luxuriously trimmed and the standard trim tends to wear pretty well considering. Some cars are devoid of carpets, but mats can be purchased and slotted in easily enough (at £50 for a set).
- Thanks to the electrics being pretty simple for a modern, they’re also usually reliable. If there are problems, everything is available. The biggest issue could be a faulty Stack instrument unit (all S1s and early S2s); if this fails, you’ll have to find a decent used replacement as repairs aren’t possible and new units are unavailable.
- One of the key issues that Elise owners have is that parts supply can be intermittent, so you can’t always bank on being able to get something in the near future just because it’s easy to find now – or vice versa.
- The key is not to get too hung up on specification. Instead you need to find the best car that you can and if it needs a few tweaks to get it perfect, that’s not the end of the world. Find a really good car that needs a suspension or brake rebuild and you shouldn’t walk away; a really good chassis and body are much more important than baggy mechanicals, which can easily be rebuilt. Find something truly superb that needs nothing and you might have to be flexible with your budget; walk away for the sake of £1000 and you might regret it because by the time you find another really good car, values may have gone up by rather more than £1000 – prices really are rising that quickly.
- All Series 1 Elises feature a K-Series engine, in either regular or VVC form, the latter with variable valve timing. This engine is notorious for overheating, partly because of its design and partly because of the small coolant capacity. A well-maintained Elise won’t overheat, but you still need to check for signs of it having done so, by checking the underside of the oil filler cap for that tell-tale mayonnaiselike substance.
- Also look at the level of the coolant, because Elise radiators can be fragile. That’s why even if the coolant is up to the mark, you still need to check for signs of coolant at the base of the radiator. This is easier said than done however, as it’s hidden away in the nose – replacing it takes six hours, so don’t expect much change from £600 to do the job.
- Standard Elise powerplants are pretty reliable, but those fitted to the more high-performance derivatives can be worn out within 50,000 miles if the car has been driven really hard. The models affected are those such as the 190 VHPD, 340R and Exige, so look for signs of oil being burned (blue smoke from the exhaust under acceleration) suggesting that the piston rings and cylinder bores have worn.
- The Toyota engine fitted to Series 2 cars from 2004 is totally reliable if maintained; Paul Matty maintains a car that’s covered 170,000 miles on its original engine and gearbox.
Body and chassis
- Crashed Elises aren’t rare; any shunted car will have a rippled chassis. Once the Elise’s structure has been distorted the whole thing has to be replaced or the car will never handle properly. New chassis aren’t available, and because much of the structure is hidden by the bodywork and undertrays, checking for damage isn’t easy.
- Electrolytic corrosion can be an issue around the front suspension pick up points. Paul Matty Sportscars has developed a repair method that’s currently in development and so far it seems to be proving successful.
- A chassis that’s been repaired because of crash damage is bad news. Put the car on a ramp and look for evidence of buckling or rippling, mismatched adhesives or welding. Inspect the aluminium floor for signs of damage. If it’s rippled or buckled the car has been crunched. Also make sure the metal isn’t damaged from road debris.
- All Elises sit close to the ground, so look for damage to the underside, the front valance, headlamps (fairings were optional on the Series 1) and nosecone. The Exige features a front splitter, which sits particularly close to the ground. As a result it’s prone to knocks which can push it out of shape or crack it, so check it’s intact.
- Repairing damaged glassfibre is a specialised business, so if the car has been shunted at some stage it will need to have been repaired by an expert. If it hasn’t, there’ll be sunken paint, possibly micro-blistering and perhaps even cracks in the panels.
- The S1’s roof is surprisingly complex considering how basic it appears, and it can also tear easily. Whatever the weather is doing, remove and refit the roof, to check all the components are present and correct. No Series 1 roof is completely watertight but the S2’s roof is pretty much perfect so there’s nothing to worry about.
- The five-speed manual transmission is strong, and thanks to the car’s low weight there’s no reason for a high-mileage car to be suffering significant problems. However, bearing noise can be an issue at idle, which means overhauling the gearbox (at £500). Toyota cars have five or six-speed gearboxes, and if looked after they just keep going.
- Differentials will whine if the car has been subjected to too many emergency starts, while gear selection will be tricky if the synchromesh has worn. However, don’t confuse the latter with a badly adjusted gear linkage.
- Clutches can also take a beating. If a fresh clutch is needed, a specialist will charge 10 hours’ labour plus the cost of a clutch (£240) to fit a new one.
- There’s no assistance for the steering, racks typically wear out within 35,000 miles, so check for play in the system to see if a new one is needed. They’re not as cheap you might think; at £350 for a fresh unit, plus the fitting.
- The ball joints in the front suspension wear out after 35,000 miles, while shock absorbers will usually last just 20,000 miles or so. With an S1 an alternative is to switch from the original Koni dampers to the Bilsteins fitted to the Elise S2. It’s not a cheap swap though, at around £150 per corner.
- With any Elise, it’s worth investing in a four-wheel suspension alignment once a year, because if the wheels aren’t all pointing in exactly the correct direction, the handling will be compromised.
- Make sure the alloy wheels haven’t been damaged, as replacements are no longer available for the Series 1. If the wheels are badly kerbed, there’s a good chance the suspension will have been knocked out of true.
- There was no brake servo on K-Series cars, while MMC (Metal Matrix Composite) discs were fitted to some Elises. These last well but they need special pads, which are costly and hard to source. As a result, many cars have been converted to steel discs. Replacement steel discs cost £120 per pair, or £190 for grooved alternatives.
Three Of A Kind
Caterham SevenIt started out as a Lotus so in theory this is the Elise’s most accomplished ancestor. However, while the Seven is generally even lighter than the Elise, it’s arguably less usable because of its cramped cabin and lack of luggage space. There’s a bewildering variety of Sevens available which means performance ranges from quick to ludicrously fast. There are lots about, but values still tend to be high. Check DIY builds carefully.
Toyota MR2If you want to trade some of the Elise’s raw thrills for practicality and refinement, for easier touring or just want to use the car more regularly, few cars will do a better job than the vastly underrated third generation Toyota MR2. Using the same Elise power plant, the heavier Jap is not half as quick but still zesty enough for most and the handling is excellent. It looks like Porsche Boxster, from some angles, but you can buy a good for less than the price of a scruffy Spitfire!
Vauxhall VX220Built alongside the Elise, the VX220 was overlooked when new due to its badge, yet in some ways it’s better. More relaxing to drive, there’s more torque than the Lotus, while the track is wider so the handling characteristics are less edgy. Equipment levels also tend to be higher, while towards the end of production a seriously fast Turbo was offered, with a revised suspension for more predictable handling. Great car, don’t let badge put you off.
If you’ve never driven an Elise before, your perceptions of how good a driver’s car can be will be completely rearranged the first time you get behind the wheel. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Series 1 or 2 – try a good one and you’ll be blown away by the experience. However, there are a lot of cars out there that aren’t good examples and if you start out in one of these you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. While Series 1 models are becoming extremely collectable, the Series 2 isn’t far behind and in the long term these may well prove to be the better investment thanks to their far superior build quality and usability. As a classic buy, Paul Matty reckons you’re currently better off going for a Series 2 as you’ll get more for your money and a more reliable, better car into the bargain.
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