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Lotus Elise & Exige

Lotus Elise & Exige Published: 22nd Jan 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Cherished S1s
  • Worst model: One that’s been crashed
  • Budget buy: High-milers
  • 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?: S1 and Exige mainly
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Best Lotus ever?
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Modern Seven that belies its age and still one of the greatest drivers’ cars – perhaps best ever Lotus? Reliability generally fine if you buy a good one although there are abused examples so demands expert vetting

When it comes to reckoning what’s the greatest Lotus road car, you’re somewhat spoilt for choice but increasingly more enthusiasts are placing the Elise at the top of the pile. Launched after the disappointing and slow selling new Elan M100, Lotus took stock and went back to basics to do what it knew best; lightweight sports cars which put the driver first and foremost.

It was a bold move by Hethel as by the time the Elise was launched in 1996, the market had grown accustomed to easy going Mazda MX-5s (ironically a retro roadster which paid homage to the original Elan) and the like.

Not so the Elise which was after a different market altogether and such was the car’s success that almost a quarter of a century on, it’s still graced with the same basic design and in common with the legendary Lotus/Caterham Seven hasn’t drifted from its original design brief. Does this sound like your sort of classic?


1996 Launched as a mid-engined sports car using a racing-style chassis powered by the 118bhp 16-valve fuel-injected MGF K-Series engine. Alloy wheels, immobiliser and cloth trim standard, but no carpets, anti lock brakes and so on.

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 very much 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 that 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 S1 special editions such as Type 49, Type 79 (both winning F1 car names) and GT1. All built in tiny numbers, they were all mechanically the same as the regular Elise, 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 a zesty 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 super fast 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 what the press thought

Imagine a Seven, but one made for the New Millennium and you’ve got the Elise in one. For starters, unlike the Seven, it looks sensational just as a modern mould breaking Lotus should and the interior is far less primitive although by the same token only carrying what’s strictly necessary, meaning carpets were initially optional. Entry and egress is not much better than a Seven however but the hood is of a better, easier to use design, thankfully.

To drive, the Elise is like night and day compared to its earlier trailblazer although the end effect is much the same. The Caterham is a classic rear wheel-drive performance tool, offering traditional handling traits, and sheer controllability, allowing it to be steered by both wheel and throttle, at whim. The Elise does a similar job but, being mid-engined, and single seater racer-like, is dartier and far more sensitive when on the limit.

One has to say that the Seven is the friendlier, once the high grip levels have been breached, and will help the drive gather it all together. The Elise, by it’s mid-engined nature, can bite back quickly if you’re not skilled enough in what to expect.

Of course you have to say that, on both cars, these limits are what most sane drivers would never explore on the majority of roads. Perhaps this is why both carmakers recommend a higher performance driving course, not simply to stay safe but also give tuition on how to get the best of these finger tip sensitive machines. It’s money well spent.

In its 1996 road test of the Elise, Autocar concluded that the Lotus was “more fun than a Caterham”, but more recently reckoned that there was no better way of “experiencing the pure joy of motoring than in a Caterham”. Perhaps it depends upon the mood you are in because in terms of driver pleasure there’s precious little to split them.

Top Gear broadly went with the flow, “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”.

When the same magazine tried out the heavily revised Series 2 in 2000, any concerns it had about Lotus going soft 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 US rules, anti-lock brakes had to be fitted too, along with a driver’s airbag. Evo magazine thought the changes were for the better: “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… With Toyota power the Elise exhibits a new-found vitality, a punch to go with its poise”.

Values and specialist view

Paul Matty of Paul Matty Sportscars says the Elise market is split into three segments; completely standard models, mildly modified, perhaps for track day work, and competition cars. Elises that have had official Lotus Motorsport parts fitted are usually worth more than completely standard versions. However, an Elise decked out with parts produced by unknown aftermarket suppliers will be worth less than a standard car because the quality is so variable.

Before retiring, John Crook used to run the sales at Paul Matty Sportscars. He told us: “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 – if you can find one. Boss Paul Matty travels all across the country to find the best of what’s left and is currently considering repatriating cars from Japan to meet demand.

The Lotus specialist adds, “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”.

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 servoassisted brakes – which weren’t even an option on the earlier models. These later Elises also brought the option of electric windows and air con. 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. In fact, Paul Matty’s favourite Elise is the Toyota-engined 134 S2 with the five-speed gearbox.

Quite a number of owners use their cars daily, especially Series 2s as these later cars have far better hoods, much better seals and they’re also easier to get in and out of due to their wider doors. There’s also more refinement, especially if you find a car with the Touring or better still the Super Touring Packs. There’s also a Lifestyle paint option and after 2005 a Super Sports Pack.

Don’t pooh-pooh the Vauxhall VX 220. Launched along with the S2, this Luton legend uses Astra (and turbo) power and has a longer wheelbase for tamer handling and they are usually notably cheaper, the exception being special edition run out models. Exiges can be double the price of an Elise, plus many track and race biased versions were available. Just 583 examples of the Exige S1 were made.


Most have been upgraded in one way or another. The stuff that tends to get swapped includes the wheels, brakes, suspension and exhaust. What you need to be wary of is an engine that’s been upgraded to the point where reliability is compromised or it’s too peaky to drive. Audi and Honda converted cars are not liked by the market plus it kills the car’s value says Lotus guru Paul Matty.

The suspension is also pretty good for road use, but definitely requires changes for track days. In the majority of cars you simply need to get the basics right first though such as investing in a four-wheel suspension alignment once a year, because the handling will always be compromised. Paul Matty advises seeing that the dampers are in good order and the ride height is correctly set. The best Elises are those that have had a few sympathetic upgrades where genuine Lotus upgrades is the best route to take, as some aftermarket modifications can make this Lotus worse instead of better.

Crash course in elise buying

Crashed Elises aren’t uncommon and any shunts will ripple the chassis. Once distorted it has to be replaced or it will never handle right. A chassis that’s been crash repaired is bad news as new chassis aren’t available, and because much of the structure is hidden by the body and undertrays, checking isn’t easy. Put the car on a ramp and look for buckling or rippling, mismatched adhesives or welding. Inspect the aluminium floor. If rippled the car has been crunched. Electrolytic corrosion can be affect the front suspension but Matty has developed a repair method. Repairing glassfibre is specialised, so if the car has been shunted it will need to have been done by an expert. All models sit close to the ground, so look for damage to the underside. The Exige’s front splitter is highly prone to cracking.

Fourteen years on and no plans to sell

Gary Breward bought this Elise S2 because the rebuild on his Elan +2, bought in 1998, was taking longer than expected – and he hadn’t even driven a Lotus in his life! The model purchased from Paul Matty Sportscars was this 2001 Cobalt Blue Sports Touring model with 32,800 miles on the clock back in November 2006 “and my very first journey in a Lotus was along a soaking wet M42 which was not all that enjoyable”, he admits. Over the years, it’s suffered the inevitable Lotus niggles with the suspension, electrics and more recently required a radiator but Gary loves the Elise. “They are a pure driving experience and reward you when you drive them right but will let you know when driven clumsy although Breward feels that they are not a car for everyday use “As they are not the most durable and you do feel a bit vulnerable in heavy traffic or poor weather conditions”. Having said all that “I still enjoy driving the Elise and have no plans to sell it so long as I can still clamber in and out – getting older is a bugger! I am about to start my 14th year of ownership which to be honest I never expected. It is still worth what I paid and other than the effect of very low inflation during this time, has been far more fun that money in the bank.”

Exige: The extreme elise, too much for some

Exige, launched in 2000, was effectively a fixedhead Elise with a 177bhp version of the 340R engine, but there was a also a 190bhp option. This extreme Elise also features a close-ratio ’box and much more downforce thanks to a huge rear wing. Another significant difference is the steering, which is more direct. Just 583 S1s were made (499 in 2000, 84 in 2001) and 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 remotely good.


What To Look For

General gripes which will quickly sour the lotus elise experience according to the experts

  • The Elise/Exige is definitely a car which demands a professional inspection. Paul Matty Sportscars charges around £200 for a thorough checkover and it’s without doubt money well spent.
  • Find the best that you can regardless of its age and spec. A straight chassis and body are the most important. Find something superb and stomach the cost because you’ll recoup the extra outlay come resale time.
  • Right now parts supply is pretty good and better than the Vauxhall version, the sole exception are chassis but Paul Matty is currently trying to persuade Lotus into manufacturing new ones. Carbonfibre aftermarket types are available but Matty says, that apart from the price, they are not really suitable for the road.
  • Thanks to the electrics being pretty simple for a modern, they’re also usually reliable and if there are problems, everything is available. The biggest issue could be a faulty Stack instrument unit; if this fails, you’ll have to find a decent used replacement as repairs aren’t possible and new units are unavailable. Heater modules fail as they are sited by the car’s radiator and usually drenched in water; Matty renews and relocates them when carrying out a radiator change.
  • The roof is complex considering how basic it appears, and it tears easily.

Elise engines – Good and bad

All Series 1s run a MGF engine, in either regular or VVC form, the latter with variable valve timing. The K-Series 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 such as checking the underside of the oil filler cap for that tell-tale mayonnaise-like goo.

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 highperformance derivatives can be worn out within 50,000 miles if the car has been driven really hard or used full pelt on the track. 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 power) suggesting that the piston rings and cylinder bores have worn.

The Toyota engine fitted to Series 2 cars from ’04 is totally reliable if maintained; 150,000 miles or more is not that uncommon.

Other lotus look outs

The five-speed transmission is strong, in part thanks to the car’s low weight. 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 Grand Prix starts, while gear selection will be tricky if the synchromesh has worn, but don’t confuse the latter with a badly adjusted gear linkage. Clutches take a beating.

Steering racks typically wear out within 35,000 miles, so check for play as they’re not as cheap you might think; at £350 for a fresh unit, plus fitting. The ball joints in the front suspension wear out after a similar mileage, 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, at around £150 per corner though.

There was no brake servo on K-Series cars, while special MMC (Metal Matrix Composite) discs were fitted to some Elises. These last well but demand special pads, which are costly and hard to source. As a result, many cars have been converted to steel discs. Ensure the alloy wheels haven’t been damaged, as replacements are no longer available for the S1.

Three Of A Kind

Caterham Seven
Caterham Seven
Originally a Lotus, 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 insane!. There are lots about, but values still tend to be high, matching new prices in certain cases. Check out DIY builds very carefully as they vary.
Vauxhall VX220
Vauxhall VX220
Built alongside the Elise, the VX220 suffers from bearing the wrong badge, yet in some ways it’s the better car. The engines are lustier, while the handling characteristics are less edgy.The seriously fast Turbo is a sure-fire future classic. Equipment levels also tend to be higher than the Lotus. Great car, and apart from special edition Turbos most are great value, so don’t let the boring badge put you off.
Toyota MR2
Toyota MR2
Third gen MR2 is a cut-price Elise S2 – almost. 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, and you can buy a good one for less than the price of a scruffy Spitfire. That said, issues with the catalyst can ruin engines but if you vet the car well then you should be fine.
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