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Lotus Elise

Back To Basics Published: 4th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: They’re all good
  • Worst model: One that’s been crashed
  • Budget buy: Any early car
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): Easily
  • Spares situation: Generally good
  • DIY ease?: Mechanical only
  • Club support: Good
  • Appreciating asset?: Only in the long term
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy, no question
Hard top doesn’t detract from style and makes car more civilised in winter. Crude hood is no fun at all really Hard top doesn’t detract from style and makes car more civilised in winter. Crude hood is no fun at all really
Front end is prone to knocks and usual GRP crazing Front end is prone to knocks and usual GRP crazing
Lovely little detail touches but car has few fripperies Lovely little detail touches but car has few fripperies
Minimalist cabin costs just £450 to renovate. Floors can suffer from surface corrosion but is only cosmetic Minimalist cabin costs just £450 to renovate. Floors can suffer from surface corrosion but is only cosmetic
K-Series engine is sharp but suspect, especially the head gasket which usually destroys the head, too K-Series engine is sharp but suspect, especially the head gasket which usually destroys the head, too
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Like the original Lotus 7 the Elise is built purely for fun. But buy a good one and you’ll also enjoy one of the most cost-effective modern classics

Pros & Cons

Great to drive, economical, fast, strong image
Lots of crashed ones
£7500-22,000

When it comes to driver’s cars, few are more focused than Lotus’s Elise and Exige. Even the most hard-core hot hatch is overweight and ponderous compared with this marvel from Hethel; anything that made these Lotuses less agile, less focused and more practical was ditched during the development process. Of course that shouldn’t be any surprise; Lotus has a reputation for building fi nehandling cars, largely down to Colin Chapman’s maxim of ‘just adding lightness’. Despite the astonishing performance offered by the Elise and Exige, you don’t need to fi nd a fortune to buy one of your own – and running costs needn’t be crippling either. That low weight ensures amazing economy, while reliability levels are pretty good too, as long as the car isn’t thrashed mercilessly at every opportunity. Of course the big problem here is that these cars generally are caned constantly, because the cars just beg for it. That’s when things can start to go awry, which is why any potential purchase needs to be inspected very closely; read on and we’ll guide you through the maze.

History

The Elise was launched in July 1996, with 118bhp 16-valve fuel-injected Rover-sourced K-Series engine. Alloy wheels, immobiliser and cloth trim were all standard, while leather trim and metallic paint were extra-cost options. Various tuning companies offered fruitier Elises almost immediately, but the fi rst offi cial high-performance edition was unleashed in March 1998; the 187bhp Elise 190 VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) went on sale. Although it was built more as a track day special, with race seats and harnesses, roll cage and adjustable suspension, it was also road-legal! Hot on the heels of the VHPD was the 340R, which was unveiled at the 1998 British Motor Show. Perhaps the most extreme Elise variant of all, it was initially planned to be a regular production car, but ultimately just 340 examples were built so they’re already a modern classic.

In March 1999 the Elise Sprint appeared, but it was quickly rebadged the 111S, with a 143bhp version of the VVC K-Series engine. That meant variable valve timing was standard, plus six-spoke alloys, additional rear spoiler and wider rear tyres. At the same time, the Sport 135 appeared, but just 50 were built, each with uprated brakes and suspension. The fi nal versions of the Series 1 Elise were released in May 2000. The Sport 160 produced 160bhp from a non-VVC version of the K-Series engine; it also featured a higher rear wing and metallic grey fi ve-spoke alloys. It was around this time that the Exige went on sale. Effectively a fi xedhead Elise with a 177bhp version of the 340R powerplant, there was also the option of upgrading to 190bhp if the 0-60mph time of just 4.7 seconds was a bit on the slow side. The Exige also featured a close-ratio gearbox while there was much more downforce thanks to a huge rear wing. Another signifi cant difference over the Elise was the steering, which was more direct thanks to a fresh steering rack, giving just 2.3 turns between locks.

As well as these standard production editions, there were all sorts of special editions such as the Type 49, Type 79 and GT1. All built in tiny numbers, they all provided the same pure driving experience of the regular Elise – which means plenty of smiles per mile.

Driving

This is where the Lotus really makes sense. The car was designed with one thing in mind and that was to offer the best possible driving experience. With a mid-mounted engine for perfect poise, plus light weight and stiffness courtesy of the alloy superstructure, the Elise is one of the few cars that offers greater agility than the original Elan – which is quite a feat. While most driver’s cars have controls that are overdamped, that’s not something which affl icts the Elise; driving experiences don’t come much more raw than here. The brakes – which don’t have the ‘benefit’ of ABS – are perfectly weighted and so is the steering, while the driving position puts you right in the thick of the action. However, there’s one downside to all this, and that’s the lack of practicality. You might say that the Elise isn’t about things as dull as practicality, and perhaps you’d be right. But after getting out of the car at the end of a long, fast journey with your ears ringing, and you might not be so enamoured. It may be more usable than a Seven, but the Elise is really little more than a driving toy unless you’re able to travel very light when you go away, and you don’t mind the constant wind, road and mechanical noise. In short you have to be as hard core as the car.

Prices

Early Elises start at £7500, but don’t assume that because this is the start point, any car priced at this level will be a money pit. This money will buy you a perfectly okay Elise, but it won’t have had much in the way of upgrades (or perhaps proper maintenance). This might be a good thing; unmolested cars are the ones that have probably led the easiest lives as some of the more heavily upgraded examples will have seen masses of track action. Your best bet is to find £9000-£10,000 for a really nice relatively low-mileage car, built towards the end of production. However, if you want something truly special you can pay up to £13,000 for one of the last cars built, with a low mileage – at this money you can also buy an early Series 2 car, which is arguably the way to go. If you’d prefer an Exige, you’ll have to dig pretty deep as just 500 examples of the S1 were made and they’ve held their value very well. It’s easy to spend £20,000 on one; indeed you’ll be doing well to pick up a decent low mileage example for much less. And remember, mileage is important with these because of that highly stressed engine which often doesn’t last long. It’s the same with the 340R, with just 340 examples built, values are the same and so is the caveat about engine life. Cars that have had offi cial Lotus Motorsport parts fi tted 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.

Improvements

You’re unlikely to fi nd a completely standard example of the Elise, as most owners tended to change wheels and upgrade brakes, suspension or exhausts as soon as the car was delivered. Done correctly, such modifications make the car even more enjoyable to drive – as well as more usable in most cases. It’s easy to squeeze some extra horses out of the Rover engine, but be wary of powerplants that are peaky because the owner has gone over the top. Also be wary of cars that have had major brake upgrades; the cars don’t need better stopping power because of the low weight. Any owner that has invested heavily on better brakes has probably caned the car mercilessly at every opportunity. The suspension is also pretty good for road use, but defi -nitely 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 modifi cations 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. Oh and have any car properly tracked and set up by a specialist as it’s the best ‘mod’ of all…

What To Look For

  • A decent service history by someone who knows what they’re doing is essential. Look for evidence of maintenance having been carried out every year or 9000 miles, unless you’re looking at a high-performance edition. These would include the 190 VHPD, Sport 160, Exige and 340R, and they need attention every 6000 miles.
  • Highly modifi ed cars have usually been thrashed; minor upgrades are generally the sign of an enthusiast owner who has probably looked after the car.
  • If the car has been pranged then poorly repaired, the fl oor will be rippled and the rear subframe may have cracks in it. A major impact will have twisted the car’s chassis and hence its whole structure; the only way to fi x it properly is to completely rebuild the car, which won’t be economically viable.
  • The Exige features a front splitter, which sits very low. As a result it’s prone to knocks which can push it out of shape or crack it, so check it’s intact.
  • A sure sign that the car has been whacked out of shape is a set of tyres that have worn badly and unevenly. The suspension geometry can be easily knocked out of true if the car has done some off roading, but don’t be too hasty; it may just be that the tracking has been knocked out of true, so check for signs of the wheels having been kerbed.
  • The alloy undertray can also get bashed about by speed bumps or bottoming out through over-enthusiastic driving. Look for buckling or impact damage, although it’s unlikely that there’ll be any further damage unless the underside has received a seriously hefty wallop.
  • The rear subframe can also corrode, so get underneath the car and check its condition. Because the Elise is generally made of alloy and glassfi bre, it’s only this subframe which can corrode – and it does. Just the part is over £500, and fi tting it is a major task so the labour bill will be into four fi gures.
  • The glassfi bre can also suffer from cracking or crazing through stone chips or minor impacts, so examine every square inch of the bodywork. If the car has been badly repaired, there’s a good chance you’ll fi nd sunken paint, microblistering or maybe even cracks in the panels; getting these fi xed can quickly get very pricey.
  • The roof is surprisingly complex considering how basic it appears, and it can also tear all too easily. Whatever the weather is doing, make sure you remove and refi t the roof, to check that all the components are present and correct.
  • The K-Series engine is famous for its ability to overheat, partly because of its design and partly because of the small coolant capacity. However, in the Elise it’s less prone to giving problems, but you still need to make sure there are no signs of it previously having overheated, so check for that tell-tale mayonnaise-like substance on the underside of the oil fi ller cap. Also take a look at the level of the coolant, because Elise radiators can be rather 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.
  • Standard Elise powerplants are pretty reliable, but those fi tted 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 transmission is strong, and thanks to the car’s low weight there’s no reason for a high-mileage car to be suffering signifi cant problems if it’s been driven with any skill. 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; if you struggle to select ratios even when you take things slowly, it’ll be because the linkages are all out of kilter.
  • If the car has been driven really hard, the clutch may also have seen better days so accelerate through the gears and feel for slipping.
  • Steering racks typically wear out within 35,000 miles, so check for play in the system to see if a new one is needed.
  • The ball joints in the front suspension wear out after 35,000 miles while dampers last just 20,000 miles. Once these need replacing, the car’s dynamics suffer badly.
  • Make sure the alloy wheels haven’t been damaged, as replacements are no longer available for the Series 1. Used or aftermarket items can be tracked down however – and are often fi tted anyway.
  • Brake discs wear if the car is driven hard, and they rust if the car isn’t used very often. Either way, check their condition as they may need renewing.

Three Of A Kind

Vauxhall VX220
Vauxhall VX220
Built alongside the Elise, the VX220 was overlooked due to its badge, yet it’s the better car. More relaxing to drive, the Vauxhall Astra engine has more torque than the Lotus unit, while the track is wider so the handling characteristics are less edgy. Equipment levels also tend to be higher, while a seriously fast Turbo was offered, with revised suspension for tamer handling.
Toyota MR2 Mk3
Toyota MR2 Mk3
Less practical than you might think, the Mk3 MR2 was an improvement over the Mk2 as it went back to its no-frills driver’s roots. Lightweight and sporty, the MR2 is a great car to drive but much less raw than the Lotus although there’s no luggage space at all. Beware of imports without proper security while a smashed rear window means the whole hood has to be renewed.
MGF
MGF
It doesn’t offer anything like the raw thrills of the Elise, but it’s cheap to buy, also uses 1.8-litre K-Series power and it’s another mid-engined sportster. Best buy is a non-VVC manual car, as the CVT is nasty and the VVC engine goes out of tune all too easily. Also watch out for a blown head gasket, damaged coolant pipes or damp cabin due to a leaky hood. Chassis needs proper setting up.

Verdict

The important thing is to buy on condition rather than specifi cation; it’s no good choosing a car with an upgraded engine and stronger brakes if the gearbox is shot and the suspension needs a complete rebuild. These cars will also take a reasonably high mileage; they’re a bit raw for everyday use but some owners clock up a fair few miles each year; as long as the car has been properly serviced, there’s no reason to shun a high-mileage example. However, bear in mind that some things, such as the steering and suspension, may need TLC because of wear, as these areas don’t go very long without fresh bits being required. It’s also worth getting an HPI check (01722 422 422, http://www.hpicheck.com) on any potential purchase, to make sure there’s nothing shady in its history. Also be careful about buying a modifi ed car – especially one that’s seen a lot of track action. However, minor usability mods are a good thing, while a service history is essential. It’s easy to fi nd a really good Series 1 Elise, and if you buy a real dog of a car you’ve probably bought it with your eyes closed. So just buy with your eyes open and you’ll have one of the greatest driving tools ever created – and you’ll never look back.



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