Which Lotus Is the Ultimate Driver's Car?


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photos by tom suddard and ed higginbotham

They say less is more. Then again “they” say a lot of stuff, much of it incoherent, unhinged or, at best, just flat wrong.

Even so, one can make a powerful argument for less being more, so perhaps they’re on to something here.

We’ll go one better and say that adding more to less, thereby transcending the more you thought would happen by getting to the true core of “more” by actually winding up with less, is more.

Got it?

This tortured prose is what seems to result from any discussion of the Lotus Elise and Exige, flyweight sports cars that leverage their lack of mass into an abundance of performance. A standard Elise comes equipped with modestly sized tires and a somewhat mundane engine, but manages to outperform far more muscular and aggressive cars merely by weighing a single ton. Because there’s just not much car to move, it moves so much more easily.

But what happens when you add more to that less? What happens when you replace those modest tires with more aggressive ones, or augment that average engine to superhero status? Can the lithe and light Elise and Exige handle the pressure of all these expectations?

Hayes Harris, owner of Wire Wheel Classic Sports cars and purveyor of fine Lotus Elises and Exiges, presented to us a small fleet of these cars that perfectly demonstrates that question: How do they react when the knob is upped to 11?

Falling Through the Cracks

Wire Wheel deals in all sorts of used sports and race cars, but one of their specialties is the Elise and Exige. Thanks to timid insurance companies and extensive use of large fiberglass panels, especially front and rear clamshells, the Elise and Exige are highly likely to be written off as “totaled” by underwriters after even minor fender-benders (or, in this case, fender-crackers).

Most high-volume body shops don’t have the proper tools or training to do composite repair, so many slightly damaged Lotuses turn up on the used market, no longer able to be sold with clean titles.

This is where Wire Wheel steps in. The ability to do proper composite repairs–which Wire Wheel is fortunate enough to have access to–can turn a technically totaled Lotus back into a top-flight sports car. Because of their once-totaled status, these cars must be sold with “rebuilt” titles, but the reality is that they have had repairs done to them that would never affect the value of a metal car. Their “rebuilt” status reflects the insurance companies’ unwillingness to pay for composite more than the actual state of the vehicle.

That status can affect value, too. “Prices on used Elises/Exiges start at about $25,000 for a car with higher mileage, a salvage title or less than average condition,” Harris says. “A good, low-mileage Elise will sell in the low $30s, while the last of the supercharged Exige S cars can bring over $65,000.”

In addition to providing fine values on gently used street Lotuses, Wire Wheel has also developed a niche as the go-to place for track-prepared Elises and Exiges, including ones with racing pedigree. Like most things, when you have a lot of something hanging around, more tend to show up. Harris also brought out a couple genuine racers for us to sample just how much more could be added to all of this less.

Lotus Elise

We began our track sampling behind the wheel of a regular Lotus Elise, which was sold stateside and with relatively few changes from 2005 through 2011. Hayes Harris described it as a pretty representative example of the kinds of used Elises his company sells with rebuilt titles. If that’s the case, one of these cars just made our short-list of future projects.

We’ll admit that there are certain mental alarms that automatically go off when we hear the words “rebuilt title.” The reality, however, is that these are cars that suffered only minor cosmetic damage, with no damage that actually affects their ability to be cars.

And what cars they are. Even a “standard” Lotus Elise is pure joy from behind the wheel. Weighing in at under a ton, the Elise feels less like a car and more like you grew tires on your hands and feet. Despite being such a physically small automobile–it’s just a bit more than 12 feet long by five and a half feet wide–there’s a surprising amount of room to work inside the cockpit. The driving position is likewise surprisingly excellent.

Sure, your legs are almost straight out toward the pedals, but that’s because your butt is practically on the floor and separated only by a thin, featherweight, upholstered shell of a seat. There’s no seat adjustment aside from fore and aft, but chances are you won’t need much else. And despite their simplicity, these seats fit a wide variety of body types and can be lived in for extended road trips.

The trick is not being in the Elise cockpit, though, it’s getting into the Elise cockpit. The wide, high doorsills, low seat and low window line conspire to force all but Cirque du Soleil veterans into dignity-shedding contortions to enter the fun zone. It’s worth the squeeze, though, and even with a helmet there’s room to work for all but the tallest among us.

On track, the most amazing thing about the Elise is how benign it feels for a mid-engined car. Lotus has managed to make the steering responsive without feeling overly edgy, and the lack of power assist means astounding feedback. And with just a little over 700 pounds on the front axle, steering effort is light enough to park one-handed.

Lotus Exige S

It’s hard to spot actual flaws in the Elise. It’s so naturally responsive and easy to drive that you get out thinking that it’s the perfect track companion–one that can also get you to and from the circuit in air-conditioned comfort.

Then you drive an Exige S.

The Exige is essentially an Elise with anger issues. Take a standard Elise, complete with its 1.8-liter, 189-horsepower Toyota Celica GT-S based engine, bolt a fixed hardtop in place of the removable roof panel, add some additional downforce-developing body accessories, and tell your family you’ve left the motorcycle enthusiast organization to join a biker gang. The Exige S takes it one step further with the addition of a supercharger that adds another 51 horsepower.

These stock Toyota power plants are relatively robust units, save for a few potential oiling issues that are easily solved with the addition of a baffled oil pan. (Unless already equipped with an Accusump, all track Elises and Exiges sold by Wire Wheel receive baffled oil pans as a matter of course.) Adding some boost fattens the peaky torque curve of the stock engine and provides strong evidence that there actually is a replacement for displacement.

Most amazing is how the Elise/Exige chassis just soaks up the extra power and torque. The Exige completely Dunning-Krugers the Elise by actually feeling like a more competent car when you previously didn’t even realize such a thing was possible. The additional power adds a new dimension to the handling, so that you can much more keenly control the cornering attitude of the car with your right foot.

And, like the Elise, the Exige is also completely streetable–although the fixed roof means that every trip in or out requires some flexibility. (Removing the Elise’s top, by the way, allows you to do your best Thomas Magnum impression when getting behind the wheel.)

The creature comforts offered by the Elise/Exige aren’t exactly Cadillac-level, but for cars of this capability, they’re passable. Air conditioning is adequate, but can be easily augmented with high-quality window tint. Interior noise levels are on the high side because of the many exposed metal panels, but plenty of aftermarket carpet kits are available that both quiet the cars and give them a more finished appearance.

Lotus Exige Cup 255

Enough talk of street equipment! These track-prepped variants are about less: less weight, less creature comforts, less anything that isn’t devoted to a) chewing bubblegum or b) kicking ass. And, for the record, the Exige Cup 255 is entirely out of bubblegum.

Built by Lotus’s in-house motorsport division, the Exige Cup 255 appeared as their 2007 replacement for the 2006 Exige Cup 240. Based on the Exige S, the Cup 255 is a 252-horsepower beastie that established the manufactuer’s new “order this car from the dealer and go to the track” option. (Why the 255 designation for a car with 252 horsepower? In overseas markets, it was rated at 255ps.)

The Cup treatment includes an even lighter weight exhaust system, upgraded brakes, adjustable shocks, adjustable anti-roll bars and a full roll cage. This is in addition to the litany of the hardest-core options already on the Exige S option sheet, like the additional aero enhancements.

If the Exige S is your college football-playing nephew, the Cup 255 is the NFL guy you met at that chicken wing place that one time who was really nice. It has all the same athletic moves as the Exige S–the DNA is readily apparent and not at all hidden–but the reflexes have been honed toward a single purpose. Our test example wore Hoosier road race radials, which certainly upped the grip and response, but they were aided and abetted by the stellar chassis and snappy engine response.

All of the physics of the Cup car seem familiar from the Exige S, but they’re in a bit clearer focus. By this point we’ve sort of dropped any pretense of street operation, but the Cup car is pure joy on track. The sticky Hoosiers bring some heft to the steering, but the direct, responsive nature remains.

The additional horsepower is actually the most noticeable difference. Where the Exige S seems to have a broad torque curve, the Cup car’s focus feels a bit narrower, but more explosive when the power comes on. Even with this additional aggression, though, the chassis remains unflappable. With the sticky Hoosiers raising grip to ludicrous levels, cornering speeds increase to the point where the peakier engine response isn’t an issue.

More aggressive brake pads mean a lighter foot provides even harder arresting force, but the chassis is so well balanced that you could easily do a couple of things at once–like trail braking or adjusting your speed mid-corner–without much penalty.

Lotus Exige Pirelli World Challenge

God forbid racers ever be satisfied with anything, though, so next up in our lightweight queue was an Exige S formerly campaigned in the Pirelli World Challenge series by Jim Taggart.

Starting with a standard 2011 Exige S chassis, the Taggart team added even more power behind the driver through additional boost and custom engine management. The result is around 360 horsepower driving through a close-ratio Quaife gearbox and into a limited-slip differential. A full dry-sump oiling system makes sure the 2ZZ Toyota engine always has lubrication.

Handling-wise, the World Challenge racer is surprisingly similar to the Cup car–high but predictable limits, and the quick transitions that one expects from a mid-engined chassis, with little of the tail-heavy feel that many mid-engined sportsters suffer from.

Most mid-engined cars have excellent reflexes. It’s one of the benefits of having most of the mass located so close to the center of the car. Many mid-engined cars are also slightly unpredictable or uncommunicative at the limit–that’s the tradeoff of not having more weight on the nose. But the Elise and Exige are remarkably stable. They’re among the few mid-engined cars we’d actually go so far as to call “novice-friendly.”

The big difference in the World Challenge racer, however, is the engine. Although the Exige is a car with exceptional handling, it competes in a class with V8-powered pony cars, and between those corners it’s all about raw speed. To have some chance of keeping up, this Exige’s engine has been tuned to ludicrous levels, and consequently makes negotiating the more finesse-dependent parts of a race track tricky.

The engine basically has two modes: idle aggressively or explode like a ton of dynamite taking off the side of a mountain. The cornering progression is kind of like this: Brake, turn in, hit apex, spot exit, put right foot down, BOOM! Build a mini-mall in the newly cleared land you just explosively excavated behind you.

The tight confines of our North Florida test course made it a little tricky in the slower, second gear stuff. On the few faster corners where we could let it run a little, we imagined how glorious it would be to light off those explosions at a fast track like Road Atlanta.

Red Bull Lotus Exige GT3

If you follow international motorsport, you’ll probably recognize the name Adrian Newey as the chief tech officer of Red Bull Racing. He’s the guy whose designs have won F1 championships with six different drivers.

So when someone with that kind of mental horsepower decides to do some racing on his own–you know, for fun–it says a great deal about its potential when he turns his attentions to developing the Elise chassis. The “1 of 1” Elise from Red Bull Racing was the final delicious candy in our Lotus Whitman’s Sampler.

Starting with an Exige tub–all of our test cars used the factory bonded aluminum tubs–Lanzante Motorsport followed Newey’s design specs to create a GT3-level monster for endurance racing. Using a supercharged and dry-sumped 2ZZ engine, the team boosted it all the way up to around 345 horsepower–that’s actually a tad less than the World Challenge racer’s power figure. Unlike the World Challenge car, however, the powerplant in the Red Bull car is far more tractable, so the power and torque are far more manageable.

Although the tub is stock, most of the suspension bits that are bolted to it are bespoke pieces. Thanks to an extensive use of spherical bearing connections rather than pliable bushings, the Red Bull car imparts a sense of directness even beyond the laser-focused precision exhibited by the rest of our test group.

Shifting is done via a sequential Hewland gearbox with the driver’s left hand, since the car is in proper English right-hand-drive. Once you hop in it takes a few laps to acclimate to the GT3 car, but familiar patterns quickly emerge.

One of the more amazing revelations from the day was how easy it was to move from car to car, especially in the progression we followed. If the Elise was sweet, sweet music, the Exige S was stereo, the Cup car was surround sound, and the World Challenge car was the PA at a Slayer concert. They were all playing the same song, though. The Red Bull car continued the trend, complete with belching flames and a laser light show–things you’d expect at any proper Slayer performance.

The extensive and aggressive aero package was remarkably effective at even autocross speeds. In the faster corners it gave the car an additional sharpness on turn-in with the trademark additional stability of solidly developed aero.

Aside from that, it was very much in the spirit of the other four cars: Grip was exceptional, and transitional behavior was intuitive and decisive, but didn’t require that extra tiny pause you usually have to make in mid-engined cars while the mass behind you catches up to the wheels out front. These were all mid-engined cars that one could practically drive with the reckless abandon of a front-wheel-drive car.

This particular example may go down in history as one of the more significant Elise/Exige builds ever. “It’s probably the ultimate example of a car that is bound to be a classic anyway,” Harris says. “Even though it’s not a factory race car and didn’t really even have that extensive of a race career, the fact of the names that were attached to it–and that they chose this chassis as their medium–make it a rather impressive piece of history if you’re into that sort of thing.”

Yeah, we’re into it.

Elises and Exiges are steadily transitioning from “interesting modern sports cars” to “legitimate milestones and near-future classics.” Harris has seen the market climb slowly but steadily, and it appears that any depreciation bottom that these cars might have had has passed.

“As these cars get into their second- and third-generation ownership, you’re seeing people buying them not because they’re new and the latest and greatest thing, but because they specifically want one of these,” he explains. “That tends to be the signal that values are on the way up, because those folks tend to hold onto the cars, so there’s just not as many in the marketplace.”

If that’s the case, and you want one of these things (which you totally should), you might want to escalate your shopping schedule. And if you’re looking to take your future Elise or Exige purchase to the next level, as we found out on track, there are a lot of ways to make an already great car even better: Just add more to less.


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Comments

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wspohn
wspohn Dork
3/1/18 3:46 p.m.

Ultimate driver's car was either one of these, depending on your age and preference.

 

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
3/1/18 7:30 p.m.

The one your best friend owns and let’s you drive. 

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
3/1/18 7:45 p.m.

Having owned (and driven, ahh... difference there for some...) a Europa TCS, Esprit Turbo and an Elise, I think that for driving, the Europa takes it.  For long distance high speed cruising, the Esprit.  The Elise was interesting, but didn't have the slam you acceleration of the Esprit or quite the cornering of the Europa.  As a guy in a rather hot V8 Mustang told me (regarding the Esprit):  "I've never seen anything pull away from me like that." 

thatsnowinnebago
thatsnowinnebago SuperDork
3/1/18 9:56 p.m.

Seems like y'all have a pretty rough job some days. 

benjschneider
benjschneider
3/2/18 10:08 a.m.

My interest in Lotus goes back to the time of Jim Clark.  I own two now; a Super 7, and a type 50.  The one I think is pure driving is the Super 7.  It is about as simple of an automobile as one can get.  It is low on creature comfort, but high in driving excitement.  It is simple enough that any basic garage can repair and maintain without breaking the bank.

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
3/2/18 10:29 a.m.

The one that runs and drives?

NOHOME
NOHOME UltimaDork
3/2/18 11:01 a.m.

I have been waiting for some one to recreate the Elite  as a Carbon Fiber shell and with a small bore turbo engine.

Would it be possible to make a CF spoke?

Pete

banzairx7
banzairx7 New Reader
3/2/18 11:08 a.m.

None of the above. The 7.

wearymicrobe
wearymicrobe UberDork
3/2/18 1:23 p.m.

 

 

 

No 211. Though I think a lotus Elise with a K20a2 swap like the below 211 is the best drivers lotus they make.

 

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
3/2/18 1:34 p.m.

A long time Lotus fan but never an owner.  sad  Of the ones I've driven it is a toss up between a Europa and an Elise.  I'd probably take the Elise if I had to choose one, but its close.  One of the best times I ever had with a car club was with the Lotus guys driving a 7.  There was none of the pretentiousness you get sometimes with the BMW or Porsche folks.  They know how to have a good time and don't take themselves too seriously.

te72
te72 New Reader
3/3/18 12:10 a.m.

I'd love to own a Lotus someday, their design philosophy has always resonated with me, as far as sporting cars go. However, my remote location makes getting to a track a "take a few days off work" affair, and the weather around here would relegate any of the topless cars (looking at you, 7) just about pointless for 9 months of the year.

 

Nice to dream though. =)

Shawnb
Shawnb New Reader
3/3/18 7:16 a.m.

I’ve owned an Esprit and Elise.

I used my Elise for 2 years as a daily driver, even though I had other vehicles in the stable. I absolutely loved that car, and it didn’t even have AC. Also got caught in a few snow storms running star specs... Shockingly it did just fine.

 

It was also the first vehicle to almost kill me. Going 80 or so over a bridge, and the oil coolers both started leaking. Came extremely close to smacking a barrier, but luckily didn’t hit anything and the motor didn’t explode. It was out of warranty by this time, but Lotus took extremely good care of me. 

 

 

Every car after the Elise I compare to it, and hope to find a better motoring experience. That still hasn’t happened. I will cave and own again. Once the prices of the 400/410 start to drop, I will give one of those a shot as well. They sound so good in person, haven’t had a chance to drive one yet. The NA Evora was nothing special  

 

 

 

LesAlbin
LesAlbin
3/5/18 3:25 p.m.

In reply to racerdave600 :

I've seen the same thing.  Lotus drivers are generally people who really enjoy driving, but who don't take things so seriously that it kills a lot of the fun.

LesAlbin
LesAlbin New Reader
3/5/18 3:27 p.m.

In reply to Shawnb :

I've been daily driving an Elise since 2005.  Made road trips to St. Louis and Aspen, CO from Houston.  Great car for the road and for the track.

LesAlbin
LesAlbin New Reader
3/5/18 3:37 p.m.

In reply to Dr. Hess :

Add a supercharger to the Elise and change from street tires to some slicks and I think you will find what you see as the shortcomings of the Elise more than adequately addressed.  The base car is pretty fast, but the chassis and suspension easily absorb another hundred plus horsepower and changing to the Lotus Sport suspension bits and a good set of track tires takes the car from lots of fun to a much higher level.  I drive my Elise to and from the track, but while I am there I run with the guys who bring their cars with no interiors to the track on trailers.

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
3/5/18 3:40 p.m.

Yeah, well, unfortunately my Elise was totaled by a dumb berkeleying kid in a Jeep.  It did need more HP, certainly, and the supercharger would probably do it.  Anyway, I decided to fix up my old crap instead.  I have 2 Europas and a Locost that need to be finished, or started, depending.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
3/5/18 5:32 p.m.

You know, I probably didn't need to see this thread.  After two years of driving a bunch of cars, I had just about made my mind up to pull the trigger on a Cayman.  Now I've found myself calling a local add for a supercharged, never wrecked Elise with 22k miles and only $32K.  I hadn't realized you could get so much Elise for so little money.  Anything specifically to look for other than normal items?

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
3/5/18 7:13 p.m.

What year?  Make sure the oil cooler hoses were replaced.  Ask Me How I Know.  AC fan ballast resistor replaced?  I've got one on the shelf.  An AC temp thermistor also.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
3/6/18 10:23 a.m.

It is a 2006.

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
3/6/18 11:20 a.m.

That's what I had.  It was a good car, besides the little issue of blowing the motor from the oil hose connector.  Like I said, the AC fan resistors need to be replaced because water drips on them, the AC coil temp thermistor needs an upgrade so the coil won't freeze up on you, and that's really about it.  Make sure the title is clean.  Add a splitter (makes a big difference on the highway).  I really think the oil cooler(s) should be moved to the engine bay side.  I think (my theory) that most of the problems with the Elise's 2zz motor are related to that.  Rollas don't have those problems and Rollas don't have 20' of oil lines to deal with.  I'm glad that car is not local to me.  I might be tempted. 

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
3/6/18 11:25 a.m.

Also add an Accusump accumulator.  That is probably pretty important, especially for tracking.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
3/6/18 2:14 p.m.

Thanks Dr. Hess...not going to look at until Saturday, it's already been a long week. 

Mark_42
Mark_42 New Reader
3/7/18 2:44 p.m.

AW11 - cheap, reliable & plentiful

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