Lotus Elise and Exige | Buyer's Guide

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Jun 21, 2022 | Lotus, Exige, Elise, Buyer's Guide | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Dec. 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

American sports car buyers often have been out of luck when it comes to getting the best hardware. For years, we have only been able to gaze longingly at photographs of sports cars unavailable to buyers on this side of the Atlantic. United States product planners have historically passed over the cool, midpriced cars—including various Italian, British and Japanese models—when it comes time to pick import lineups. 

But why? The price of federalization is usually the biggest factor, since it can cost millions of dollars to modify bumpers, fuel systems and exhaust systems to abide by U.S. and California laws. For low-volume vehicles, that eliminates any profit the manufacturer may make from sales in this country. Smaller manufacturers usually can’t afford the costs at any rate, even if increased sales help amortize them quickly.

When the Lotus Elise launched in 1996, it was just another cool car that we couldn’t get. Eventually, however, the machine came stateside and was later joined by its no-nonsense sibling, the Exige. Today, these cars are not only attainable, but they’ve been depreciating in value. Always wanted one? Want an easy way to nab fastest time of day at any autocross? Now is the time to buy—don’t wait much longer.

Petal to the Metal

The lightweight, track-focused Elise was a return to Lotus’s roots, with a small, four-cylinder Rover K-type engine lurking within. The engine was mounted behind the driver, near the midpoint of the car, with everything else carefully centralized to reduce the polar moment of inertia.

The Rover engine put out a meager 112 horsepower, but the car’s 1600-pound curb weight allowed for zero-to-60 times in the sub-6-second range. The light weight was due to the car’s small size, bonded aluminum chassis, fiberglass bodywork and minimalist interior. As you might guess, the new car contained few creature comforts: Air conditioning was an option, but electric windows, central locking and cupholders were all unavailable.

The Elise went through several minor changes, and Lotus launched a number of special editions featuring more power, special suspension and other upgrades. Of course, none of them arrived on American shores—just a few track-only models. After enduring years of this torture, American Lotus fans had just about lost hope. Then, in 2004, the Malaysian-owned company announced that the Elise would be making the journey across the pond. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

The U.S.-market Elise shared the front- and rear-end appearance of the car offered everywhere else, but some important differences made it road-legal here. The most significant change was in the power department: The original Elise’s Rover engine was never sold here and therefore could not be made legal without significant expense. 

Lotus looked to Toyota for a replacement and settled on the 2ZZ-GE that had already been approved for use in the Celica GT-S and Corolla/Matrix XRS. While the Toyota engine was off-the-shelf, Lotus programmed the ECU specifically for the Elise and added their own intake and exhaust manifolds.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

The rear subframe and exhaust system were newly designed to fit the Toyota engine, and Lotus tweaked the suspension settings, including spring and shock rates, to make the Elise more compatible with U.S. roads. The original European tuning was very uncomfortable over concrete expansion joints according to Lotus engineers. Yokohama provided custom Advan Neova AD07 tires for the car. Other drivetrain changes included a four-channel ABS system.

Amazingly, the original bonded-aluminum chassis was strong enough to meet all U.S. crash test requirements without any changes. Only a minor tweaking of the side markers and new wheels differentiated the U.S.-market exterior. However, the Department of Transportation had to grant an exemption for the headlamps, which were not sealed, and the bumpers, which did not meet the 2.5-mph crash test requirements.

The interior was redesigned to incorporate federally mandated air bags for the driver and passenger, along with ballistic seat belt tensioners. To meet consumer expectations, air conditioning and central locking were made standard. Power windows, however, were optional. Minor interior tweaks incorporated the air bags, a/c vents and audio system into the dash.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

While the Elise didn’t lose much of its raw edge in the translation to U.S. roads, it did gain 144 pounds. Most of that additional weight was from the new engine, while the rest was from a combination of federal lighting, air bags and standard a/c. Even so, the car’s overall performance was better than the original’s thanks to the 189-horsepower engine. The U.S. car could reach 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. Lotus founder Colin Chapman said it best: “Adding horsepower makes you faster in the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”

The only options were a Touring Package, which included leather seats and door panels, power windows, MP3/CD audio, an insulated soft top and additional interior insulation, a Sport Package that included forged wheels, and a hardtop.

Reviewers at the time could not contain their excitement about the new car. They filled page after page touting the Elise’s light weight, telepathic steering, unreal road-holding and absolutely untouchable performance limits. When it came time to find faults, most pointed out that this was a car not really suitable for daily use. With the top on, ingress and egress were incredibly difficult thanks to the high, wide sills and narrow door openings. The minimalist storage space and lack of interior comforts further emphasized the Elise’s role as an enthusiast’s track-day toy.

Full Bloom

As if the Elise weren’t hardcore enough, Lotus had something else up its sleeve for 2006. The Exige was a hardtop based on the open-top Elise, with a lengthened nose, a front splitter, a fixed roof with a scoop, a redesigned engine cover and a rear spoiler. According to Lotus, these differences allowed the Exige to make nearly 100 pounds of downforce at 100 mph. Under the skin it was more or less the same car, but it came with Yokohama A048 tires and the same tuning as the Elise Sport Package suspension. Lotus made some standard Elise features optional on the Exige, such as a/c.  

In 2007, the original DOT exemption expired for the cars. Despite rumors that the Elise and Exige would be dropped from the U.S. market, Lotus continued to produce them with the necessary revisions. The cars’ front and rear bumpers now could meet those 2.5-mph crash standards. The tweak wasn’t visible from the front, but the rear bumper and grille changed shape to accommodate the needed foam padding.

Alongside historic British cars, the Elise and Exige look like they’re from another planet. The basic formula is still the same, though: Take a volume production engine and mate it with an extraordinary, lightweight chassis. The result is an unbeatable combination on the autocross course. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

The most important addition to the Exige lineup debuted in 2007: the Exige S. This car had the same basic Toyota engine as the rest of the Elise/Exige family, but with the addition of an Eaton M62 supercharger. The engine now made 220 horsepower, moving the Exige’s power-to-weight ratio from “outstanding” to “out of this world.” The non-supercharged Exige was dropped at the same time. The Elise got its own supercharger in 2008, although it was a different unit from the one used in the Exige: It lacked an intercooler.

The last year for the Elise and Exige was 2011. Although the cars had only been available on the U.S. market for seven model years, two occurrences spelled the end. First, an NHTSA waiver excusing the Lotuses for not having smart airbags expired. If that weren’t enough, Toyota planned to stop building the 2ZZ engines that Lotus had been using. Since Lotus had no replacement engine and offered no replacement car, American enthusiasts were left out to dry yet again. 

Things to Know

To get the scoop on Elise ownership, we spoke to Hayes Harris at Wire Wheel Classic Sports Cars in Florida. The company has a long relationship with the Elise, having bought, sold and tracked the cars before they were federalized. According to Hayes, the value of the Elise actually seems to be increasing because the cars are no longer imported.

“These are pure sports cars. They brake, go and turn very well, but they don’t have the amenities that people are used to. There are no cupholders, thin seat padding, minimal carpet and limited storage. This is not a replacement for a Miata or a 350Z. It’s a Lotus, built as a sports car, not as a long-distance commuter car. It has no cruise control, for example. 

“So a lot of people sold them off after the novelty wore off and the value went down. But now, since they stopped making them about a year and a half ago, they are much harder to find. Now I’m paying more for cars than I was able to sell them for a couple of years ago.”

The Elise/Exige is a hardcore, no-compromise sports car produced in low numbers by a small manufacturer. When it comes to maintenance and usage, think about them more as race cars than street cars. 

Other models worth noting are the 255 Cup—a non-street-legal, factory race-prepared Exige—and the 2-Eleven, which was a pure track car with no doors, windows or roof. That second car weighed 350 pounds less than a standard Elise and boasted 257 horsepower.

Since there are so few critical differences between years, it’s best just to find the best one you can afford. Luckily for U.S. buyers, Lotus had nearly 10 years to iron out the cars’ kinks before federalizing them. That means most problems have been fixed already. Cars built from 2004 through early 2006 may have issues with a leaking oil cooler line; there is a recall out on these cars to replace it.

One or two drives should be enough to convince you that the Elise is one of the best driver’s cars ever built. Hayes sums it up well: “In my opinion, they are the best Lotus ever built. When they first came out, people didn’t know what to think of them. They were Lotus returning to the original Lotus design philosophy: Less is more,” he says.

Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Engine and Drivetrain

The Toyota engine is very reliable in every tune. Its only weakness: It can’t tolerate oiling issues. Make sure the oil is clean and topped off, especially if you plan to track the car. According to Hayes, oil changes are not difficult, although dealers charge a lot for the service. 

“It’s a little more trouble than a regular car because there is an aluminum panel under the engine, and you have to remove it to get to the filter and do an oil change. It’s not hard if you have a lift, but it can be tough for a DIYer,” he says.

With a large aftermarket, it’s easy to tailor your Elise for a more track-biased setup. Small changes have a big impact on such a diminutive, light car, so proceed cautiously. Most performance modifications are going to sacrifice what little street civility the car has, so be prepared to give up something to get more performance. 

The Moroso windage tray is a very popular option—and an easy way to prolong engine life.

Body and Interior

The Spartan interior and simple bodywork are easy to inspect for damage and somewhat straightforward to fix, although parts are not cheap. The cost of parts, combined with the depreciated value of the cars in years past, means insurance companies have totaled many Elises for otherwise minimal damage. According to Hayes, there’s a high proportion of salvage or rebuilt titles out there.

The most important thing to check for is damage to the chassis. The bonded aluminum chassis is basically not repairable. Look for curbing damage on the bottom, but don’t forget that the engine undertray and front splitter are replaceable. 

Because a high proportion of Elises were used on the track, it’s very common to find cars with some level of abuse and damage. However, there are some track-prepared cars available in excellent condition.

In addition, these cars have achieved collector status since their production has ended. Prices are rising.

Suspension

Check all the suspension attachment points to make sure there is no bending. The suspension is designed to fold to prevent damage to the chassis. Once the chassis is damaged, it is very difficult to repair. If you find a rebuilt title, check very carefully and ask why it was salvaged,” says Hayes.

Once you’ve found the perfect Elise, resist the urge to modify it right away. These cars are very well sorted from the factory and nearly perfect for their intended use. If you intend to spend more time on the track than on the street, you may need to modify it.

“The chassis is very stiff, but the suspension is subtle. Everything is almost intuitive. Handling, braking, steering—the car does exactly what you want it to do. It really is a car you can drive on the street and then take to the track. It’s an even better track car than a street car, actually,” says Hayes.

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Comments
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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
4/26/22 12:48 p.m.

If I had the space and the means for a track toy, I'd immediately go and buy an Elise–though I bet an Exige is an absolute riot.

GeddesB
GeddesB Reader
4/26/22 4:31 p.m.

In the last year prices have been through the roof.  Absolutely fun car to drive, little else compares. 

 

 

trakktapedude
trakktapedude New Reader
6/21/22 3:32 p.m.

I have owned my 2006 Elise since 2007. It is my daily driver, but I have tracked it since the moment I bought it. I now have well over 50,000 miles on it and have no intentions of selling it. There is simply nothing like it.

On the street, you should consider it the world's safest, most comfortable motorcycle and you will not be disappointed. It is always talking to you, just like a motorcycle. I have had a number of very special cars over the years, including a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 many years ago, but the Elise is still very, very special.  If the Ferrari Dino drove like an Elise, they would be many millions of dollars now, if you could find one for sale. 

On track, they are giant killers of the first order. I have run many times at Willow Springs and can routinely run with GT3 Porsches, Vipers, Z06 Corvettes, etc., driven by good drivers. I am often asked if my car is supercharged and just say "Nah, that would be cheating!".

In my opinion, every gearhead should drive a GOOD Ferrari at least once in his life and the same goes for an Elise/Exige.  Oh, by the way, I will be 76 in November, so lots of cool cars in my past. This is one of the best. 

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