One would expect British sports car builder and world Grand Prix race champion Lotus to come up with a small, ultra-light two-seater such as the Elise --a lightning-reflexed commando that draws many stares and is a thrill to drive.
Road & Track magazine, which tests all exotic sports cars, said that a day spent driving an Elise hard "all but ruins you for nearly every other sports car on earth.''
The super-quick manual steering is heavy at low parking speeds, but lightens up as soon as the 150-mph car gets moving on the road. As with no-nonsense sports-racing cars, the Elise responds instantly to steering, braking and throttle commands to the Lotus-modified Toyota four-cylinder engine.
Most people looked puzzled when told the wild-looking, 150-mph mid-engine Elise was a Lotus, although Lotus has been selling cars here intermittently since the 1950s.
The recently discontinued limited-production Lotus Esprit was built since 1976 and used in the 1977 James Bond movie "The Spy Who Loved Me'' and in the 1981 Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only.'' In one of them, the Esprit turned into a submarine.
The award-winning Elise is the first computer-designed Lotus, with a chassis made with aluminum alloy extrusions and aerospace bonding techniques. The car has been sold in Europe since August 1996 and is the best-selling car in Lotus history with more than 17,000 sold.
American sports car lovers have been asking for the Elise for years. It's the first all-new Lotus since the automaker's 1990 Elan. Many folks were surprised when I said the car cost $39,985, which lets it provide more performance per dollar than any sports car in its market segment. Most guessed it cost at least $50,000.
"The Elise is bought mostly by car buffs from their 20s to their 60s. Lotus brought a race version here in 2000, but it could only be driven on a track because it didn't meet government safety and emissions regulations, said Bill Nuccio, president of Fox Valley Motorcars in West Chicago.
Fox Valley is the only Chicago area Lotus dealer and the country's largest Elise dealer. There are 41 Lotus dealers in about 30 major U.S. markets.
Lotus Cars and its innovative sister company, Lotus Engineering, are owned by Group Lotus PLC, headquartered in Norfolk, England. Lotus plans to annually sell 2,200 Elise models in America -- at least initially. It could sell a lot more, judging by long waiting lists for the car, but must meet strong worldwide demand.
Lotus was founded in England in 1952 and headed by Colin Chapman, who died in 1982 at age 54. His cars won international Grand Prix racing championships -- not to mention the Indianapolis 500, where the winning rear-engine Lotus changed the traditional design of heavier, front-engine Indy 500 race cars.
Chapman would have loved the Elise because he produced super-light cars and made them perform like champs with small, potent engines. Like the legendary Enzo Ferrari, Chapman mostly was concerned with winning races -- road cars were an afterthought.
Small Lotus often lived hand-to-mouth (although not when General Motors briefly owned it) and had scant success with road cars, although nobody questioned their abilities. Poor U.S. dealer and distribution networks were a major drawback, as was marginal quality. The first wildly successful Mazda Miatas were a close copy of the 1962-73 Lotus Elan road car, but had much better construction.
The solidly constructed Elise is only 43.9 inches high, which means that it's the lowest sports car sold here. Even a Porsche Boxster stands 50.8 inches high.
Getting in and out over the wide door sills calls for athletic moves. You virtually sit on the floor in race-style bucket seats. There's decent room for two tall medium-weight adults, although the stark cockpit is rather narrow. Narrow shoes are called for with the small pedals. The engine is fired up with a dashboard starter button after the ignition key is turned.
A large, single wiper easily clears the sharply raked windshield of rain water, and the rear roof hoop has fixed glass.
The small cargo compartment next to the rear-mounted engine has room for a few pieces of soft luggage.
The Elise could be used as a practical daily car if you don't carry much because it has none of the rough edges and quirks of other high-performance sports cars. But it's more a pure sports car for tackling winding roads with a flourish or for track competition, although Road & Track found a 1,000-mile drive in an Elise to be pretty comfortable.
The Elise is the closest thing to a modern sports-racing car that you can drive on roads, and that means bumps and potholes can be felt at low speeds with the short (90.5-inch) wheelbase car. The faster you go, the more the suspension smooths out road imperfections.
The Elise has standard air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel, anti-lock brakes, dual front air bags and an anti-theft system.
My test Elise was the "luxury'' version with its $1,350 Touring option. It contains power windows, leather seats with perforated trim, AM/FM/CD stereo with an MP3 player, more extensive carpeting, additional sound deadening and a double-insulated soft top.
You also can get the Elise with a $2,480 Sport Pack, which contains light forged alloy wheels, a track-tuned suspension and super-high-performance Yokohama LTS tires designed for the Elise.
The Elise has a Lotus-modified 1.8-liter 190-horsepower four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing from the Toyota Celica GT-S coupe. If that doesn't seem like lots of power, consider that the rigidly built Elise only weighs 1,975 pounds.
The Elise is nearly as fast as the larger, heavier 2005 Chevrolet Corvette, which has a 400-horsepower V-8. This Lotus can hit 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and touches 100 mph in merely 12 seconds. Yet, fuel economy is high at an estimated 23 mpg in the city and 27 on highways.
The Elise has a Toyota six-speed manual transmission with a Lotus ultra-precise shift linkage. A driver sometimes must shift a lot to get the best acceleration because the engine is small, but the shifter works with a decent clutch and helps make the Elise a kick to drive. I can't image this car with an automatic transmission.
The canvas soft top can be quickly installed by hand, and it rolls up and fits neatly into the trunk. A $1,475 body color hard top is available for nasty cold weather.
There isn't anything like the Elise sold in America. You can get it in a whole bunch of exciting colors, but rest assured that it will draw lots of attention no matter what color it's painted.
2005 LOTUS ELISE
A wild thing. Very fast. Race car handling. Zoomy styling. Roomy. Reliable Toyota engine.
Small. Little cargo room. Engine noise. Tricky getting in and out. Narrow shoes required.