For more than five years the former Lotus Elise had been the undisputed sportscar king. Winning countless awards for its technical innovation, handling prowess and fun to drive purity, its fan base includes anyone who's ever sat behind its steering wheel. The successor (Elise MY 2001) has done the same and has already won many important awards.
Some champions quit while they're ahead. Not Lotus. It's raising its game to meet new challenges. And the Elise looks like hanging on to its title as 'the world's best handling sportscar' for years to come.
The Elise has fresh styling inside and out with improved aerodynamics for greater high-speed stability. Newly designed chassis systems provide superior ride and handling with higher levels of roadholding, sharper steering, more powerful brakes, quicker throttle response and overall greater functionality. Together with new manufacturing processes for an all-round upgrade in quality.
It's a more mature car, yet it has lost none of its 'Lotus-ness', nor any of the magic associated with the name Elise - light, fast, agile, and above all, more fun than ever.
Keeping up appearances
Style is an Elise trademark. The Elise look is instantly recognisable. When design work started there was universal agreement within Lotus that its looks should be an evolution of the existing form. But looks are not the only ground breaking feature of the Elise design.
As with so many Lotus models, the design brief for the Elise was to produce a shape both modern and timeless, and as ever, the principles of form following function were rigorously applied as the Lotus Design Team crafted the detail into the final design.
The Principal Designer in charge of the Elise design, Steve Crijns, explains some of the changes. "We wanted to create a shape that would reflect an incredible driving experience. The car has to look a hell of a lot more exciting than your everyday 2 seater cabrio. But we also wanted to be honest and not have any features just for stylistic effect. We started the design by shrink wrapping the bodywork around the mechanical components. Unnecessary bulk, even if it's for stylistic effect, creates weight, and a Lotus must be light. Very early in the design phase the full size clay model went to the wind tunnel where the rear spoiler and rear diffuser were created to optimise downforce without causing drag."
As with everything on a Lotus, the diffuser is not just a cosmetic enhancement, the Elise aerodynamics were developed to balance downforce over both the front and rear axles. This aids high-speed stability and has been achieved without increasing drag in soft or open top configurations. In fact, the lowered roofline and new hard top actually reduce the drag figures.
The rear tail section of the Elise is slightly longer than that of the previous car, this increased length and use of the full width of the rear bodywork creates a much increased luggage space area. The soft-top has been re-designed to simplify assembly so it's much easier to remove and store in the boot. The new hard-top has a novel design, which will be shown in Geneva this year.
Every body panel on the Elise is new and they are now made using polished high grade steel tools by French specialist, Sotira. This provides world class composite panels of a superior quality level over the traditional hand-laid glassfibre process, it also allows them to be thinner and lighter. This helps to explain why the Elise, despite its increased length and additional specifications, weighs in at just 710kg.
Access to the Elise cockpit has been improved thanks to the re-profiled sill design adding 40mm to the opening of the door aperture and reducing the width of the sill, whilst still retaining its impressive chassis stiffness.
The exposed aluminium of the Elise's chassis tub is still one of the dominant features of the interior, but there's also a far more integrated and harmonious design sense to all of the other interior components. Overall, the effect remains one of thoughtful minimalism, necessity mixed with style.
One of the Elise's most distinctive features, the Stack electronic instrumentation, is now updated with new graphics. The race-style dials are now housed beneath a redesigned binnacle and blue back lighting adds to the jewel like design detail. Links between the Elise and the track have always been strong, and the ambience of the facia and trim with the chassis tub sides provoke a strong sense of being seated in a real sportscar.
Revised seats head up a list of interior refinements and optional equipment that also includes a new rear bulkhead trim incorporating improved noise insulation and twin audio speakers. Additional speakers can be located at the outer edges of the facia, giving, for the first time in the Elise, the option of a four-speaker system. Storage space was one of the concerns of the design team and this has been addressed. An optional full-width curved shelf runs beneath the facia and features ingenious extruded aluminium shelf-dividers which can be moved to firmly store objects such as drinks cans and mobile phones.
In response to the differing needs of the Elise customer base, the interior trim and other features will now be offered in two distinct option packages above the standard car: Sports Touring and Race Tech. Race Tech focuses on functionality and uses racecar materials to create a sporty interior without compromise. Sports Touring employs Nubuck leather for the padded seats, door trims and facia as well as carpets to offer a high level of refinement for long distance journeys.
Achieving the impossible - an improved chassis
The Elise, "best handling car" in the business. How do you top it? Skill, experience, and a lot of dedicated hard work.
Spring rates have been increased (35Nm-1 on the front springs and 50 Nm-1 at the rear), and thanks to the adoption of Bilstein high pressure monotube dampers (not to mention hundreds of hours of development driving to fine-tune the set-up) the handling performance and ride quality are much improved. Roll rates are slower than before, making the Elise more agile yet more composed and stable through corners, and less pitch sensitive than before.
Bridgestone have jointly developed with Lotus the unique Potenza RE040 tyres (175/55R16 front and 225/45R17 rear) in parallel with the suspension design and tuning process. The Lotus Ride and Handling team have maximised the ability to hone the chassis and tyre characteristics to provide an overall increase in performance.
The Elise is equipped with not only more outright grip, greater high speed stability and better progression at the limit but improved steering feel, feedback and response. And a wet road grip limit capability that is much closer to the performance in the dry.
The result is that overall the Elise feels much quicker, livelier, more responsive, predictable and even more forgiving, but most importantly more fun to drive.
Powertrain - the same, but subtly different
Sitting snug behind the cockpit is the same 1.8-litre 122PS / 120bhp K series engine. It's still the lightest power unit suitable for the application and it produces capable torque and a more than adequate power output for such a lightweight car.
However, there are significant improvements. The engine management system has been upgraded to pass the latest Euro 3 emissions regulations (which go through to at least 2004) - this includes fitting Lotus developed on-board engine diagnostics. Another benefit of fitting the Lotus bespoke engine management system is that the engine now has been tuned to offer improved throttle response and driveability, which combined with the close ratio transmission, now standard fitment, gives the Elise a sense of much increased performance and a sportier feel.
Because the Elise runs on larger diameter wheels and tyres, 16in at the front, 17in at the rear, it uses close gearing as standard to enhance overall acceleration feel and driveability. Top speed is 125mph, and the 0-60mph time is achieved in 5.7sec.
The legend grows
The trouble with icons is that they're difficult to replace. But not impossible. The Elise proves that by concentrating on the important issues, understanding the needs of customers, and through an instinctive appreciation of the finer points of vehicle dynamics, you can improve, even on the best.
The original Elise created a legend; its successor ensures that the Elise reputation will continue to grow.Published 23 October 2002