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2006 Lotus Elise reviews

April 27, 2006 11:42 AM EST | Convertibles , Lotus | Email to Friend

View large imageFor those willing to put up with its heavily compromised utility and comfort, the Lotus Elise provides the most unfiltered driving experience of any roadster sold today.

Pros
Ultralightweight chassis, uninhibited steering, supercar performance without the supercar price, low volume ensures rarity.

Cons
Spartan interior, difficult entry and exit, peaky power delivery, ride quality more Formula One than grand touring, limited dealer network.

What's New for 2006
Changes for 2006 include an available traction control system, an optional limited-slip differential, lightweight forged alloy wheels, a matte black appearance package and an air conditioning-delete option. Daytime running lights are now standard, along with LED taillights with integrated reflectors. The ProBax seat padding from NuBax has been upgraded for increased comfort and last year's aluminum pedal set has been replaced by a lighter (though now steel) pedal set.

Introduction:
One reality, and enemy, of sports car design over the last 30 years has been the inescapable escalation of vehicle weight. While two-seat performance cars have become more comfortable, more reliable and safer in recent decades, they have also become rather portly, at least by sports car standards. Sadly, if you've wanted both performance and light weight in one machine, you've pretty much had to give up the new-car smell (not to mention modern technology, reliability and safety features) and start shopping the classifieds. But all that ended with the introduction of the Lotus Elise to the U.S. market for 2005. The Elise has been on sale in Europe since 1996, but European demand for the vehicle, along with stringent U.S. crash standards, kept it from leaping the pond -- except for a limited race-only version that wasn't legal to operate on public roads.

The second-generation release of the Elise in 2000 finally gave Lotus the opportunity to plan for a U.S.-certified version. It's true that meeting U.S. crash standards has required the addition of airbags and other safety features that add weight. And Lotus knew that even sports car fans in this country have trouble sacrificing amenities for the sake of performance, so the U.S. Elise comes standard with air conditioning, antilock brakes and an AM/FM/CD audio system. But don't look for stability control or power steering on this sports car. Lotus was willing to bend the Elise's original "weight is the enemy" philosophy for American tastes, but the company refused to break it. The carmaker managed to keep the U.S. Elise's curb weight under the 1-ton mark. At 1,975 pounds, the Elise is easily the lightest performance car sold in this country. With so little weight to push around, there's not a huge need for power. Therefore, the Elise has a Yamaha-built, Toyota-badged 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. This is the same engine found in the Toyota Corolla XRS, but it's been tuned by Lotus to broaden the power band and bump peak horsepower to 190. That's more than enough power to manage the Elise's increased weight, and Lotus says the car will sprint from zero to 60 mph in under 5 seconds.

There's no doubt that the Elise is a special car. For the money, you're not going to find a more thrilling driving experience out of a new production car. Just be aware that this is a no-frills, race-oriented machine. Even the Honda S2000, a car we've previously said as being quite minimalist, seems rather posh in comparison. Those wanting a roadster that can provide more day-to-day functionality than the Elise while still providing plenty of driving excitement will want to check out Porsche's Boxster or the aforementioned S2000.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The Elise is a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive, midengined roadster available in one trim level. The interior is understandably spartan, but must-haves like air conditioning and a CD player are standard (an A/C-delete option is available to save weight). Several option packages offer a bit of customization: The Touring Pack includes leather seating, power windows, an upgraded stereo with MP3 capability, a stowage net, a double-insulated soft top, additional sound-deadening material and full carpeting. The Elise's standard wheel/tire arrangement specifies 16-inch alloys with 175/55R16 Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 tires in front and 17s with 225/45R17 rubber in back. The optional Sport Pack features enhance the car's performance capabilities by swapping out the standard wheels for lightweight alloys, while fitting Yokohama A048 LTS tires (with wider 195/50R16 rubber in front) and a track-tuned suspension. A hardtop is available as a stand-alone option.

Powertrains and Performance:
Power for the Elise comes from a Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Lotus fitted unique intake and exhaust components, as well as a reworked engine controller, to broaden the engine's power band and push peak horsepower to 190 at 7,800 rpm. Torque peaks at 138 lb-ft at 6,800 rpm. The four-wheel independent suspension system features Eibach springs and Bilstein monotube shocks. Lotus claims a 0-to-60 time of just 4.9 seconds. A limited-slip differential is optional.

Safety:
Don't expect much more than federally mandated safety equipment on the Elise. A four-wheel antilock brake system is included, but neither stability control nor side airbags are available. A traction control system is optional.

Interior Design and Special Features:
Interior accommodations relay a clear sports car theme. Composite sport seats provide plenty of support, and controls are simple enough to keep your attention on the road. The wide door sills and low steering wheel require some fancy footwork when entering or exiting the vehicle. Needless to say, the Elise's cockpit emphasizes driving above all else, as there are minimal comfort and storage features for long road trips.

Driving Impressions:
The non-power steering feels as natural as anything we've ever driven, and the 1.8-liter Toyota engine is indeed more user-friendly (with a far more usable torque curve) than what you'll find in the Toyota Corolla XRS or Matrix XRS. Braking is handled by AP Racing two-piston calipers up front and Brembo single-piston calipers in back (11.5-inch rotors all around). This all adds up to a car that feels as race-oriented and capable as a Ferrari 430. When you consider the Elise costs roughly one-fourth as much, its true value becomes apparent.

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