Super Compact Sports Car Lotus Elise 111R

Pedigree tells, they say, and the Lotus Elise 111R has a terrific pedigree. Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars, invented the concept of lightweight sports cars and racing cars that could literally run rings round the competition with much less power.

Not only that, but in the days when Colin Chapman ran the company, Lotus made a string of innovations, including the first monocoque Grand Prix car, the stunning ground effect cars, not to mention the backbone chassis and unique methods of making large glass fiber moldings.

The latest Lotus, the Elise, lives up to its pedigree. It is very light, it handles beautifully, and has a unique frame. Here is a sports car with such fine handling braking and acceleration it is really a tiny supercar.

Lightweight frame

Lotus Elise has a lightweight aluminum frame with glass fiber composite panels. Most manufacturers who use aluminum extrusions use them with castings welded together into a frame.

Lotus developed a method of adhesively bonding the extrusions and sheet that make up the frame. The extrusions are also fixed together by Ejot fasteners these are a cross between screws and rivets which lock the panels together supplementing the adhesive joints.

The frame consists of a pair of deep aluminum sections, joined together by a narrow cross member at the front, and curved out to go round the cockpit and the engine bay. There are a number of stiffening cross members, also extruded, and the power train is carried in a detachable steel sub-frame. The result is a very light and stiff structure, clothed in unstressed body panels.

Double-wishbone suspension

The rear suspension links pivot on the rear sub-frame, but at the front the links pivot on the frame . Double wishbone suspension is used front and rear, the bottom link of the rear suspension being adjustable for toe-in. Bilstein dampers, with special settings developed by Lotus are used in conjunction with coil springs all round. Of course, there is rack and pinion steering, and cross-drilled discs with AP front and Brembo rear calipers.

These days wheels and tires and getting huge, so its a surprise to see that Lotus Elise 111R has 175/55R tires on 6.5 x 16 inch wheels at the front, and 225/45 tires on 7.5 x 17 inch rear wheels. The idea is that the cornering power should match the car, not that the tires should make the car look good actually they do that anyway.

Lotus Elise 111R test drive

So the red Lotus Elise was sitting there, hood up, looking great. The classic, simple lines much improved with the Targa top, are just right, and yet different. It was a bright, sunny day so I'd already decided to drive with the soft-top down. 

It's not really a soft-top as Lotus Elise now has a Targa top, with a roll bar built in. The canvas top just fills the gap between the windscreen and rear body. When you remove it you stow it behind the seats. Taking it off is easy, but putting it on again requires a bit of a knack because you fix one side and then roll the other side into position so the plungers lock into holes.

Engine seems more powerful than it is

Toyota developed the engine management system to give a real step when the high-lift cams come in at 6,200 rpm, but Lotus developed its own controller to give a much smoother transition. Maximum torque is delivered at 6,800 rpm, but you would not think it was at such a high speed in the Lotus.

This engine pulls well at low speed, and begins to get going at around 4,000 rpm. The real power comes in at about 5,000 rpm but as they say, it is then a smooth transition all the way up to 8,000 rpm. So you've got plenty of revs to play with, from a very willing engine.

Plenty of feel

Al the time, you are feeling what is happening through the steering, which seems to be geared just right. The bumps are felt as well as the under steer, and you are really in touch with the way in which the tires are moving over the road.

On these roads, third and fourth gears are what you use mostly, with the odd occasion to drop to second to overtake. This Lotus Elise will do 40, 65 and 85 mph in the first three ratios, so you've plenty of overtaking power at any legal speed and higher of course.

My initial impression of the ride was confirmed. It is supple, and soaks up bumps very well. If you accelerate away from a T-junction with a poor surface, you can get a bit of a clonk as a wheel dips down into the hollow in the road surface, but even at these speeds the ride is good for this type of car better than some hot hatches. Good ride coupled with good handling has always been the hallmark of Lotus, though.

Amazing performer on track

On the track, the car performs superbly. Flat out down the straight, stand on the brakes before the bend, heel-and-toe to drop into second for the hairpin and wind her round accelerating through. Go a bit faster and you feel the under steer build up, as you power out. Through the faster curves, the car can be set up before the curve, set on line and held there with no effort. The car follows the desired line with ease, as you feel yourself being pressed hard against the side of the seat.

It's only after you've done this for a few laps that you can recall just how well the car goes where pointed, how slick the shifts are, and how easy it is to heel-and-toe as you brake hard while shifting down to enter the corner.

And how good the brakes are, although on the road they don't have quite as much feel as some other cars. And most of all how well the car corners, with almost no roll, and extremely fast.

Tail slide at will on hairpins

If you go in fairly slow and accelerate out of a slow bend, Lotus Elise under steers safely and predictably as the speed builds up. If that's not your style you can convert that into a tail slide at will.

You either tweak the wheel as you come into the corner or lift off a little, and the car will go sideways. Then pile on the power, and according to how you judge the opposite lock, the car with either straighten up or squirm as you apply opposite lock giving the car full power and further corrections as it slides too far off line. Amazingly controllable.

The same technique, using a sharp tweak of the wheel can be used on faster bends to kill the under steer and get the tail out, but you need a bit of skill to get that right. Not recommended for the road.

All the time, you can feel what is happening at the road, through the steering wheel, though the pedals and through the seat of your pants. Feel, precision, great cornering power, brakes and acceleration to match.

A great sports car and packs a big punch

Without doubt, the Lotus Elise is a great sports car, which achieves its performance with the combination of the approach of Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus cars: light weight, a low center of gravity, excellent handling, and a good engine.

This is a superb performer, that can out-accelerate many bigger cars thanks to a power;weight ratio of 220 bhp per tone, giving a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds, and terrific acceleration whenever you want it.

On top of all that that, because the car is so light and has good aerodynamics the fuel consumption can be amazingly good as well. Just brilliant, and tremendous fun. Don't be put off by the small engine. This car packs a much bigger punch than its size would suggest.

But is it practical? If you live in a warm climate, yes. If it rains a lot, as it does in the west of England it is not so practical when the weather is bad. If it starts to rain while you're driving, you're likely to be wet before you get the soft-top up but you could buy the optional hardtop.

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