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May 12, 2011

Living with a Lotus Elise

by JHW

For this, we step into the way back machine… all the way to the year 2003. Ah yes, the year iTunes arrived, the Do Not Call list was introduced, and America switched to Freedom Fries! I was browsing the transportation section of Border’s magazine rack and there it was… the Lotus Elise, the car I had fantasized about for years, was coming to America! I was elated, this was the one – a bantam weight exotic for $39,000, better yet, a Lotus that I could buy off the showroom floor. That weekend, I ran (literally, I lived in NYC at the time) to my local dealership and plunked down $1,500 for what turned out to be a top 5 spot on the waiting list. Then, the wait began… days turned to weeks, weeks into months, months into a year and a half!

The call came to spec my car, and my months of forum debate took form as a 2005 model in Storm Titanium over Black, with the Touring package and a hard top. I felt pretty good about myself, I am a sucker for grey cars, and this looked to be the best option from the tiny squares I had been provided. A friend repainting a project car sampled the color as soon as the code became available – and we discovered a neutral grey with a brownish undertone. I was more excited than ever, as I now had a bigger square to stare at. The anticipation now grew, I traveled to a dealership that had acquired a UK spec Elise with a Rover motor – and promised me a test drive if I made the trek. What more did I need to hear? Though I had seen S1 Elise’s in person, I was shocked at the size of the S2 when I arrived for my first experience. I crawled inside, fired it up and was overcome by buzzing and shaking (I think the car buzzed and shook as well). I exited the dealership and took off, the “added lightness” was evident from the moment I started rolling, and I was instantly hooked at the toy-like sensation of the car. It felt like I was doing something dirty… people craned their necks, camera phones were popping out of every nearby window (yes, there were camera phones way back then). The Rover motor left a lot to be desired, however, this left me excited by the reported US spec car which would come with a significant jump in power.

Fast forward, I moved to California – and the day came. A transporter arrived, and unloaded my now $44,000 S2 Elise. I agonized through every moment of paperwork and small talk with the driver… just give me the keys and GO AWAY! So, it was mine – and now the reality would set in. I was left in a new place, with my tiny little sports car. I would quickly learn one thing clearly – the Elise is best used as a weekend toy or trackday tool, use as a daily driver (though doable) would not be it’s intended purpose. I had a highly modified B5 S4, but was preparing to sell it, and did my best to use the Elise for everything in preparation. If you have never been inside an Elise, there are a few things you must know. Forget everything you know about cars – this one does not follow familiar rules. There is almost no carpeting, less sound deadening, the doors are flimsy and feel to be attached by paper clips, the steering wheel is small, there is no cupholder, no heated seats, nothing that does not aid the driving experience is present. The radio is terrible, absolutely terrible… the AC and heat have 3 modes; off, off-ish, and full blast and the headlights can be outdriven with ease. In traffic, sedans look like SUV’s… you look over at a light and stare into the middle of a door – later realizing you mistook a Mustang for an Expedition. I made the mistake of adding the OEM Stage II exhaust, which added a booming “Bwaaaaaaaanghhhh” drone at any and every RPM range. My wife refused to drive in the car because it made her ears ring and gave her a headache. The hardtop acted as a bass trap, and seemed to amplify the noise. Removing the roof seemed to only intensify the sound.

Everywhere I went, I was bombarded with the same three questions: what is it, who makes it, and how much does it cost? As a car guy, I loved the attention for about a day, and then it became intolerable. I couldn’t go anywhere in peace or just take a leisurely drive – and the question of cost struck me as rude, needless to say, this got old quickly. I largely blamed myself for not understanding the true intent of the car, for asking it to do things it was not made for. The trunk was gym bag small, and heated up anything placed in it. Parking the car was nerve racking, as it was reported the front and rear clams would cost $12,000 a piece to replace! I remember panicking as I watched an X5 back right into the car while at dinner with the car in view, the X5 driver later telling me “my parking sensors didn’t beep”. A replacement of the Starshield clear bra was necessary, and thankfully the damage was non-existent underneath. Every moment driving the car was pure bliss – every moment of ownership not behind the wheel was aweful. I would go on 4 day business trips, and come back to a dead battery… the service portion of the thin dealer network were Monday through Friday only – and AAA was a headache to deal with.

Owning the Elise was like dating a really sexy girl with a bunch of annoying habits… and bad breath… and she always has to wear high heels and a dress. You want to love her, but in the end, there’s a cute athletic girl down the street – and she’s really nice. The party girl is great on a Saturday night, but come Monday morning, you just want the easygoing girl you can take home to meet the Parents. I felt like the car defined me… I was “the guy with the Lotus”, which I hated. I am an automotive enthusiast, to my core – but this was not the guy I wanted to be. My lust for the Elise quickly turned to frustration, and my for sale post went up after five months. The car sold quickly, and was replaced by a new for 2005 987 Boxster. The Boxster lacked the pure driving dynamic of the Lotus, which to this day is the best driving sports car I have ever experienced… but it could be parked and forgotten, and had all of the amenities I had so missed. It was non-confrontational, and I could drop the top in an instant and blast my music, all in great comfort and in peace! Granted, anything will feel bloated and clumsy after an Elise.

In the end, I loved the Elise, but it didn’t love me back… and like most heartbreak, I blame myself.  Sure, a sprinter may be able to run a marathon, but it is not what they were built for.  Daily use is not a core competency of the Lotus Elise, and thus, prioritization is an important part of buying a car with such limitations.  Take stock in what you want from the car, and know that the Elise has the potential to rock your world, for better or worse.  I hope to revisit the experience… someday.

THE GOOD: The best handling car in the world, for any money? It fits like a glove. Exotic pedigree with a low entry fee. A purpose built sports car, with no compromise, and no apologies.

THE BAD: Difficult to use daily. Build quality: it leaks in the rain, even with the factory hard top. It fits like a glove. Nothing feels solid, this is what you get in a 1,970 lb package I suppose.

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