[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]
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Wire Wheel Classic Sports Cars
Lotus really got it right with the concept, design and engineering of its Elise. This exotic roadster was originally introduced to the public in 1996, but U.S. consumers had to be very patient: The American version didn’t arrive until 2005. It remained available stateside until 2011.
The Elise–along with its more intense sibling, the Exige–redefined what made a true sports car. The lightweight driving machine weighed in at about 2000 pounds thanks to an aluminum chassis and composite bodywork. A reliable and free-revving 1.8-liter Toyota engine and six-speed transaxle completed the efficient package.
The Elise can handle and perform on par with much more exotic and expensive supercars right out of the box, even with only 190 horsepower on tap. This Lotus isn’t really for everyone, but if you’re looking for a car that puts the sport back into driving, then you may want to give one a try. And if your sport is autocross, road racing, historic racing, track days, or just going for a spirited drive on your favorite stretch of twisty road, you cannot do much better than the Elise. On the track, the Elise makes a good driver feel like a great driver.
The most common complaint our shop receives about these cars involves cockpit ingress and egress. The side sill, which is actually part of the chassis, makes these maneuvers a little more difficult.
Serious drivers who plan to track or autocross their Elise should consider a few basic upgrades to their car, especially when using tires with a treadwear rating of 200 or less. A baffled oil pan helps to stabilize the oil pickup under higher cornering loads and ensures that your engine will not starve for oil on longer turns. This may save your engine from potential damage.
The 1.8-liter 2ZZ engine, which is fitted in the Elise, is as reliable and durable a unit as you would expect from Toyota. We’ve seen them last more than 250,000 miles in the Toyota Celica GT-S and Matrix XRS. Be sure to change your oil often while using a high-quality synthetic oil. If you do take your Elise to the track, make sure your oil is about 1/8 inch over the full mark on your dipstick to help prevent oil starvation.
The stock rear toe links can also be weak links when track driving or autocrossing. They can work loose if not checked regularly, and they have the potential to break under heavy cornering loads. The result could be loss of control of your normally very controllable Elise. There are several uprated toe-link kits available and they are not difficult to install.
A supercharger fitted with an intercooler can give the Elise an extra 50 to 100 horsepower–a boost you can really feel in a car weighing less than 2000 pounds. But performance is all about balance, especially on a Lotus, so seriously consider upgrading the suspension if you decide to go the boosted route. Brakes, too: The aluminum front AP calipers found on the Elise are excellent for a stock car, but a supercharged or turbocharged car will need improved brakes front and rear.
These cars are very reliable, and we’ve found very few issues with them other than a rare blown module for the door locks or a corroded relay for the air-conditioning fan. The a/c relay is located in the lower-front chassis compartment, under the radiator and a/c condenser. Water can build up in this area due to the lack of a drain hole. The result: corroded terminals on the relay that can break off, limiting blower fan speeds or not allowing it to blow at all. The best preventative fix is to drill two holes in the floor under the relay to allow for drainage.
The Lotus Elise will go down as one of the truly great sports cars. It has already become a modern collectible, with the prices stabilizing over the past five years.
Photography Credit: Courtesy Lotus
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Dynamic Racing Solutions
If I could improve only one aspect of the Lotus Elise, it would be the handling. The cars are great from the factory, but like anything else, they can use a bit of improvement for ultimate performance on track. We typically favor Öhlins TTX dampers. These two-way dampers offer a wide range of adjustment for a variety of spring rates. For most of our tracks that don’t have perfectly smooth surfaces, we want a spring that isn’t too stiff. Having compliance helps with overall grip, and we use the front anti-roll bar for roll support.
The most fragile aspect of the Elise is the cylinder head’s valve train. The design of the rockers and materials are not very robust for longterm, high-rpm use. We recommend checking the cams and rockers for wear. The cost for this repair can be reasonable. We offer a variety of options for maintaining the OEM parts or upgrading to parts that are better suited for competition use.
Changing the fluids on time is important. We don’t recommend exceeding 5000 miles for oil changes with synthetic oil on street cars. For competition cars, we recommend fresh fluids before every outing and for every three days of heavy use.
Improved brake pads are a good bang-for-the-buck upgrade. For the street, you want performance pads (not race pads) that offer strong initial bite without much warmup time. We like the ones from Project Mu. For the track, we prefer Pagid RS 14 pads. We’ve been using these for several years in the Lotus Cup USA series.