The Lotus Elise Buying Guide – Pure driving experience at its best.

The Lotus Elise is the car that put the famous sports car company back on the map in the 1990s, and it still continues to offer the pure driving experience that Colin Chapman built his reputation on.

While Lotus has been responsible for many ground-breaking sports cars in its long history, by the mid ‘90s the allure of its ageing Esprit was waning. The other car on offer at this time was the FWD Elan, which may have been capable but wasn’t what enthusiasts were looking for. 

The arrival of the Elise in 1996 was a true return to form; it didn’t pretend to be anything but a distilled driving tool with excellent steering feel and a communicative chassis. These qualities continue to define the range almost 25 years on.

The plans were to initially produce a few thousand cars and end production in 2000 but strong demand made sure that that never happened, and the little sports car is now well into its third generation.

These later versions have slowly increased in weight, partially due to increased safety regulations and also the addition of a few creature comforts. Nonetheless, they still offer a level of driver involvement that is missing in all but the most dedicated track cars.

Lotus Elise – Pure sports car experience

If you want the purest Elise experience, then the early Series 1 cars are for you. Fitted with the Rover K-series engine and very basic specifications (no power assistance or driver aids of any kind), what you get is one of the best handling and most responsive cars available, all thanks to that extra helping of lightness. 

The 111S and more powerful track focused 340R rounded off the first generation cars, and by the time the Series 2 arrived in 2000, the planned production limit of 2500 cars had been stretched to 9000.

The Series 2 cars featured a number of changes to make it compliant with increasingly stringent emissions and safety regulations. Initially they were offered with the Rover K-series engine as in the Series 1, but the powertrain was changed to Toyota-sourced engines in 2005 for emissions requirements. 

The addition of ABS, air conditioning and electric windows in some models meant additional weight, however the increased power outputs ensured that performance didn’t suffer. The 111S was reintroduced with the Rover K-series engine but only lasted until 2005 when the move to Toyota power was made. 

Other track focused cars introduced were the 135R and Sport 190, with more power and handling upgrades. The very capable Vauxhall VX220 was developed from the Series 2 chassis.

The Series 3 cars were introduced in 2011. They continued with Toyota powertrains and added a few more kilograms in the form of safety equipment and additional specification. They are more sophisticated and better equipped than the original Elise and are more usable as everyday transport too. Even though some of the delicacy of the Series 1 cars has been lost, you would have to be familiar with both models to notice a difference.

Parts are widely available for these cars from specialists, which generally offer a decent saving over going to Lotus. Running costs are reasonable and generally the Elise is a reliable vehicle. A number of recalls were carried out, so check whether your specific model had them addressed to avoid future issues

Lotus Elise Engine and gearbox

The Rover K-Series engine found in Series 1 and early Series 2 cars is generally robust, but radiator hoses can work loose. Another common issue is the head gasket blowing if the engine overheats. Fuel Injection pump fuses were uprated from 1998-on and are worth retrofitting to older cars.

Over-revving can cause cracked cylinder liners identified by an excessively smoking exhaust. You can get an ECU dump done by a specialist that reveals whether the car has been regularly over-revved or driven excessively hard.

Cambelts need changing every six years but it is worth doing earlier if regular track driving is planned. Toyota engines have cam chains, and while to a casual observer these seem to be the ones to have, Elise owners are split into two camps.

Transmissions are durable but cables can stretch with age, requiring replacements. Earlier cars had unbraided rubber hoses to the clutch making it function erratically. Braided items can be retrofitted and newer cars should have them installed from the factory. 

Synchros can get worn on second and third gear, and linkages can also wear. Series 2-on cars had revised linkages between the gear lever and gearbox to minimise this.

Lotus Elise Suspension and brakes

Steering racks can cause issues so make sure the car responds crisply to inputs. Suspension components tend to be hard wearing and issues like cracked rubber mountings, worn shocks or bushes are hard to verify unless you know what to look for. Consequently, having a specialist give it all a once over is a good idea.

Series 1 cars have a tendency to corrode around the front suspension mounting points. Some owners have found that the sports exhausts tend to wear out quickly while the standard items are longer lasting.

Lotus Elise Bodywork and Interior

The body is constructed of aluminium panels glued to the chassis. Rust tends to crop up only in the steel subframe, and corrosion in the footwell floor was common in Series 1 and early Series 2 cars. 

The chassis is extremely strong and rigid, but repairing a damaged one can be extremely labour intensive. The same applies to the fibreglass body panels, so if the car you are looking at has been involved in an accident then it might be wise to keep looking.

LED rear lights on the first batch of Series 2 cars can malfunction, but later cars have improved units.

Window winder mechanisms tend to give various problems and can be repaired by specialists to save on costs. There is not much else to go wrong in the spartan cabin but check that the heater is working, especially in Series 2 cars.

Model History of the Lotus Elise

1996: Lotus Elise Series 1 goes on sale with 118bhp 1.8-litre engine

1998: Sport 135 with 145bhp released

1999: 111S introduced with power up to 143bhp and closer ratio gearbox

2000: Track focused 180bhp 340R introduced in limited numbers – track pack option increased power to 190bhp. Sport 160 introduced with 160bhp. Sport 190 introduced with 190bhp

2001: Lotus Elise Series 2 introduced. 111S model introduced now with 160bhp. 135R (known as Sport111) and Sport 190 continue track-biased offerings

2005: Toyota powertrains adopted across the range. Rover powered 111S model discontinued replaced by 111R with 190bhp Toyota engine

2006: Minor updates to ECU and the introduction of LED rear lights

2007: New Base Elise S released with 134bhp retaining fivespeed gearbox. 111R renamed Elise R

2008: 218bhp Supercharged Elise SC introduced with sixspeed gearbox

2010: Series 3 introduced. Base model now with 1.6-litre engine producing the same 134bhp as outgoing 1.8-litre motor. S and S cup models come fitted with supercharged 1.8-litre engine

2015: Elise available from factory in base, S and S Cup variants. Comfort Pack adds central locking and soundproofing. 217bhp Cup 220 introduced with more of a track focus

2016: 245bhp Cup 250 introduced

2017: 250bhp Cup 260 introduced

2020: Elise range (below) consists of 217bhp Sport 220 and 245bhp Cup 250

Which Lotus Elise To Buy

While the design brief has remained unchanged throughout the Elise’s production run, safety regulations and beefier powertrains have added a bit of weight to the newer models.

New cars offer the safety net of a manufacturer’s warranty, but these are tough little sports cars and decent used examples can be found for far less. Most are well cared for and do not generally rack up big mileage. Watch out for overly modified or track abused examples.

The early Series 1 cars are the purest of the lot but there is a lot to like about the Series 2 and 3 cars with their more reliable Toyota-sourced powertrains. Track-focused Cup variants are ideal for weekend blasts, but even the least powerful Elise will have you smiling as you blast down a winding country road.

Lotus Elise Sport-190

Lotus Elise Specifications

Series 1

1.8-litre inline-four

Power: 118bhp

Top speed: 124mph

0-60mph: 5.5sec

Economy: 39.8mpg

Series 2 Elise R

1.8-litre inline-four

Power: 189bhp

Top speed: 148mph

0-60mph: 4.9sec

Economy: 35mpg est.

Series 3 Elise Cup 250

1.8-litre Supercharged inline-four

Power: 245bhp

Top speed: 154mph

0-60mph: 3.9sec

Economy: 35mpg est.

Lotus Elise Sport 2010

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Words John Tallodi Photos Lotus, GT Vintage Classic Cars

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