1998 Lotus Elise S1

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From the ridiculous to the sublime. While the TVR is all show, with admittedly plenty of go, the little Elise is the polar opposite.

From the ridiculous to the sublime. While the TVR is all show, with admittedly plenty of go, the little Elise is the polar opposite. In true Lotus engineering style it is remarkably minimalist, weighing just 731kg – which is a feat for such a modern car. It remains true to Colin Chapman’s ethos: ‘Simplify, then add lightness.’

Weight is pared by the fiberglass body being bonded to the extruded aluminum chassis. This was an extremely advanced process when the Elise was launched in 1995, and helps explain the car’s astonishing 0-60mph time of 6.1 seconds when propelled by just 118bhp from the Rover K-series four-cylinder engine.

Penned by Julian Thomson, the example we have here is very yellow with a suitable Lotus Green interior. The car is small and neat, but the styling reminds me of a frog so, to my eyes, it looks more like a modern Frogeye Sprite than a later Elan, which is more elegant.

Inserting yourself into the Elise takes practice. The high and wide sill impedes your entry and the narrow seats have hard side edges to overcome. Once in, you are seated very low behind the fat steering wheel, with little rearward visibility. Featuring raw aluminium and plastic everywhere, the Lotus does feel obviously extruded.

The engine ignites quietly and settles to an even thrum at idle. The aluminum shift is light but rubbery, and needs a careful hand to guide it between the gears. Moving off you need to adjust your brain to the soft and non-linear throttle response. After the mechanical-ness of the earlier models here, the Lotus’ responses are a bit soft. But shove the throttle down hard and the little sports car takes off. It charges through the gears and attacks the bends with commitment. Actually, the curves seem to make absolutely no difference to its trajectory. The Lotus does not seem to notice any deviation in the road ahead: it simply charges forth at greater and greater speed. Turn the wheel a bit one way or the other and the Elise just goes in that direction. Camber changes are ignored. The steering remains direct with no loading at all. This Lotus is like a computer game. You are sitting there looking ahead as the road whooshes toward you and under the front of the car, but you don’t really feel much.

The level of grip is vicious, thanks to the relatively wide 185/55x15 tires all round – interestingly, these were downsized in the later S2 Elise. That’s where the rear-mid-engine layout comes into play. If you continue to get carried away, the front end suddenly washes out followed instantly by the rear, and you have to be damn good to catch it all. The earlier classics here have nowhere near as much grip or cornering ability as the Lotus, but they let you know when the limit is being approached by breaking into early, enjoyable slides, especially with the often-sideways Frazer Nash.

Octane art editor Rob Gould thinks the Elise is great. ‘It feels lively, fast and planted. I didn’t much care for the gearbox, in which it was far too easy to beat the synchromesh, but considering what a dynamic masterpiece the Elise is I can put up with this minor issue.’

On a race track or challenging road the Lotus will be the quickest model here by some margin. The brakes are as good as the chassis but somehow, having driven it back-to-back with the other sports cars, there is a lack of tactility or involvement. The engine has no memorable sound, the car goes where it is pointed but remains inert. Capable, certainly, but lacking in charm. The Elise is an effective motoring appliance.

As with most Lotus cars the Elise has a reputation for being fragile, but with normal careful maintenance they are fine. From an Octane perspective the Elise is a new car, and as is the way with models of this vintage a restoration is not viable because a new aluminum chassis costs £12,000 and these machines are not yet worth that.

Lotus specialist Greg Lock of Hangar 11 suggests the Elise does not have any major problems, even if the K-series engines have a reputation for blowing head gaskets: ‘Check the service history, but if the car has been looked after properly there should beno indication of head problems apart from a bill.’

‘The gearshift is cable operated, and these cables are long and liable to stretch. They require adjusting after 20,000 miles and need checking at every service, otherwise the selectors can be damaged, which will result in a £600 bill.

‘Typically, front wishbone bushes start to go at 40,000 miles, leading to a vagueness in the steering. Track day action will wear balljoints, and its important to have the alignment checked every two years because the front end can go out.

‘Lotus soon stopped using the original metalmatrix discs and we don’t recommend fitting them because they are no good in the wet. And watch those alloys: they are fragile and now very rare.’


Engine: 1796cc transverse four-cylinder, 16 valves, fuel injection
Power: 118bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque: 122lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: Front and rear: independent by coils and wishbones
Brakes: Discs all round
Weight: 731kg
Performance: Top speed 125mph. 0-60mph 6.1sec


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