Lotus Celebrates 20 Years of the Car That Saved the Company


Lotus Celebrates 20 Years of the Car That Saved the Company

It might have a body made of fibreglass, been named after the chairman’s daughter, and packed a tiny 4-cylinder engine with humble power outputs, but the Elise was the car that saved Lotus and come to define the small lightweight sports car genre. 

The Elise was conceived at a time when the brand was siring a range of less than desirable models such as the Excel and the front-wheel drive Elan, with the flagship Esprit mid-engine supercar growing very long in the tooth.

For a brand that made its name in pioneering race-winning technologies and revolutionising the Formula One world, Lotus' new small sports car had to return to the heart of its founder’s ethos of “simplify and add lightness”. In 1995 Lotus unveiled the first Elise, a small two-seater sports car that weighed in a featherweight 725kg, from a time when the lightweight sports car, such as the Mazda Miata weighed 940kg, so even by the standards of the day, it was light to begin with.  So even if it had a 120PS 1.8-litre Rover K-series engine mounted in the middle, the little Lotus could sprint from 0 to 100kph in under six seconds, which was pretty spritely.

Weight was key to the Elise, and even though fibreglass was the material of choice for its body, the Elise had solid underpinnings, with the use of the first extruded and bonded aluminium chassis in the industry. This kept the body rigid and the weight low. As such the Elise was praised by many in setting the benchmark for ride and handling, becoming such a success that it revitalised the company’s fortunes for a brief period. Eventually the Elise platform gave rise to several iterations such as the intense Exige, the insane 340R, the track-focused 2-Eleven, and the less-than-appreciated Europa. And the Elise is still one of company’s the most popular Lotus models, with the 40,000th Elise rolling off the factory floor recently, it being the first Elise 20th Anniversary Special Edition model rather fittingly.

Though Lotus revised the Elise with the Series 2 of 2001, to meet impending new European crash safety regulations, the lightweight structure still weighs in at just 68kg in its current form. While aluminium doesn’t sound like the modern lightweight exotic material to build your sports car from, be mindful that McLaren’s advanced one-piece moulded carbon-fibre MonoCell on the 650S tips the scales at 75kg, or that it is only slightly heavier than the Alfa Romeo’s much touted about 65kg carbon-fibre monocoque. Not bad figures for a car hailing from the 1990s.