Image of green Lotus driving on country road

Lotus Elise S1

BUYERS GUIDE

Lotus Elise S1 Review

Remember When Lotus Built One Of The Best Lightweight Sportscars Ever…?

What Is It?

First sold in 1996, the Lotus Elise was nothing short of a lifesaver for Lotus, appropriately enough thanks to the innovative, lightweight engineering that has always characterised its most successful products for both road and track. Beautifully styled by Julian Thomson, it delivered the brand’s trademark minimalist thrills through a combination of a lightweight, bonded aluminium chassis and just enough power to do justice to the pin-sharp handling.

Best of all, it offered a mid-engined sports car just as capable of delivering on a B-road blast as it was on a track day for a relatively affordable price. Though it later evolved through three distinct generations, and the foundations underpinned various Lotus models for over a quarter of a century, the original arguably remains the best, and the one we’re looking at here.

Corrosive Areas

Wheel arches

Sills

Sunroof Aperture

Checklist

  • The panels and bumpers for scrapes and dents. The front nosecone, containing the kidney grilles, is easily damaged and although repairs are possible a replacement part is around £600 before painting and fitting
  • That the pop-up headlamps are working properly, and check the edges of the windscreen as they can turn milky due to delamination
  • Around the sunroof panel and aperture for signs of rust bubbling, and ensure the roof opens and closes without problem. Replacing the complete sunroof cassette is around £1500 for the part alone
  • The engine for oil and coolant leaks, and any signs that the head gaskets have been compromised; be very wary of a car that seems to overheat
  • For a complete service history that indicates a caring owner. Maintenance is pricey and you need to avoid cars run on a shoestring. Early 4.0-litre engines could suffer from issues with the Nikasil cylinder bores – it won’t be a problem today, but a new engine could have been fitted in the past
  • For any warning lights on the dashboard. The engines can suffer from electronic gremlins while faults with the VANOS variable valve timing system cause rough running
  • That the car starts without problem. The cars can suffer from battery drain when left standing, and tracing the cause can become expensive. Replacing the twin batteries is costly, too, while the complex electronics will need professional attention
  • For any problems with the manual or automatic gearbox. Both are strong, but evidence in the history of regular oil changes is good news as replacing a failed unit is extremely expensive
  • For vibration from the driveline as it points to worn prop-shaft joints. Replacement is fairly inexpensive but it’s a good bargaining point
  • The brake pads and discs for wear, although parts specialists can provide replacements at a reasonable cost. Ensure the warning lights for the ABS and DSC traction control system illuminate and extinguish correctly on start up as faults can be expensive to repair
  • For clunks over bumps that indicate wear in the suspension bushes, and look for uneven tyre wear and pulling to one side on the road. Damaged or corroded alloy wheels can be refurbished at a reasonable cost
  • The condition of interior trim as shabby upholstery is bad news and points to a car that’s not been cared for. Look for a sagging headlining and leather seats that are cracked or scuffed
  • That all of the gadgets work. There’s lots of kit so don’t be satisfied until you’ve tried every switch and button. And watch for dead pixels in the display for the on-board computer as it’s a common problem
  • That the air-conditioning blows cold; it’s a complex system and may need more than re-gassing whatever the vendor might say. And ensure that damp carpets haven’t been caused by a leaking heater matrix. The dashboard needs to come out to replace it, so it won’t be cheap

How Does It Drive?

Brilliantly! The MX-5 of a few years earlier proved to the mainstream market that you didn’t need big power or macho looks to have fun, but the Elise took the idea and repackaged it into a cutting edge, mid-engined machine with handling that was both racecar sharp but also back-road friendly. For example, the clever bonded aluminium construction wasn’t just light, it was also incredibly stiff. This meant Lotus could actually make the suspension relatively soft without compromising the precision of the handling, and softer springs were also made possible by the overall lack of kilos. Skinny tyres and small wheels saved further weight and meant the steering didn’t need power assistance.

The wheel is quite heavy at parking speeds, but once up to speed the undiluted feedback gives you huge confidence, as does the lightning response to inputs. Even the basic 118hp versions feel strong given the lack of weight they have to shift, the K-Series engine responds quickly to the throttle and is keen to rev out with a broad power band. The more tuned versions have better top end but can be less flexible at regular speeds. While generally safe and with very high and well-telegraphed limits, the lack of driver aids is worth bearing in mind, as the snappy response to mid-corner lifts will catch some drivers out.

What’s Good?

Brilliantly! The MX-5 of a few years earlier proved to the mainstream market that you didn’t need big power or macho looks to have fun, but the Elise took the idea and repackaged it into a cutting edge, mid-engined machine with handling that was both racecar sharp but also back-road friendly. For example, the clever bonded aluminium construction wasn’t just light, it was also incredibly stiff. This meant Lotus could actually make the suspension relatively soft without compromising the precision of the handling, softer springs were also made possible by the overall lack of kilos. Skinny tyres and small wheels saved further weight and meant the steering didn’t need power assistance.

The wheel is quite heavy at parking speeds, but once up to speed the undiluted feedback gives you huge confidence, as well as lightning response to inputs. Even the basic 118hp versions feel strong given the lack of weight they have to shift, the K-Series engine responds quickly to the throttle and is keen to rev out with a broad power band. The more tuned versions have better top end but can be less flexible at regular speeds. While generally safe and with very high and well-telegraphed limits, the lack of driver aids is worth bearing in mind, the snappy response to mid-corner lifts will catch some drivers out.

What’s Bad?

Brilliantly! The MX-5 of a few years earlier proved to the mainstream market that you didn’t need big power or macho looks to have fun, but the Elise took the idea and repackaged it into a cutting edge, mid-engined machine with handling that was both racecar sharp but also back-road friendly. For example, the clever bonded aluminium construction wasn’t just light, it was also incredibly stiff. This meant Lotus could actually make the suspension relatively soft without compromising the precision of the handling, softer springs were also made possible by the overall lack of kilos. Skinny tyres and small wheels saved further weight and meant the steering didn’t need power assistance.

The wheel is quite heavy at parking speeds, but once up to speed the undiluted feedback gives you huge confidence, as well as lightning response to inputs. Even the basic 118hp versions feel strong given the lack of weight they have to shift, the K-Series engine responds quickly to the throttle and is keen to rev out with a broad power band. The more tuned versions have better top end but can be less flexible at regular speeds. While generally safe and with very high and well-telegraphed limits, the lack of driver aids is worth bearing in mind, the snappy response to mid-corner lifts will catch some drivers out.

Which Model To Choose?

Brilliantly! The MX-5 of a few years earlier proved to the mainstream market that you didn’t need big power or macho looks to have fun, but the Elise took the idea and repackaged it into a cutting edge, mid-engined machine with handling that was both racecar sharp but also back-road friendly. For example, the clever bonded aluminium construction wasn’t just light, it was also incredibly stiff. This meant Lotus could actually make the suspension relatively soft without compromising the precision of the handling, softer springs were also made possible by the overall lack of kilos. Skinny tyres and small wheels saved further weight and meant the steering didn’t need power assistance.

The wheel is quite heavy at parking speeds, but once up to speed the undiluted feedback gives you huge confidence, as well as lightning response to inputs. Even the basic 118hp versions feel strong given the lack of weight they have to shift, the K-Series engine responds quickly to the throttle and is keen to rev out with a broad power band. The more tuned versions have better top end but can be less flexible at regular speeds. While generally safe and with very high and well-telegraphed limits, the lack of driver aids is worth bearing in mind, the snappy response to mid-corner lifts will catch some drivers out.

Why Should I Buy One?

Because it’s gorgeous, fantastic to drive and remains the purest expression of what Lotus as a brand stands for. For such a driver-focused car the Elise is also surprisingly usable, while the performance it delivers (and the way it goes about it) is perhaps even more appropriate now than it was when the car launched. Even if it’s not especially refined or loaded with luxury features, the Elise remains one of the best-driving sports cars of any era, and a solid investment to boot. Why NOT buy one?

 

Best Buy

They’re all good, but 111S versions with the VVC (Variable Valve Control) version of the K-Series engine have a bit more pep and are a lot easier to come by than the more powerful limited editions.

 

Things To Look Out For

K-Series head gaskets are a known weakness, original plastic radiators can be weak, check for crash damage and poor repairs to fibreglass bodywork, especially front clam, also check aluminium tub for signs of big impacts and repairs, steel suspension parts/mounts can rust.

 

Specifications

 

Engine

1.8-litre 4 cylinder petrol

Power

118PS (87kW) @ 5,500rpm

Torque

165Nm (121lb ft) @ 3,000rpm

Transmission

Five speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

690kg

0-62mph

5.5 seconds

Top speed

126mph

Production dates

1996-2001

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