Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.
I thought I was hard-core. People who complain about the Lotus Elise’s lack of creature comforts or suspension compliance are wimps I thought. Many of us would agree that pure driving pleasure outweighs most other considerations. The Elise is the ultimate test of this idea. Buy or by the hour? Let’s do the test.
I had lusted after the Elise ever since seeing one in Europe in the late 1990‘s. Everything I had read about it perfectly meshed with my ideas about sports cars. After owning a ’91 Miata for almost ten years, owning the Elise was the next logical step. When I first sat in one in 2005 upon its release in the U.S., I knew I would own a used one someday. The styling was to die for, the cockpit was starkly beautiful in its own way, and the mechanical-feeling shifter was a joy.
Renting The Elise
Around 2007, my wife and I rented one in Vegas for the day and drove it hard for many miles on great twisty roads. It was my favorite bright red color and drove like a dream. As both a driver and passenger, I was pleasantly surprised that the car was not as rough or noisy inside, as I had been led to believe.
In 2009, after owning several Porsches and various BMW’s, I again rented an Elise in Vegas. Another red beauty, this time for 4 hours. I spent the entire 4 hours driving with only a 15-minute break for food, and loved every minute of it. Again, I had no issues with the noise or the firm suspension.
Renting verdict: Can’t possibly have more fun when paying by the hour.
Forward to 2012 and I finally bought an Elise (bright red of course). On the 5 1/2 hour drive home through Pennsylvania from the private seller’s house I had a great time but I also noticed that the interior noise level & ride were more intense than I remembered in Vegas. Hello reality — in the Northern Virginia / DC area where I live the roads are nothing like the smooth Vegas roads. Are there any other negatives? There sure are.
Physically, I was the perfect Elise driver: I’m only 5’6” tall and very skinny, so climbing in & out of the car was no big deal (but hugely entertaining watching others try), and I fit well in the narrow seats. These seats however started to become a bit painful on my back after a few months of daily driving. Yes, I drove the car almost daily into DC to work (only one way during rush hour) and actually parallel parked it sometimes on those mean streets. I had fabricated a front license plate bracket to screw into the front tow hook hole and mounted it when parking to avoid tickets. Once I returned to my car to find this front place bent as someone had backed into it but luckily no damage to the all-one-piece front fiberglass clamshell piece.
The engine sound was enjoyable but loud even with the stock exhaust — especially on the overrun. I would even sometimes shift to neutral to enjoy the silence while coasting to a stop. Sounds wimpy I know but we’re talking almost-daily driver here in heavy traffic and it was still just a massaged Toyota 4-banger not some exotic powerplant.
Complementing the engine sounds were massive amounts of interior road & wind noise. The soft top leaks air quite a bit at highway speeds and combined with the engine made the stereo pretty much unlistenable on the highway.
Big Negative #3: Unbelievably Bad Stereo
Anything above crawling speeds made the stereo virtually unlistenable. I immediately upgraded the stock front speakers which helped some, but it was still just a mess. I know that in a car like this listening to the stereo isn’t really the point but in a daily driver it’s a bit different. Many owners upgrade the audio but with such high interior noise levels this seems pointless.
Big Negative #4: Unbelievably Rough Ride
As mentioned, on my two Vegas joyrides I had no complaints, but on the rough streets in my area it was shocking how shocking the bumps were. Hitting large bumps or potholes produced such a loud & jarring shudder that I began to (rather unsafely) dodge such hazards at the expense of level-headed driving. Such bumps made me think that the car was being damaged every time — this feeling did not go away with familiarity even though I knew that the car could (probably) take it. It was just so unsettling to have the whole car crashing around me sounding like it was about to break in half.
Big Negative #5: Rough Road Handling
It is said and often written that “The Elise is one of the best handling cars ever made.” Any enthusiast has read such words many times, and yet my experience was quite different. The stiff suspension, low weight and short wheelbase are ideal for the track or smooth roads. However, in the real world of crumbling roads, mid-corner bumps would case the rear end to bounce sideways, thus eroding my confidence in the car’s abilities. Combined with the lack of stability control, the skittish rear end put a damper on some of the fun factor whenever I would push the car a bit. I have owned and driven many other sports cars and the Elise just didn’t make me feel like I could push too hard in my normal driving. For those of you wondering, the car had low miles, was never tracked or crashed and after purchase I had my dealer check all suspension bolt torques which were fine. One possible caveat is that the fairly new rear tires were not OEM but were some obscure brand I’d never heard of installed by the original owner. To me this would only apply to cornering grip and not bouncing around in a corner however. Cornering grip was still outstanding on smooth surfaces.
Big Negative #6: Wind Noise With the Top Removed
The Elise has no topless air management whatsoever. I’ve owned & driven many convertibles and the Lotus has the worst wind-management I’ve ever experienced. With the targa soft top removed, highway driving is almost unbearable from the wind noise unless you put the windows up. Removing & installing the top is just enough of a pain to encourage you to leave it on most of the time, and when removed, it’s difficult to stow in the trunk so it takes up the passenger footwell.
I owned the Lotus for about 7 months and am very glad I did, but the driving experience along with the practicalities (Parking! Fiberglass body! Backaches!) just weren’t working for my driving in my area with heavy traffic & poor road conditions.
I still think it’s one of the best-looking cars ever made, and I loved the shift feel (which is strangely criticized by many owners on the LotusTalk forum). I also enjoyed the unique interior and overall “exoticness” of the car along with the direct unfiltered mid-engined driving experience.
Buying verdict: Definitely not a hassle-free marriage
The Final Verdict
Elise is fun by the hour, but a drama queen in daily life. I highly recommend renting the Elise when visiting Vegas or LA, but owning it should be approached with caution…
Jeff Snavely lives in Northern Virginia (suburban Washington DC) and is a military musician by trade. A lifelong car enthusiast, he has owned many used cars over the years – mostly German along with a few Saabs and some Japanese as well.
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