In 2005, I was 16 years old and already a freak for Lotuses. My eyes devoured books and magazines on them. My thumbs drove them on Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo 3. I watched Pretty Woman for Richard Gere’s Esprit, not Julia Roberts, and The Spy Who Loved Me for the Lotus submarine, not the shootouts.
2005 also just happened to be when the most exciting new Lotus in a generation—the Elise—finally arrived in the United States. It looked great, like an angry muscle-bound insect. It sounded great, almost like a big sport bike. And according to Road & Track it drove great, too, with a “giant-threatening velocity…everything else feels imprecise, heavy and slow.” The Elise also listed for only about 40 grand, which at that time was only a little more than an S2000. It was a lot less than a Boxster. And a lot quicker than both.
The first Elise I ever saw in person was some time that fall, at a car event near Houston. It was Nightfall Blue over black. The owner and I chatted. He wasn’t stupid enough to let this long-haired teenage stranger drive it, but we did go for a ride. It probably lasted three minutes and never clocked anything over 50 mph, but a little car can make a big impression. So, years later after I had done some living and saving (and cut my hair), I spotted a 2005 Elise at a good time at a good price, had an “if not now, then never” moment, and bought it. I’ll admit that this purchase was well-timed and that Elises have gotten significantly more expensive than when I bought mine. But I’ll also probably never sell it, and even at their current all-time high values these little English pocket rockets offer a unique, rewarding experience that doesn’t necessarily break the bank.
What they are
By the time American buyers first got a crack at the Elise, the model had already been around nearly a decade and ushered in a renaissance for the perennially cash-strapped carmaker. Initially intended as a limited-run vehicle to promote Lotus Engineering (the part of the company that actually made money), the Elise debuted a patented frame made of bonded extruded aluminum. It’s light, strong and, unlike steel backbone Lotuses of the past, not prone to rust.
Cutting edge chassis aside, the rest of the car was back-to-basics for Lotus. The revived Elan M100 was a front-drive failure and the Esprit was getting bulkier, but this new car had refreshingly small dimensions, fiberglass bodywork, a no-frills interior, and a small smiley-faced grille. Just like Lotus’s best stuff from the 1960s and 1970s. These were the days when Romano Artioli, who also owned Bugatti, was the boss at Lotus. He kept the Lotus tradition of road cars starting with the letter “E,” but gave it a personal touch, naming it after his granddaughter Elisa.
When it hit showrooms, the Elise struck just the right balance between hardcore roadster and usable, reasonably priced driver with enthusiasts and the press. It sold well and a track-focused model called the Exige soon followed, while versions of the Elise’s brilliant bonded/extruded aluminum chassis would eventually form the basis of other sports cars like the Hennessey Venom, Opel Speedster, Vauxhall VX220, and the original Tesla Roadster.
A new and improved Series 2 version debuted in 2001 to comply with fresh European crash regulations, but its airbags still didn’t comply with US rules. Four years later, though, the feds granted Lotus an exemption (thanks, NHTSA!) and just as the Esprit was bowing out, Lotus started taking orders for its North American, aka “Federal” version of the Elise.
While Rover K-Series engines propelled earlier Elises, the ones we got are powered by Toyota’s 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE dual overhead cam four-cylinder mated to a 6-speed manual. Those who speak Toyota might remember that the 2ZZ also powered very un-sporty A-to-B-mobiles like the Corolla and even the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix. The 2ZZ-GE version in the Elise, though, has a Yamaha-designed twin-cam cylinder head and came straight out of the Celica GT-S, mounted transversely behind the cabin and featuring revised intake and exhaust plus a Lotus-tuned ECU for 190 horsepower and 138 lb-ft of torque.
Sure, those were shoulder-shrug numbers even in 2005, but that aluminum Toyota four-banger only has about a ton worth of car to push around. A 2005 Miata weighs over 400 pounds more.
Most Elises sold in the US came with a Touring package that added such wild extravagance as leather seats, power windows, carpets, and more sound deadening. An available Sport package added stiffer springs and height-adjustable shocks. The removable hardtop was another popular option, while a removable rectangular cloth soft top that (awkwardly) snaps in at each corner came standard.
The Elise was with us for just seven years, and it didn’t change a whole lot in that time. For 2006, Lotus added an available limited-slip, traction control, and A/C delete, as well as drive-by-wire throttle and LED Taillights. Some cars also got dual oil coolers. An Exige arrived for 2006 as well, powered by the same 190-hp engine but with a fixed roof and wing.
Then, a mild refresh in 2008 revised the gauge cluster and added a cup holder on the Touring package. Oh, the luxury! The biggest news for 2008, though, was an Elise SC model that force-fed the Toyota four with a Roots-type supercharger, boosting its numbers to 220hp and 158 lb-ft.
The biggest change came just in time for the model to leave the US. In 2011, Lotus’ lucky NHTSA waiver expired in August, so as a going-away gift from Lotus, the US received the facelifted Series 3 version for that year only. It would soldier on in the UK/Europe until last year and ensured the Elise’s place as the best-selling Lotus model ever. RIP. The Elise’s larger and more mature sibling, the Evora, kept the Lotus flag planted on American shores.
What they’re worth
Lotus sold over 6000 Elises and Exiges over here. About half of those are 2005 Elises, so they are by far the easiest to find. Sales only dropped from there. The later the model year Elise, the rarer it is. But while the ultra-rare 2011 models (just 128 US cars, according to Lotus Talk) as well as special editions like the 72D, California Edition and 60th Anniversary Edition have always commanded a hefty premium, they were market outliers. For a long time most Elises, almost regardless of options, mileage and color, sold for around the same price. For a decent example, somewhere around 30 grand was the going rate for years. Sure, these are impractical enthusiast cars with limited appeal, but it was so much bang for your buck.
Then there was the pandemic boom. Fun-to-drive cars of all types were in high demand. The performance-bargain Elise couldn’t stay secret forever, and I’m surprised it stayed quiet as long as it did. In late 2020/early 2021 sale prices really started to tick up, more so for #1 (Concours) and #2 (Excellent) condition cars. Over the last three years, the median #2 value for Elises is up 55 percent, and currently sits at $57,600 for base cars or $64,900 for Elise SCs. No, that’s not cheap, but driver-quality base Elises can still be had for under $40k. The more track-oriented Exiges, particularly the supercharged versions, are significantly rarer and a lot more expensive, with the best of them knocking at the door of six figures.
Then there's the curious underbelly of the Elise market—cars with rebuilt titles. Normally when we find a sports car with a rebuilt or salvage title for sale, we conjure up scenarios of a wreck after someone ran from the fuzz or a poor car getting washed away in a hurricane, only to be shoddily cleaned up and thrown onto a shady car lot. With the Elise, it's a little more complicated than that.
The front and rear "clamshells" of the Elise are really just two giant pieces of bodywork. They're easy to damage but very difficult (i.e. expensive) to repair or repaint. Add in the fact that the Lotus is a specialty semi-exotic car, and now you've got insurance companies totaling out Elises for minor fender benders. Thankfully, hundreds of these perfectly usable Elises with one wheel in the grave have been rescued by owners as well as specialists like Wire Wheel Sports Cars.
Buying one of these rebuilt title Elises is a cost-effective way to get into a Lotus if you're looking for one to drive, enjoy, or track rather than collect, but it's best to be extra careful when buying a rescue. Have a pre-purchase inspection done by someone specifically familiar with Elises. If the monocoque was ever damaged, the car is essentially toast.
Mods are quite common, particularly ones that give the engine more oomph, and some owners have even swapped out the Toyota drivetrain in favor of Honda's slightly larger K20 engine. And, surprise, many Elises have also been at least casually tracked or autocrossed, and the usual rules for buying a hard-driven car apply. Cam wiping (excessive camshaft lobe wear) is a known issue on the 2ZZ motor, and some Elises had a recall on oil cooler lines. The factory radio that came in the Elise sucked, so by now many owners have replaced it with an aftermarket one that usually also sucks.
Appreciation has slowed down after that COVID-era spike, but Elises have staying power. The rate of insurance quotes for Elises among Millennials is twice as high as the average collector car. And given that almost nobody is building affordable bare bones driver-focused cars anymore, a relatively modern, fun, exotic-looking one like the Elise has a long-term appeal.
What they're like to live with
On balance, the Elise is a great car with plenty of caveats. Many of the old Lotus pitfalls were woefully unreliable engines, rusty chassis, and interiors that disintegrated. But the Elise is aluminum, so it doesn't rust. It has a Toyota engine that doesn't leak. And it barely even has an interior so there's nothing to disintegrate.
Speaking of the interior, though, good luck trying to look suave getting in or out of an Elise. At 6'2'' I fit just fine in mine, but getting there is a different story. First off, the sills are high and wide, about 15 inches off the ground, 4 inches wide at their narrowest and 8 inches at their widest. From the bottom of the door to the roof is only about 28 inches high, so it's a small and awkward space to squeeze through. To this day I haven't figured out how to get in without having to brush my size 13 feet across the dash and have learned to just live with the scuffs.
There's no glovebox, just a good-old fashioned shelf made out of aluminum, and if you don't want your stuff to slide around, Lotus provided a stupid little cargo net between the seats. There's the rear trunk that holds a week's worth of groceries (if you're single) or two small overnight bags (if you're not). There is no frunk in an Elise.
The car's worst enemy is a steep driveway, and if you're driving with the soft top on and happen to catch some rain, keep in mind that getting a little wet is a feature, not a bug. Check this out:
Way to CYA, guys! It's not like it rains a lot in England or anything.
As for reliability, the drivetrain is Toyota but the rest of the car isn't, so finding parts or service isn't as straightforward as it is on more common cars. The engine bay is also fairly cramped. Oh, and the air conditioning only kind of works even at the best of times.
Those are pretty much all the asterisks. Now to the good stuff. Most of the bad is easily eclipsed by the good that comes behind the wheel. Elises strike a good balance of driving almost like a track car while having real-world creature comforts, however imperfect, like power windows and A/C. It's not a numbers car, but like any tiny, low-slung sports car, it feels plenty fast and gives a nice little shove and shout when it comes on cam at 6200 rpm.
Steering is unassisted but commendably light (even when parking) and the turns are where any Lotus shines. There's no arguing with physics, so chucking around a car that weighs 2000 pounds feels a lot different (and better) than one that weighs 3500. Turn-in is intoxicating and immediate. The rate at which this car changes direction, combined with the ample grip, provides never-ending entertainment. Driving an Elise will spoil the experience of plenty of other performance cars, which may start to feel a bit piggish in comparison.
It is not a road trip car, but a few hours in the cabin is doable. Despite their stiffness, the seats are well-designed and reasonably comfortable. Swapping in Elise seats is actually a common upgrade on certain classics and even Miatas. Suspension is stiff and not pothole-friendly, but it isn't jarring, either. Provided you're brave enough to commute among the SUVs and willing to do the yoga poses to get in and out of an Elise, daily driving one is possible, and there are cars out there with over 100,000 miles.
These cars aren't the surprising steal they used to be, and that's too bad. The world could use more cheap sports cars. Unfortunately, though, the world isn't getting many more cheap sports cars, and even at its current values the Lotus Elise is a great value. Quick, beautiful, relatively reliable, always entertaining, and a little bit eccentric, it's an attainable dream car. Even if you weren't 16 when it came out.