End of an Elise era, as Lotus ‘does a Defender’ with promised replacements
While there exists no connection between Lotus Sportscars and Land Rover, states Iain Robertson, observers cannot be blamed for thinking that they have been reading from the same management instruction leaflet for launching new models.
Although it seems to have worked out okay for Land Rover, when it first terminated production of its backbone Defender model, without announcing an immediate replacement, I was not alone in fearing that it had slashed its own carotid artery. 2016 was not a good year for the West Midlands firm and, while Defender sales were slumping, it was only a few insiders that were privy to the ‘Tonka Toy’ replacement that would not debut until four years later, in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. Suicide!
While Lotus history has been peppered with questionable decisions, not least by the company’s founder, the illustrious Colin Chapman, whose only real sin was that he wanted to be a British Enzo Ferrari, on a no less adventurous road-cars-off-race-cars programme, apart from some truly great years in the middle of its timeline, it is best-described as ‘chequered’ and not for appositely flagged race victories. When a Turkish-born, Swiss bloke called Dany Bahar ruled its roost (2009-2012), he managed to squander much of the firm’s assets on a series of concept cars and a vainglorious corporate strategy that almost led to its destruction. He departed in a flurry of court cases.
Had it not been for Italian industrialist and renowned car lover, Romano Artioli, Lotus would have gone to the wall in 1993, when he staged his ownership bid. While much of his time in the early-1990s was engaged with his ownership of the rights to the Bugatti name and the introduction of the fabulous EB110 in S and GT forms, his association with Lotus was vital. The company needed new product urgently. On a trip I made to Campogalliano, the Bugatti plant location, in 1992, I was able to drive a pre-production example of a very pretty two-seater that would become the Elise.
It was hard to believe that the relatively humble MGF 1.8-litre K-Series engine, developing a paltry 118bhp, could work so efficaciously. Thanks to a low kerbweight (barely 725kgs) and a low centre of gravity, the mid-engined tiddler, which was named after Romano’s granddaughter (Elise) and styled by Julian Thomson (now head of design at Jaguar Cars), was sparklingly quick (0-60mph in 5.3s) and handled as a Lotus should. In fact, Colin Chapman would have been immensely proud of it. Yet, with Bugatti going ‘tits-up’, off the back of a global recession, it was amazing that Elise was unveiled in 1996, with Sr Artioli brokering a rescue deal with Proton, a Malaysian carmaker, to keep Lotus afloat.
The car’s innovative construction, using extruded aluminium for its ‘tub’ and featuring the use of advanced adhesives, both for ease of construction and extreme lightness, led to the development of the Exige and later Evora 2+2 models. Apart from detail modifications, the largest of which came with an order from GM-owned Vauxhall-Opel, which was creating the VX220 model and led to useful funding of the sharper edged Series 2 Elise arriving in 2001, it was the subtle curves of the Series 3 (2011) that re-engaged Lotus with its core customers.
Now, in its 26th year, Lotus is dropping Elise…and Exige…and Evora from its model range. In some respects, not before time. Yet, all three models have become much-loved and have hidden their relative ages very competently, which either shows how advanced they were to begin with, or how glacial have been developments in the sportscar arena. I tend to favour the latter. However, Lotus is not letting them go without a fanfare.
A total of five Final Edition cars that boast more power and more comprehensive standard specifications combine with Lotus’s renowned light weight, which is always a guarantee of zestier performance. Yet, it is worth highlighting that they are ultimate versions of both Elise and Exige (there is no mention of ‘final’ Evoras, at this stage), and they represent pinnacles of technical development on cars that are more than two decades old.
Naturally, Lotus is anticipating high demand from global markets as customers attempt to snaffle up the remaining models. To chivvy along the sales, new paint colours, different exterior decaling, alternative wheel finishes, slightly different interior trim and the inevitable ‘Final Edition’ badges will play their parts. Mind you, three of them benefit from a slug of extra grunt, reflected in the model nomenclatures: Elise Sport 240, Elise Cup 250, Exige Sport 390, Exige Sport 420 and Exige Cup 430.
Fortunately, Toyota is the current supplier of both four cylinder and V6 engines to Lotus, which means that the spectre of ‘Rustin-Over’s’ problematic K-Series is no longer prevalent. Naturally, the units are only lightly stressed in a Lotus application, which also helps with longevity and means that those speculators fortunate enough to grapple for the final sets of keys will realise their future investment with a degree of profitable surety. After all, each of them is a future classic without a hint of irony.
Be prepared, they are not exactly cheap. The Elise Sport 240 weighs in at £45,500 and a Cup 250 is £5,400 more. The 390 version of the V6 Exige is £64,000, while the 420 and 430 variants carry respective premiums of £15,900 and £36,600. Lotus fans will see this as par for the course and the higher up the remaining price list you travel, of course, the better is the sporting specification.
Conclusion: It is usually a sad event, when an era comes to an end but Lotus has dragged out its still innovative wee car for rather too long now. A change was seriously overdue. However, now the speculation starts…will a future small Lotus be affordable, or just another £65k sportscar? Will it be electrified to create a baby brother to the Evija? Regardless, we should know by September 2021.