If you ask anyone under, say 40, to name the best handling, most driver focused, affordable sports car around, there’s a more than fair chance that they would suggest the Lotus Elise. Amazingly, it is now 20 years since the first Elise took the sports car market and redefined it, at least for the track day focussed, out and out enthusiast. Lotus has built a variety of models, most notably the Exige and Evora, on the same principle, with more power, sometimes more luxury and always with the great driver’s experience.
The Elise is built around a chassis of aluminium extrusions bonded with a polymer resin using an aerospace-like technology, with a hand finished fibre glass body attached to. It is not a luxury car – it is centred totally on the driving experience and has a pretty minimalist interior, little baggage space and a very simple convertible roof. Truly, it is a modern interpretation of the classic Lotus 7, now Caterham Seven.
The mid-mounted engine came from Rover – the 1.8 litre 4cylinder twin-cam K series, usually seen on the Rover 200/400 (R8) and MGF, in varying states of tune from 118 bhp to 190 bhp. Lotus used wishbone suspension, rack and pinion steering, without power assistance and disc brakes all round.
The interior is, and always was, very basic. The aluminium structure forms the basis of it, and carpets and luxury door cards are something for others. The steering wheel is fixed, the seat doesn’t recline and there’s a wide sill to climb over. Still, possibly more comfortable than a high power motorbike, something that competes with the Elise as much as any car.
The car weighed in at around 750 kg (1650 lb), and so even with just 118 bhp, 124 mph and 0-60 in perhaps 7 seconds were there for everyday use. Later versions have got a little heavier, but also more powerful Toyota engines and with more torque than the Rover engine. It may not be an ideal everyday car for 99% of us, but every day use is possible and if you want a remarkable track day car that you can drive home afterwards or use for the long way home from work, then may be it’s the best there is.
The reaction from the press and enthusiasts was, not surprisingly, almost ecstatic. Here was a car that truly replicated for the late 20th century the key characteristics of the Lotus’s early cars 40 and 50 years earlier. Commercial success through car production, something that had eluded Lotus on a regular basis for perhaps 30 years, now looked possible. This is a consistent Lotus issue, and the usual Lotus position (sorry, had to) has been to use the car production as a shop window for the engineering consultancy business. Lotus has also built cars for others around the same bonded aluminium chassis, most notably the Tesla Roadster.
There was just one problem preventing Lotus from going straight to the series of power increases, track focused versions and other higher margin derivatives. The car did not, would not, meet European crash sustainability regulations due in 2000. Lotus needed to invest to achieve these standards, and money was tight. Inevitably, Lotus turned to a partner, may be an unexpected one, to help – former Lotus owner GM Europe, to create the Elise series II, identifiable by revised front styling.
The deal with GM was essentially that GM would contribute to the development cost of the newly compliant Elise, and in return Lotus would build a derivative of the car for GM to sell in Europe, as the Vauxhall VX220 and Opel Speedster. The resulting series II Elise continued exactly where the previous car had left off, and is going strong in that vein 20 years later. Its got faster, slightly more refined, the engine now comes from Toyota rather than Rover, and the car remains the outright sports car of choice for many.
The VX220 was closely based on the Series II Elise, but had a longer wheelbase to accommodate a GM Europe 2.2 litre Ecotec four cylinder engine, with 147 bhp and the later turbocharged version reached 150 mph. This car has an aftermarket spoiler and front splitter.
Visually, it was fully revised over the Elise, though certain common elements can be discerned, such as the windscreen. The interior was more luxurious though, relatively speaking.
The VX220 ran from 2000 to 2005, when GM’s obligations on volume had been met. Lotus then had a hole to fill in their production volumes and an opportunity within the model range. The Europa S, repurposing an old Lotus name, for a mid engine car with grand tourer ambitions, was intended to fill this gap, and came to market in 2006.
The Europa retained the Elise based chassis, with the VX220’s longer wheelbase and GM engine. Visually, it differed from both, with a front featuring then contemporary headlights with cutouts into the bumper and a more significantly bulbous front. You could consider it a reskinnned and revised VX220 if you wish.
As noted, the car had a longer wheelbase than the Elise, by about 1.7 in but most of that was in the engine bay, behind the cabin. The cabin was therefore the same size as the Elise, but trimmed to what Lotus called “business class” standards. That meant fully leather trimmed doors, trim cappings on the (still very wide) aluminium sills, a padded dash and even carpets. A decent stereo was in there too, along with air conditioning, and even anti-lock brakes, all features that would be pointless in an Elise, or contrary to that car’s clear purpose.
The Europa S was always a closed car, with a fixed roof and a sweep from windscreen to rear deck the curvature of which doesn’t look quite right in side on shots. A one piece engine cover and boot hatch was raised for access to the engine or the small rear boot. There’s a small boot at the front as well, but it’s squashy bags only all round. The rear boot got hot as well. Visually, I’d rate the car as a success overall, and more elegant than the rather heavy looking VX220.
The engine was the same GM Europe turbocharged 2.2 litre four cylinder as found in the VX220. Power reached 197 bhp, and torque was 200 lbft at 5000 rpm. Performance was 143 mph and 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, and the gearbox was 6 speeds. The driving experience was different to the Elise, in that the GM engine had much more low down torque and power, whereas the Elise had by graduated to a Toyota 1.8 litre engine, with 192 bhp at 6200 rpm. In the Elise you change up at 6000 rpm or more; in the Europa there was no need to go past 4000 rpm, unless you wanted to. The Europa weighed in at just under 2200lbs, and against a fully equipped Toyota powered Elise at about 1900lbs, so power to weight ratios were still high.
The Europa S was marketed as a sports car that could also be considered a GT, and bench marked against such cars at the Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster and Cayman. Many keen drivers will have quickly taken it over the rather leaden Audi and Mercedes-Benz, but the BMW and Porsche were tougher nuts to crack.
The BMW was offered as a convertible or as a hatchback coupe, and offered all the creature comforts and space that the Europa did. The handling was pretty sharp, and of course the BMW 6 cylinder engines were ahead in bragging rights at least compared to a 4 cylinder Vauxhall/Opel engine. The driving experience was significantly less raw, less pure if you like, but the ability to not have to act the hooligan to enjoy the car was also attractive to many. Likewise, the practicality of access, driving position and engine access all worked against the Lotus.
Even tougher to crack were the Boxster and Cayman. Also mid engined, with 6 cylinder boxer engines, perhaps the best badge in this part of the market, a terrific driving experience and valid track day cars as well, they are perhaps two of the most complete cars available and it is very hard to make a case for the Europa at £34000 against a Cayman at just over £36000 (2006 UK market pricing).
And that’s before we consider the quality of the build of the German cars, or the quality of their interior materials. Heck, they’re good, to say the least. In the Europa, even with the luxury touring pack interior seen above, you had to reach across the passenger seat to work the electric window and watch the door trim move inward as you pressed the switch, the headlight switch was a contrivance, the cup holder was held onto the dash with a leather strap and Velcro. There was only one windscreen wiper, the ride hard and there was excessive road noise. Road and Track’s test car locked them out, with the key in the ignition and the engine running. Just as no one was fired for buying IBM, no one will be laughed at for buying a Cayman or Boxster.
That person may not have quite the driving experience as the Europa driver, but almost everyone has regular, rush hour or motorway journeys to complete, and the track day or great road trip is a much less frequent event. If you’re buying a Lotus just for the track day use, I guess there’s fair chance you’ve got a Porsche, BMW or Jaguar F-Type for everyday use next to it. And that probably explains why Lotus sold just 22 Europas in the UK in 2007. This is the first one I can remember seeing, ever.
You sense that Lotus some how knew this. In 2009, Lotus handed the Europa to their lead project engineer Roger Becker. Becker, who died earlier this year and whose son is now doing for Aston Martin what he did for Lotus, set about to fettle the Europa into a better shape, to be sold as the Europa SE. There was a revised turbocharger, ECU and other minor engine modifications to get smoother more linear performance, details changes to wheels, tyres and suspension rates (Becker’s great expertise was in getting cars to handle), stronger brakes with recalibrated ABS. 0-60 now came in 4.5 seconds, 0-100 in 12.4 and the maximum was 146 mph. All relatively minor changes, focussed on improving the driving experience. Arguably, given the relatively small changes made, you could suggest that Becker actually finished the Europa, three years after it should have been.
Here, then is a car that talks constantly to the driver through the steering, which is centred on handling and roadholding, on covering ground quickly and allowing the driver to enjoy that process, to encourage him to do it again, and to let him do it in semi-competitive environment. In other words, a Lotus. Perhaps its closest competitor was the Nissan 350Z/370Z, with the choice being a balance of raw driving experience against some practicality and quality.
The Europa had another competitor – if you accept that many Lotus owners are not looking for an everyday car but for a weekend to track day car, then an Elise or the more powerful closed Exige will also fit. An Elsie 340R (above) with 270bhp will do that very nicely, thanks.
In the final reckoning, the Europa has to be considered a commercial failure. Over a three year run, from late 2006 to early 2010, just 456 were built, of which 48 were the later, better SE variant. Lotus had wanted that sort of number as an annual rate. Of course, 2007-9 were tough times to sell luxury or expensive cars, but even so it has to be marked as a disappointment. It never made it to North America, not least as the engine would not meet emission regulations.
The Elise family, of the Elise itself, the more powerful closed Exige , the Elise 340R, the VX220/Speedster, the Europa, the many variations of the Elise up to the 220 bhp Toyota versions is a complex one, and the Europa is almost like the elder cousin coming back for the birthday party, and finding that the rest of family is on school holidays, while he’s having a weekend off from accountancy training. The Elise never wanted to grow up, and perhaps it shouldn’t have been allowed to.