It would be inaccurate to describe life at Lotus as being a rollercoaster ride. The Lotus business cycle doesn't leave room for gradients; everything is just a peak or a trough. Last time I visited the HQ at Hethel in Norfolk, I was banned from talking to the production staff because 15% of them were about to lose their jobs. Today, scarcely 6 months later, the place is buzzing again as Lotus prepares to introduce the Elise into the U.S. market.
The importance of the Federal Elise project, codename "Croft," shouldn't be underestimated. The Esprit will be dead by the end of the year, so the new model is crucial to Lotus maintaining a U.S. presence and its 38 dealers. The volume implications are also crucial to its long-term survival.
At present, Lotus builds around 2,200 of its own cars each year, of which 1,300 are sold in the UK. The company is confident of selling 2,200 Federal Elises in the first year, which would double annual production. Solid sales of its home-grown products should also help diminish the company's reliance on consultancy work, which is notoriously reactive to the prevailing economic conditions. Everyone at Hethel is aware that the company must remain viable-parent company Proton will not prop it up ad infinitum.
I'm led through reception and into a conference room, where I'm introduced to Nick Adams, the vehicle development manager, and Malcolm Powell, Lotus' chief engineer for manufacturing projects. This pairing has been responsible for federalizing the Elise concept and preparing it for the U.S. market. To some extent, at least, the success or failure of the project rests on their shoulders.
Blame these two-Nick Adams and Malcolm Powell-if the new Federal Elise doesn't suit you.
"The Elise was never conceived as a U.S. car," explained Adams, "so we had to establish new objectives. These were to enhance the performance, while adding safety and comfort." The most obvious problem facing the engineering team was the choice of engine. The Rover K-series used in the existing Elise is belt driven and would therefore be outlawed under 2006 U.S. emissions legislation. It's also not sold in any capacity in the U.S., so parts and expertise would be difficult to source. Clearly, an alternative had to be found.
After the death of Lotus founder and lifeblood Colin Chapman, Toyota bought a 20% stake in Lotus. The shares were sold in 1986 but a good relationship was retained, and the strength of Toyota in the U.S. made it an obvious source for an alternative powerplant. The Lotus team focused its attention on the 1795cc VVTL-i engine used in the flagship Celica coup and the European Corolla. Developing 189 bhp at 7800 rpm and 133 lb-ft of torque at 6800 rpm, it promised to complement the Elise's track-inspired character. As a bonus, this engine also comes with Toyota's excellent C64 six-speed gearbox, whereas the K-series car makes do with a notchy five-speeder.
Powell explained the benefits: "Compared with the 118-bhp K-series car, the Toyota engine provides a 40% increase in power with a weight increase of just 14%." This differential is doubly important given that the Croft must also carry hefty safety and luxury equipment, which has not traditionally been part of the Elise armory. Twin airbags are a Federal requirement and so is ABS, neither of which have featured on an Elise before. In addition, all U.S. cars will be specified with electric windows, an alarm, central locking, air conditioning and part leather trim as standard. A twin oil cooler system has also been introduced to cope with the hotter U.S. climate.
To accommodate the changes, the fascia styling has been revised, and the structure is now injection molded to improve quality. Air vents and a centralized stereo, not to mention electric window switches, are a far cry from the simplicity of the standard Elise, and I expressed my concern that the car's character has been diluted. "The original Elise was designed as a stripped-out track-day car," explained Adams, "but the high-spec versions sold the most. The Federal car is a step forward from the European car. It's not woolly or detuned, and we haven't changed its character." He claimed, for example, that the electric windows actually weigh less than the manual alternative.
U.S. customers will also be able to tune their cars to taste. The base model will cost around $40,000, but Arnie Johnson, the CEO of Lotus Cars USA, reckons that the majority of customers will opt for the $1,000 Touring pack. This comprises full leather, carpet, an insulated soft-top and additional sound-deadening material. A clip-on hardtop is also on offer for $1,500. At the other end of the spectrum is the Sports pack. This features forged alloys fitted with track-biased Yokohama A048 tires and sports suspension. The latter reduces the gyroscopic loading and allows track-day enthusiasts to alter the spring height for circuit use.
So much for the theory-few things in life are more frustrating than sitting in a conference center at Hethel while the company's products await outside. I had been promised an exclusive drive in a Federal prototype, and word reached us that the car was ready. The test car was mechanically complete, except that it was running on European-spec Bridgestone Potenzas rather than the bespoke Yoko AD07s that are currently being developed for the U.S. market. The interior, though, was a hybrid of European and U.S. parts and bore the scars that characterize any hard-working, hand-built prototype.