Externally the Croft is identical to the European car with the exception of modified lights and the twin rear exhaust pipes that emerge centrally from a modified diffuser. It remains a fine-looking car. While the original had cutesy retro appeal, the latest version has a more grown-up, contemporary feel. It's not difficult to imagine it seducing the occupants of Ocean Drive, Miami Beach.
Our test drive begins on the quiet country lanes that surround the Lotus factory. It's on these roads that every car since the original Lotus Six of 1953 has been analyzed and refined. The scene is quintessentially English, but Adams is quick to point out that the car has also been tested in Phoenix and L.A. to ensure that it's suited to U.S. conditions. The springs and dampers are different to those fitted to European models, but Lotus has worked hard to maintain the "feel" of the Elise.
One of the marvels of the original was the ride quality. Its minor bump absorption and compliance was nothing short of extraordinary for such a focused car, but the Croft takes this to a new extreme. This car's ride is much quieter than the European models, which adds to driver confidence. It deals with an undulating road surface quite brilliantly, which bodes well for America's less than perfect blacktop. The steering, which is lightweight at the straight ahead, still jiggles a little, but it's no longer necessary to make constant, corrective inputs.
My preconceptions about the engine are also being challenged. When fitted to the Celica, this engine feels disappointingly breathless and needs to be worked hard to deliver its best. The Croft is 419 lb heavier than a stripped-out, base Elise, but with a curb weight of 1,984 lb, it still weighs 25% less than the Celica. With less mass to haul around, the engine's torque deficiencies cease to be of major concern, and what you notice most is the welcome improvement in refinement when compared to the Rover-engined car. The six-speed gearbox also swaps ratios with a more satisfying, mechanical clunk.
I return to the factory to be presented with an empty test track and a permit to play. The prototype was on the standard suspension, but it would be ridiculous to describe it as too soft for circuit use. The Series II Elise is easier to drive hard than the original-which boasted hyperactive lift-off oversteer-but it still demands to be driven well. The correct gear ratio and considered inputs are crucial if correct progress is to be made.
Its natural balance is neutral and power oversteer is almost impossible to achieve in the dry, but its stance can be adjusted on the throttle, and the skilled can tempt an Elise into a glorious four-wheel drift. Such tasks are made easier by the wonderful linearity of response that's a feature of every great Lotus. The brakes are equally terrific. The ABS has been tuned to engage only in extremis, and its operation is much softer than that of a standard car. It's fair to say that the system is an aid to enthusiastic driving rather than a necessary evil that detracts from the pedal feel, which is some achievement.
The test track also draws the best out of the engine. The gear ratios have been well chosen so that it's possible to keep the motor spinning on the higher cam between 6000 and the 8200-rpm redline. At these speeds, the engine's four-cylinder thrum takes on a more strident, engaging beat, which suits the car's character. It also produces performance that makes the European Elise feel pedestrian.
Lotus claims 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 sec. for the Federal car, compared with 5.6 sec. for the standard 118-bhp Elise and 5.1 sec. for the 156-bhp 111S. By the time 100 mph arrives after 12.6 sec., the Federal car is well ahead of the 111S, which takes 2 sec. longer to achieve the ton. Importantly, the U.S. car also feels much faster, which has much to do with the improved soundtrack, the slick gearchange and the high-revving nature of this engine. Lotus's biggest problem may be convincing European and Japanese buyers that they still want to buy a car equipped with a Rover powerplant.
Convincing U.S. buyers to part with $40,000 for an Elise should prove to be less of a problem, at least in the short term. Johnson expects the Elise market to be similar to the MINI's. In other words, it's likely to be chosen by both the ultra-wealthy and by those who have scrimped and saved to buy the base model. The latter are likely to be enthusiastic diehards who chose the Lotus as an only car. The U.S. version is massively more refined than the Series I and the quality is good, but the boot is still small, the roof is fiddly, and gaining access to the cabin with the hood up still requires considerable manual dexterity. Living with one on a daily basis will require commitment, and Johnson figures, "Most people will buy the Elise as a third car."
The CEO has 1,200 orders in the bank, and the first cars arrive this May. "The dealers will get a car each, and I want them to hold on to them for at least 90 days so people can have a chance to have a look. Some of our customers have had cars on order for 5 years," he continued. The big test for Johnson and Lotus will be when the hardcore Lotus aficionados have had their tastebuds satiated. Will the brand then be able to attract enough customers out of their Porsche Boxsters and BMW Z4s and into the charismatic Brit?
Only time will tell for certain, but there's no doubt that the Elise is a different and convincing proposition. There's a puority about its driving experience that even the seminal Porsche cannot match, and this, coupled with its style, exclusivity and the enduring kudos of the Lotus badge, should ensure its long-term appeal. The Federal Elise has been a long time coming, but it's been worth the wait. This is a genuine Lotus and a fabulous sports car.