Herb Harris, one of the Car of the Year participants, steered the Lotus Elise into the parking lot at the Napa Valley Reserve, killed the engine, and took a deep breath, for the hard part was next. The 6-foot-4 Harris, who had somehow managed to fold his frame into the car’s claustrophobic cockpit, placed his left arm on the sill of the 1,975-pound Elise, raised himself out of the seat, and then swung his legs out of the vehicle and onto the pavement. As his feet touched the ground, a group of onlookers broke into cheers.
The $40,000, two-seat Elise is many things—go-cart, racetrack machine, torture chamber—but above all, it is a snug-fitting outfit that its pilot dons rather than drives. “I’m still wearing it,” Bruce A. Erickson, another participant, joked. “I brought it to dinner with me. I still can’t get out of it.” But why would anyone want to? The high-revving Elise, painted a shocking shade of orange that was brighter than the leaves of the valley’s autumn vineyards, turned the sweeping curves of Silverado Trail and the straightaway stretch of Larkmead Lane into a raucous roller-coaster ride.
Lotus has forgone frills such as power seats, a navigation system, and his and her heating zones. Instead, the car offers a stripped-down, bare-bones, pure driving experience. Indeed, it is the lack of luxury appointments that lightens the Elise and makes its 190 hp engine seem far more powerful, unburdened by the weight of accessories that an enthusiast neither needs nor wants any part of when careening around curves.
On the road, the Elise, with its garish paint job and buglike front end, draws its share of snickers, but the last laugh is reserved for its driver. Once you have contorted yourself into the seat—a stretching warm-up is recommended before entry—you feel as though you are sitting on the road instead of in a vehicle. That sensation only heightens when the car is in motion, as every pothole looms large, and the double yellows appear to be a hand width away.
For those who require luxury, the Elise is the last car that should be considered. You feel every jolt, and the car clanks and rattles with a ferocity that would shatter the eardrums of a Lexus loyalist. And you cannot help but chuckle at the Stone Age rubber pumps—reminiscent of those found on old blood-pressure pumps—that are attached to each seat. With a few squeezes, you can inflate the seats for additional firmness. For Lotus lovers, however, quirks equal character, and the Elise has plenty of both.
Engine 1.8-liter, inline-4
Power 190 hp at 7,800 rpm
Torque 138 ft lbs at 6,800 rpm
Zero-to-60 time 4.8 seconds
Top speed 150 mph
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 90.5 inches
Curb weight 1,975 pounds
Base price $40,000