Road Test - Lotus Elan SE

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A Successful Gamble

Lotus cars and high risks have always been synonymous. The December 1982 death of Colin Chapman and the 1986 acquisition of Lotus Cars by General Motors has created a different company, but one that is still prepared to risk its ultimate survival on a 35 million gamble. The innovative front-drive Lotus Elan thoroughly deserves the emotive name of the most successful Lotus production car, for it successfully challenges many traditional sports car engineering assumptions in a manner that surely would have earned the approval of founder Colin Chapman.

The turbocharged variant of the 1989 Elan debutant is coded SE and now costs £21,620 rather than the publicised launch cost of under £20,000. A normally aspirated Elan, lacking the standard powersteering of the test SE, now retails at £19,200. The 27 Lotus dealers in Britain have been inundated with orders; the waiting list stands at “about two years” in the words of Lotus sales.

Is it worth waiting for, probably leaving more than £500 as a deposit at one of the dealers for 24 months?

We have now driven four examples of the new Elan, one performing faultlessly throughout full test procedure. The 135 mph top speed and an ability to set unmatched cross country journey times (aided by 0-60 mph acceleration in 6.5 seconds) are wrapped in a compact package that demanded cheaper unleaded fuel at the modest rate of 26.6 mpg.

TECHNICAL ANALYSIS

Lotus personnel strongly deny that their GM parent forced them to pick front-drive components centred on GM-owned Isuzu 1.6-litre engine and gearbox, but it is undeniable that much of the development work utilised previous Lotus shareholder Toyota’s 16-valve powertrain. To the point where that company’s hatchback saloon provided a development home for the patented Lotus “compliance raft” front suspension.

The earliest Elan front-drive prototypes established the need to allow wheel fore and aft compliance without lowering Lotus standards of handling. Lotus engineers Roger Becker, John Miles (former Grand Prix team-mate to Jochen Rindt) and Jerry Booen persisted with a layout that is now in heat-treated alloy. It provides a separate input point for front suspension loads that allowed consistent geometry; good resistance to the effects of front-drive torque steer and very stiff wishbone bushes to control wheel movement under heavy braking or acceleration forces. In the writer’s opinion it is the most effective solution to the ills of powerful front-drive machinery, making the Elan a credible sporting entity.

The company conscientiously ensured that rear suspension was more than the usual hot hatchback recipe of a dead axle earning its keep by merely keeping the back wheels upright. One major consideration was providing a pitch-resistant ride on a wheelbase of 88.6inches (similar to a Metro), so both front anti-dive (10 per cent) and “a small degree” of rear anti-lift were incorporated.

As at the front, a coaxial spring is wrapped around a twin-tube telescopic damper, one that is mounted at its upper end on the pressed steel chassis. A wide based lower wishbone is provided, along with upper links and diagonal linkages to control carefully back wheel movements.

Is this all too much trouble without rear drive? A Lotus engineer’s eyes lit up when he said, “But it is the best system for wheel control. Should we ever power the rear wheels as well as the front, it would be excellent in that application as well.”

A written description of the mixed glassfibre body and backbone chassis can tempt one to think this is a traditional reincarnation of the 1962 Elan formula, but the execution is far more complex, vastly stronger and looks daunting to manufacture. To allow design freedoms that are not available with the traditional Lotus “bath tub” mouldings, the Elan utilises multiple smaller panels that are bonded or riveted (both in the case of the floor moulding) to the steel chassis, or its outrigger extensions.

The Lotus VARI process continues to mould glassfibres, but Ashland Chemicals in the USA supplied “a unique material” to assist shrink resistant resin preparations. Quality is visibly better than in any Lotus outside the current Esprit. Lotus production tooling has been substantially replaced to suit higher production rates, anticipated at 3000 a year but running around 1750 per annum during autumn 1990. Lotus patented Fibrefoam reinforcement allows strategic strengthening and sharper panel edging than before.

Lotus are proud of the reduction in manufacturing time over the Esprit, 178 hours for Elan versus 550 for the mid-engined machine, but the Esprit ensured the survival of Lotus cars whilst the front engine reardrive Elite/Eclat/Excel series withered.

I must confess to misgivings when I saw that Lotus were to use an Isuzu motor, rather than a Toyota unit, as obsolete experience made me feel lsuzu were good only at rough and ready power supplies. In fact, Lotus had been extremely smart and spotted the potential of a new “squarish” (80 x 79mm) lsuzu 4XE1-MT unit which was further tailored to squeeze under the rakish Peter Stevens bonnet line. Its abbreviated iron block is topped by an aluminium head that features most of the items guaranteed to quicken the hearts of 1990 marketing men: four valves per cylinder, belt-driven DOHC and electronic management of ignition (Delco) and injection (Rochester).

Few customers presently dispense with the 30 bhp bonus that comes via IHI turbocharger and intercooling, but we are told by one of the largest Lotus dealers that the 130 bhp normally aspirated version is “a good drive, and some customers may like it better without the power-steering of the turbo.”

CABIN

Lotus like to make entry into an Elan after dark something of a challenge. You have three keys in the old kit car manner: the smallest for door/boot and the others for ignition glove box. Not one key boasted the now widespread torch pencil beam light, and the Lotus locks proved progressively more obstructive throughout the week, although the central activation was faultless.

The driving mood within the cockpit is ruled by whether you have the hood up or down. We had enjoyed many sunny summer miles with that simple and unlined hood folded within its glassfibre “flip top” rear deck lid, but for our third Elan experience the initial days were spent with the hood up and plenty of soggy motorway miles to complete. Memories of the stimulating summer miles fade immediately as you catch the strong whiff of glassfibre that says “new Lotus” followed by the discovery of a distinctly damp storage area aft of the seats.

Initially screen misting occurred, but we found that directing (with a soft hiss of obedience from beneath the dash) air flow through the cabin, rather than just at the screen demist position, cleared all areas of and folding perspex with alacrity. Thereafter, driving the hooded Elan was a pleasure only spoiled by the usual lack of three-quarter and direct rear vision. Noise levels to 90 mph were commendably low, and it was only at the test track, travelling beyond 120 sustained mph, that the disturbed air gushed into noisy prominence.

Primary controls are logically arranged, although the battery of red readings from seven dials is overpowering. However we found the test seating a vast improvement in appearance over the striped leather items of earlier demonstrators, toning a modest plaid in greens and blues to exterior plastics that deserve “tried hard, but could do better,” reports. There is also an enormous ridged plastic plain that fills the void between fascia and the farthest extremities of the raked screen. Matt black moulding that could be more attractive.

We did have an isolated problem with backache in the cloth seat equipped Elan, and a Lotus engineer suggested that this may have been due to the difference in backrest contour between leather and cloth when under correct trim tension. The seating admirably compromises accessibility in a low cabin with comfort and a firm grasp of the occupants. Most boastful instruments was the 170 mph speedometer, but the Elan did display a best reading of 150 mph at 7000 rpm when actually averaging 135 mph. At lower speeds it became commendably close to the truth, reading 70 mph when the car was actually travelling at 67 mph. We depended on the rev counter to allow 7000 of the 7200 rpm advised as safe in the handbook and noted that boost gauge displayed 0.5 bar of the publicised 0.65 bar in three of “our” Elans.

The driving position always seemed to suit shorter (under 5 ft 9 in) inhabitants, despite a lack of adjustment for column or seat height. No formal footrest is supplied, but there is plenty of space around the clutch for an idle left foot. The same cannot be said of the right hand foot controls, which are bunched together in a manner that caught out even-size sevens at play on throttle and brake. It was not a mistake to make more than once. . . .

ACTION

“It’s just like driving a normal hatchback,” said one surprised newcomer, and therein lies the key to the character of a new Elan generation. For it is not without flaws for the purist in pursuit of memorable miles.

Whatever the weather, that intercooled 16-valve unit started fast, displayed no temperament and went about its business just like any member of the hot hatchback generation. Now Lotus had just such ex-Peugeot/Golf GTI drivers in mind during development, but we are not convinced that the Isuzu Lotus motor does not carry the everyday theme a tad too far, its exhaust note veering toward a drone, even when happily exploring 7000 rpm.

The five-speed transmission is also a reminder of the hatchback world. Not the best, but lightly cooperative and part of a powertrain that is three decades away from the Sixties Elan “doughnut wind-up” hiccups that entertained so many in urban traffic. Yet the gearbox is flawed, not by its own mechanism, but by the coincidence of a spring-loaded gate with a bias in the third-fourth plane, plus a tall transmission tunnel cubby box, all of which conspire to prevent clean fifth to fourth downchanges.

The measured performance was all that we had hoped for, particularly in damp conditions. Standing starts are a real trial for a powerful front-drive car under such circumstances. Particularly when adding the vagaries of turbocharger boost inevitably arriving in full measure, just as the front wheels are feeling the effect of weight transfer, and consequently reduced adhesion.

Unless we were too enthusiastic with the crankshaft rpm, the Elan SE took off cleanly. The provision of comfortably more than 60 mph in second gear immediately provided the six and half second times recorded in our data panel. As for the power delivery itself (with boost from little over 2000 rpm), there is a consistent stream of acceleration. Our 0-100 mph time of less than 20 seconds emphasised this point, for conditions were most difficult at this stage. Yet the Michelin shod Elan moved away with none of the wheel scrabbling drama that would have been present in any other front-drive design of 160 bhp and low kerb weight.

There are limits to the miracles that Lotus engineers have wrought in calming the undesirable elements in powerful frontdrive, but they are so well masked that it takes an outright performance session, or a provocative foot on less than perfect surfaces, to demonstrate wheelspin and the gentlest power deviation (torque steer) from course under duress.

Generally, you show the Elan a corner, it swoops around it with unmatched poise, and that is the end of the matter. Some dislike this absence of “Macho man” wheel wrestling, I admire its efficiency and gain pleasure from absorbent manner in which the Elan SE digests distance and rougher roads at improbable averages. It also gently massages driver ego by calmly carrying out even the crassest commands with a fluid grace that I have not experienced in any other road car. Elan security over varying surfaces even takes you into a handling land where only 4×4 normally provides such equable stability over so many diverse road conditions.

If we had to quarrel with any aspect of Elan handling character, it would be with the steering. The hissing effects from the powersteering on the extremities of lock are an unprofessional touch at £21,000+ and the miracle wrought in the transformation of front-drive handling quirks has not included providing any steering joy. The Elan goes where it is pointed, swiftly and accurately, but the steering communicates absolute conditions such as grip/no grip, rather than “I’m having fun, do you want to join in?”

A quartet of disc brakes is a match for the explosive acceleration; the pedal is weighted sensibly to avoid premature locking in the wet and retardation is excellent. This aspect of Elan motoring would receive a perfect score if it were complimented by the electronic ABS availability that has now materialised across the Esprit range.

CONCLUSION

There was not universal admiration from those who rode or drove the new Elan, one detractor describing it as “That. . . . Airfix Kit!” We think of the new Elan as that automotive rarity; a car without a true rival. The Elan opposition offers no equivalent recipe for efficient speed in a handy package, and we would venture that none could make it work as well as Lotus. Stepping outside the Elan front-drive format and discussing new £21,000 sports cars in general, we look forward to assessing the new TVR Griffith V8 for that promises 3.9 litres of V8 entertainment.

As in 1962 the Elan remains an original high performer that will be valued more for its appearance and enjoyable efficiency, rather than the technical triumph of its civilised front-drive formula. JW

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