The Lotus Elite 503

Superb handling, comfort and refinement, but needs more power to suit the price.

When Lotus introduced their new Elite to the Press at Hethel early last summer, some of my initial impressions of the car were not very favourable. I felt its general concept to be right, but at the price, which was then £5,857 for the then most expensive option pack, the 502, the choice of Lotus's 1,973 c.c., four-cylinder, 16 valve engine seemed completely misplaced. A couple of laps of the Hethel circuit confirmed this theory: in the gears this car wouldn't have pulled the skin off a rice pudding. In view of the fact that this particular car was still very much a pre-production example, I made my introduction of the Elite in last June's issue of MOTOR SPORT into a descriptive rather than a critical article, preferring to wait for full road test opportunities before drawing definite conclusions.

It is very pleasing to report that to my surprise the road test Elite, the 503 option pack, which includes air-conditioning, power steering, heated rear screen and Philips stereo cassette/radio/player/recorder, refused to live down to the expectations I had of it. This up-market, four-seater Lotus proved not only pleasant to drive and to be driven in, but quite unexpectedly endearing, for it has such combined qualities of comfort, relative quietness, tractability, restfulness and, above all, quite exceptional standards of handling and roadholding that it has created a new class of practical and easy to drive exotic motor car.

Most responsible for this improvement was the optional, for an extra £46, 4.1:1 final drive ratio which was fitted to the test car in place of the standard 3.7:1 ratio. The optional ratio gives 20.8 m.p.h. per 1,000 p.m. in fifth gear as against 22.9 m.p.h. per 1,000 for the standard ratio. High-speed cruising with the lower ratio remains quiet and restful, while acceleration through and in the gears is much improved, for the torque of the 2-litre engine simply cannot cope with the higher ratio. It is difficult to understand why the 4.1:1 ratio has not been standardised, except that we hear that Lotus engineers are working on the extraction of more low-down torque from the engine so that the higher, and more economical ratio can be utilised efficiently.

This latest Lotus is undoubtedly eyecatching and provoked a tremendous amount of attention during our test, for many extrovert people a prerequisite for car in this price bracket. The test car's glass-reinforced plastic body had a magnificent finish, as good as any we have seen on a GRP car. An injection moulding process was evolved for the production of the body, which is made in top and bottom halves, the two being joined along the waist-line masked by protective rubbing strips. The wedge-shaped looks represent more than sleek, modern styling, for the Elite has one of the lowest drag coefficients (0.3) of any production car. Yet it is almost 4 ft. high and only half an inch short of 6 ft. wide. The secret is in the tiny frontal area: the nose is as low as legally permitted and includes retractable headlamps which operate much more efficiently than Lotus headlamps of old, being raised by springs and lowered by vacuum instead of the other way round. Flashing of them is relatively practical, raising them taking just one second.

Beneath the bumper is a deep spoiler designed for anti-lift and to channel cool air over the front suspension and brakes. Air from the AE-Covrad adhesively bonded aluminium radiator is ducted away through slots in the bonnet top.

The vast tinted windscreen is of Glaverbel Very High Resistance laminated glass, stronger than conventional laminate and, like the new TR7 windscreen, bonded into place by the Solbit hot wire system to make the screen an integral part of the body structure. The fixed side windows are similarly treated - not the door windows, of course, which are operated reasonably speedily by electric motors. Gradually growing shallower from the front, the side-window line swoops up into a ridge at the rear extending over the roof to aid aerodynamics. The side centre pillars hide air extraction vents and Lotus's "Ring of Steel", a complete roll-over hoop which, along with the impact-resistant GRP bodywork and strong, steel side intrusion members in the doors, helps Lotus's claim that this is an exceptionally safe car in the event of an accident.

The thick end of the wedge incorporates an opening tailgate of glass in an aluminium surround, hinged at the top and supported by pneumatic struts which should self-raise the gate when the knob is pulled within the offside rear passenger's armrest area, though possibly because the struts were affected by the cold temperature, that of the test car did not always raise itself. When the gate is opened it reveals a peculiar boot arrangement, for another rear window and bulkhead cut off the fully-carpeted boot from the cockpit. The boot is long from side to side but narrow, the sloping rear window, its delicate heating elements and the threat to mirror vision discourage the piling up of luggage and for a long holiday trip special care would have to be taken to select the right shape of luggage - a problem which Lotus can eradicate by offering a fitted set of five suitcases for £71. The Lucas battery lives beneath the offside of the boot and the wheelbrace doubles up to wind down the under-slung spare-wheel cradle.

The Elite follows previous Lotus practice of having its body mounted upon a steel backbone chassis which carries the entire powertrain and all-independent suspension. The rear suspension has tubular lower links and diagonal radius arms, the upper links are formed by the Hooke-jointed driveshafts, while there are coil spring/damper units and aluminium hub carriers. Inboard rear drum brakes are of 9 in. x 2¼ size. The front suspension is the usual Lotus design, utilising upper wishbonss with single lower links, an anti-roll bar and coil spring/damper units. Outboard front disc brakes are of 10.4 in. diameter and rack and pinion steering is fitted.

Lotus were fortunate (or very clever) in having Jensen to sort out the early teething problems in the Lotus 907 engine. Bigger Dellorto carburetters (38 mm. chokes) give the Elites version of the 907 engine an 11 b.h.p. advantage over that in the Jensen-Healey, Lotus now claiming 155 b.h.p. for their Elite's 95.28 mm. bore x 69.24 mm. stroke, 16-valve, belt-driven twin-overhead camshaft, 45-degree inclined, all-alloy engine. A cable-operated, 8½ in. diameter diaphragm clutch takes the drive from this Hethel-made engine to Lotus's own five-speed gearbox, which has a direct fourth gear and an overdrive fifth ratio.

Access to the front seats is quite easy, though the wide doors, which close with a very satisfactory heavy clonk and are operated by flush-fitting, Marina-type handles, could benefit from opening further. Rather more agility is required to climb into the rear seats and care must be taken not to bang one's head on the fortunately well-padded roll-over bar. Once ensconced in them the rear seats are extremely cosy, being very deeply bucket shaped, with thick armrests and open glove lockers at each side and the comfortably upholstered backbone chassis, incorporating a fixed picnic table and ash-tray, in the centre. There are built-in headrests too, though to the driver these are more a hindrance than a means of comfort, for they seriously obstruct mirror vision to each rear quarter, a situation partly rectified by the paired door mirrors. As passengers are likely to occupy the rear seats for only a small part of the car's life, it would be an idea to make the headrests detachable. Headroom in the rear is adequate for anybody up to about 5ft. 8in., but taller people need to stoop slightly. There is more leg room than appears, because the sitting angle keeps the lower limbs upright. Certainly Lotus are justified in calling the Elite a true four-seater - those who complain of insufficient room should buy themselves a nice second-hand Rolls-Royce for the price.

Exotic styling almost always has pitfalls, to which the Elite is no exception: the nose falls away so sharply that a driver of moderate height sees nothing of the front of the car beyond the top of the too high scuttle. There is nothing to help him judge the width or length, nearside kerbs are hidden by the scuttle, fascia mounted dipping mirror and thick screen pillar and experience and good judgement are required initially to place the Elite in a bend without clipping the kerb or to slot it through narrow gaps without defacing the sides, which bulge out well beyond the misleading gauge made by the width of the screen base. This first impression physical driving problem is bound to lose the Elite many customers, which is a pity, because within a couple of hundred miles I found that this Elite, like all Lotuses, practically becomes an extension of the driver, who by then thinks no more of slotting the car through traffic than walking through a doorway.

I found the front seats, soft, well-padded and upholstered in brushed nylon, like the rear seats, to be extremely comfortable, but taller drivers found that the fixed-height headrests, just at the right level for me, cut across the bases of their necks. Fast cornering in the Elite creates some pretty incredible "g" forces, which overcome the efforts of the front seats to stop driver and passenger rolling about and sliding down into the footwells. 'The central backbone chassis prevents occupants rolling too far and acts as an arm rest. On this is mounted the handbrake, too far back so that one's wrist has to work at a peculiar angle.

The speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure gauge, voltmeter, fuel gauge, temperature gauge and two vertical rows of warning lights (including a seat belt warning, invisible from the passenger seat) are deeply recessed in a black plastic panel, where they don't reflect into the screen at night, but during bright daylight can be used as mirrors by vain drivers. Triumph-type steering column stalks control the single arm wiper (which clears a huge arc of screen very effectively and, since a new rack has been employed, no longer obscures the driver's vision when it is parked), the two, twin jet screen washers, headlamp dipping and flashing, horn and direction indicators. Other switches and the clock are grouped in the recessed walnut central fascia console, which is illuminated by a single tiny spotlamp in the roll-bar, aircraft style: rocker switch. for electric windows, heated rear screen, rear screen washer-wiper, hazard warning and knobs for the lights (pulling out this switch lifts the headlights, overridden by the headlamp flasher), panel light, cigar lighter and three-speed heater fan.The air conditioning/heater are both controlled by the same two quadrant levers and there are two air vents in this console and one at each end of the fascia. The splendid Philips combined radio/cassette stereo player/mono recorder, standard equipment in the 502 and 503, also shares the centre console, while its microphone hangs to the left of the real leather-rimmed steering wheel. There is a roomy walnut-faced, lockable clubby hole to the left of the fascia, arm-rests are built into the deeply padded doors and on the whole the Elite's interior, designed by Giugiario of Ital Design, is beautifully executed.

There is no doubt that this new Elite, just like the previous bearer of the model name in its day, is one of the finest handling production cars in the world, better than a Porsche and almost on a par with the Dino. What a tragedy that Lotus did not give it more power to exploit those magnificent virtues. Screamed up through the beautifully spaced five gears, this 22-cwt. Grand Tourer will accelerate to 65 m.p.h. in under 8sec (just reached in second gear) and to 100 m.p.h. in Iess than 25 sec. Commendable acceleration indeed, but misrepresenting the Elite's characteristics in the gears, for this 2- litre engine simply does not have sufficient torque to give the effortless performance one expects from a £6-7000 motor car. Even with the test car's lower final drive, fifth-gear acceleration was poor until 80 m.p.h. was reached; as the most used motorway overtaking band is probably 60 to 80 m.p.h., a change down to fourth is usually required. A Cortina 2-litre was able to pull away from the Elite up a motorway gradient when we both accelerated from 65 m.p.h., even though I changed down to fourth. The air-conditioning pump absorbs a most noticeable amount of power when switched on.

Ironically, this 16-valve engine shows tremendous tractability in built-up area, when, so long as there is no hill-climbing to be done, it will trickle along quite happily at 25 to 30 m.p.h. in fifth gear. The test car's engine started more easily from cold if the choke was left alone and the Dellortos primed with four or five pumps of the throttle. Once started it ran cleanly immediately. A particularly smooth and quiet engine compared with the earlier ones I have driven behind the test engine became slightly harsh near to the 7,000 red line, at which speed rev-limiter should have, but didn't, come into operation.

At least Lotus have made the need for frequent gear-changing into a pleasure rather than a punishment. Apart from a rubbery reverse gear engagement I can say categorically that the test car had the best five-speed gearchange I have ever used, to Escort 4-speed standard: this Lotus box has no real spring bias, though the leather-knobbed lever is self-centring in the 3rd-4th plane and needed just a gentle hand to send it skittling through the 1st to 4th H-pattern, with a little more conscious effort to push it into, and pull it out of, the 5th gear dog's leg to the right.

Except when maximum revs are being used, the four-cylinder engine remains extraordinarily unobtrusive, even approaching its 125 m.p.h. maximum speed and the whole car has a most unexpected air of refinement engendered by its comfort and surroundings and a general low noise level - considerably quieter than the early cars off the line. There is minimum tyre and suspension noise and what little wind noise there is seems to be caused by the necessary door mirrors. In spite of the performance criticism, motorway travel particularly is most relaxing, aided by impeccable stability.

But the real virtue of this expensive Lotus is its handling and road-holding. First of all the steering, however, power-assisted on the test car. Only when a great deal of lock is applied at low speeds does the assistance make itself obvious; within about a turn of the straight ahead position the steering feels almost like an Elan. Feel is excellent, therefore, but one drawback is the minimal amount of castor return - the wheel has to be straightened consciously. At 3.5 turns Iock to lock it is too low geared: the manual steering is geared to 3.1 turns.

Weight distribution must be excellent, for the car is balanced beautifully. Under conditions of docile driving it is almost neutral, but at speed in fast corners there is marked understeer - but not of the type that is likely to put you through the hedge, for the fat 205/60 VR 14 in. radial Dunlop Super Sport tyres, specially designed for this car and mounted on the 7 in. rims of the very attractive GKN alloy wheels, cling on interminably and full control remains. If there is a danger of running out of road, lifting the throttle momentarily eases round the tail. In spite of its size, the Elite can be thrown around with the verve of a Europa, even through country lanes: if an unexpected sharp bend appears it can be thrown into it in an oversteer condition and controlled with opposite lock and throttle, though the return to the straight ahead can be ragged, largely because of the steering's poor self-centring. There is comparatively little roll though the false horizon of the scuttle top moves up to obstruct vision on left-hand bends.

For a truly sporting car the ride is excellent, following Chapman's practice of soft springing allied to well-controlled damping. Stopping power of the brakes is tremendous, though the pedal on the test car was spongey. There is no fade, but hard driving is rewarded with some roughness from the front discs.

Lotus sold the car originally on the premise of exceptional economy. Even with the 4.1 differential fitted, legal limit motorway cruising should be good for a consumption in the upper 20s, but much town work reduced the test car's consumption to 23 m.p.g., while one tankful, which included some fast driving on our test track, recorded only 20 m.p.g.

Even that is sheer frugality compared with other Grand Tourers. The almost-15-gallon tank can be filled either side from a filler in each rear quarter panel and unless both fillers are open, fast filling can result in blow-back.

Once you've got the hang of it, the Elite is tremendous fun - and very easy - to drive. These virtues along with the comfort and refinement overcame my disappointment with the lack of power in the gears and I would love to have an Elite in my garage. But not if I was paying for it myself, for there is simply insufficient machinery in the package to justify its price, which is at least £1,500 more than it ought to be. Improvements over the months have made the Elite into an exceptionally good car, but a 2½- to 3-litre V8 engine would be more in keeping with the price of £6,674 for the 503. The 502, a 503 without power steering, is £6,496, while the basic 501, without air-conditioning and so on, is £5,749. Alternatively, why not use the ubiquitous and torquey Ford V6 3-litre and reduce the price considerably? It would have helped the dealers immensely, for sales are extremely slow, which is hardly surprising when this 2-litre 503 costs £2,000 more than an XJ6 and less than £100 less than a Porsche 911. At a price commensurate with its capacity, Lotus could have had a winner. - C.R.