When Lotus claimed its second generation, front wheel drive Elan would be fun to drive. Andrew Frankel was a believer until, that is, he drove it
I thing enough time has passed, or at least I hope it has. The last time I wrote about the front-wheel drive Lotus Elan in less than glowing terms (many years ago and in a different publication), I failed entirely to spark the lively debate I’d hoped this controversial car would produce. All I managed to do was upset a remarkably large number of people who, I have to presume, could not believe that such unkindness could be meted out to the then star vehicle of the plucky Norfolk marque.
Now, however, that this curious car has been exhumed once more and is, as we speak, back on sale sporting Kia badges, a Kia engine and, I’m led to understand, dynamics that do further damage to the once great Elan name, I don’t really think there’s a great deal more to be lost.
Lotus was asking a lot of its beloved public when it produced the Elan. It asked us to accept that a Lotus could be powered by an effective but nonetheless and massed-produced Japanese engine, and it asked us, further, to believe that front-wheel drive really was no bar at all to driving enjoyment. I, like many hundreds of others who believed Lotus could walk on water, bought the hype and wrote the cheque for the deposit.
I, unlike the many hundreds, was lucky enough to drive an Elan almost as soon as the first one rolled off the production line and if I tell you my immediate action thereafter was to beg back my deposit cheque, you’ll twig that all did not go according to plan. Far from walking on the waters of my expectations, it splashed briefly, then sank.
It wasn’t because the Elan I drove was a bad car; it just wasn’t a Lotus. A Lotus is a thing of exquisite balance, of infinitely delicate handling; a car that will reveal its wonders to only the most sensitive, appreciative driver; yet this Elan had no balance, no delicacy and would strip naked on your first trip around the block.
The signs, as such things inevitably are when viewed through the spectacles of hindsight, were all there to be seen. The most worrying was Lotus’s famous claim that 90 per cent of drivers could drive it safely to within 90 per cent of its abilities, for 90 per cent of the time. This, it was figured, would give the Elan a breadth of appeal no previous Lotus could have ever imagined.
And so it did. Elans were bought more by City executives than competition licence holders. The poseurs simply loved the idea of a daring British badge complete with the comfort of Japanese engineering.
The sad thing was that the Elan was a good idea; I’m not one who believes that a car’s charm and character is inversely proportional to the number of journeys it manages to complete. I once owned an Esprit which was so unreliable I greeted every successfully completed trip with childish euphoria and the thought of a car using the dynamic values of a Lotus with the tedious reliability of an Isuzu made considerable sense.
Only it didn’t happen like that The Elan was not reliable in the same way that the slower but gallingly more fun to drive and bomb-proof Mazda MX-5 was reliable. Hoods leaked, and warranty claims mounted, particularly in North America and and the Elan was hastily withdrawn from sale. It was a terrible blow to a great name.
I don’t think, then, the fact that it wasn’t great fun to drive actually had much to do with its downfall. I, on the other hand, could have forgiven Lotus a few niggling faults and even actively expected them too. What really got to me was that it handled like a hatchback without a roof, and that I could not forgive.
The engine was the least of its problems. It might have carried a strange name on the cam-cover but at least Lotus and Isuzu had a history (Lotus fettled the chassis oldie always underrated Giugiaro-styled Isuzu Piazza) and, in turbocharged form at least, its 1.8-litres yielded a torrent of smooth power, enough, said Autocar, to propel the Elan to 60mph in 6.5sec, despite the limitations of front-wheel drive, and on to a creditable 136mph. The problem was the chassis.
First, it had a stupendous amount of grip, enough to make the generous power output feel wholly inadequate. Anyone looking for the traditional Lotus joys of adjusting the car’s attitude to the road with the throttle while close to the limit, needed to drive at colossal velocity before they could discover that it wouldn’t do it anyway. The Elan was set up to understeer a little and, if pushed further, understeer a lot more.
I spent any number of hours with them on race circuits and test tracks trying to get one to misbehave. To this day I have met only one person who has managed to spin one, and even he has no idea how he managed it. In its handling, the Elan was probably the most idiot-proof sportscar ever to be offered to the general public and, worthy though this made it, it also made it dull, duller than anything carrying that badge should have been allowed to be.
When Elan production ceased in 1992, everyone expected that to be it for the front-wheel drive sportscar, but it reappeared, albeit briefly, as the Elan S2 in 1994. With a little less power but sharper steering and revised suspension, it came much closer to resolving the inherent limitations of its front-drive chassis, and I well remember enjoying one for a day at Goodwood in a way I had never enjoyed with its overrated predecessor. Only 500 were built and they all sold on the spot.
Lotus, at least, learned the lesson of creating a car which wandered so far from the philosophy upon which the company built its reputation. When it decided once more to build a small, affordable sportscar, the result was light, spartan and rear-wheel drive, like all the marque’s finest cars. They called it the Elise, it handled better than any other car on sale and was one of the finest sportscars in the history of the breed.
Verdict: Rotten Apple