Lotus Elise and Exige buying guide

9 Aug 2014 | Author: | Comments Off on Lotus Elise and Exige buying guide
Lotus Elise

It’ll knock your socks off to drive – but what’s the Lotus baby like to own?


The Elise might just be the car that offers more fun per pound than any other ever built. ‘Just add lightness,’ was Colin Chapman’s famous maxim, and that’s exactly what Lotus did with the Elise. Quite possibly the best-handling car ever made, the Elise redefines the term agility and also offers surprising economy. During four years of production, there was a bewildering array of Series 1 Elises all of which are great to drive and are just as capable on a track around town.

Unless you’ve piloted a highly-focused driver’s car before, you’re guaranteed 
to have your socks blown off by the experience that the Elise offers. Thanks 
to its mid-mounted engine, the car is beautifully balanced, with its light steering verging on the telepathic. While most modern sportscars tend to have controls that are overdamped, the Elise 
is a tactile delight that connects the driver directly to the road.

There are several keys to the Elise’s astonishing abilities, but the most important one is the low weight. The 
core of the car is a chassis that consists of several aluminium extrusions, bonded and riveted together. The result of all this technology is a frame that weighs all of 70kg and the whole vehicle is little more than 700kg as a result.

That’s around 
35 per cent less than an MGF, a car with which the Elise shares the 1.8-litre 
K-series engine.

The whole point of this Lotus is the driving experience that it offers try carrying people or luggage in the car and it will fall at the first hurdle. But there 
is only so much you can say about the driving experience, and no words will ever be a substitute for getting behind the wheel. That’s why you need to try one out before attempting to establish whether the car is for you or not.

There’s a downside to the raw excitement that the Elise offers though, and that’s a lack of comfort on long journeys. Compared with a Seven it’s a revelation, but unless your previous toy was a pre-war car you’re going to find this model noisy and pretty uncompromising.

Early Elises begin at £7500, yet don’t assume that because this is the start point, any car priced at this level will be a money pit. This will buy you a perfectly good Elise, but it won’t have had much in the way of upgrades. This might be 
a good thing; unmolested cars are the ones that have probably led the easiest lives, as some of the more heavily upgraded examples will have seen masses of track action.

Your best bet is to find £9000-£10,000 for a really nice, relatively low-mileage car, built towards the end of production. However, if you want something truly special you can pay up to £13,000 for one of the last models made, with a low mileage at this money you can also buy an early Series 2 car, which is arguably the way to go.

If you’d prefer an Exige, you’ll have 
to dig pretty deep as just 500 examples of the S1 were made and they’ve held their value very well. It’s easy to spend £20,000 on one; indeed you’ll be doing well to pick up a decent low-mileage example for any less. And remember, mileage is important with these because of that highly-stressed engine which often doesn’t last long.

It’s the same with the 340R, with just 340 examples built: values are the same and so is the caveat about engine life.

Cars that have had official Lotus Motorsport parts fitted are usually worth more than completely standard examples. However, an Elise decked 
out with parts produced by unknown aftermarket suppliers will normally be worth less than a standard car because the quality is so variable.


The K-series engine is famous for its ability to overheat, partly because of its design and partly because of the small coolant capacity. However, in the Elise it’s less prone to giving problems, but you still need to make sure there are no signs of it previously having overheated, so check for that tell-tale mayonnaise-like substance on the underside of the oil-filler cap.

Also take a look at the level of the coolant, because Elise radiators can 
be rather fragile. That’s why even if the liquid is up to the mark, you still need 
to check for signs of coolant at the base of the radiator.

Standard Elise powerplants are pretty reliable, but those fitted to the more high-performance derivatives can be worn out within 50,000 miles if the car has been driven really hard. The models affected are those such as the 190 VHPD, 340R and Exige, so you should look for signs of oil being burned 
(blue smoke from the exhaust under acceleration) suggesting that the piston rings and cylinder bores have worn.


The transmission is strong, and thanks to the car’s low weight there’s no reason for a high-mileage car to be suffering significant problems if it’s been driven with any skill. Differentials will whine if the Elise has been subjected to too many emergency starts, while gear selection will be tricky if the synchromesh has worn. However, don’t confuse the latter with a badly-adjusted gear linkage; if you struggle to select ratios even when you take things slowly, it’ll be because the linkages are all out of kilter.

Elise clutches can also take a beating, especially if there has been too much full-bore acceleration. Make sure the clutch isn’t slipping, by accelerating hard through the gears and seeing if the engine revs increase while the 
road speed doesn’t.

Suspension, steering 
and brakes

The ball joints in the front suspension wear out after 35,000 miles, while shock absorbers will usually last just 20,000 miles or so. Once these need replacing, the car’s dynamics suffer badly, so budget on spending £100 per corner for the new dampers, and another £23 for each of the ball joints. Steering racks typically wear out within 35,000 miles, so check for play in the system to see if a new one is needed.

They’re not as cheap as you might think; at £350 for 
a fresh unit, plus the fitting, it’s a cost you could do with not having to bear.

Make sure the alloy wheels haven’t been damaged, as replacements are no longer available for the Series 1. Used or aftermarket items can be tracked down however and are often fitted anyway. If the wheels are badly kerbed, there’s a good chance the suspension will have been knocked out of true so make sure the tyres haven’t worn unevenly. If there’s 
a fresh set of boots on the car, be wary; they might have been fitted because it’s the cheapest way of masking a twisted chassis.

Brake discs wear if the car is driven hard, 
and they rust if it isn’t used very often. Either way, check their condition as they may need renewing. Replacements cost £100 apiece for standard original-equipment items; if you’re tempted to take the grooved alternative, bank on spending just £55 for each disc.

Lotus Elise

Bodywork, electrics and trim

If the car has been in an accident, the chassis will show signs of an impact. Once the Elise’s frame has been distorted in any way the whole thing has to be replaced. If it isn’t, not only is the car’s structure adversely affected, but it’ll never handle as well as it ought to.

Building a car round a new chassis is major money; don’t pick up a ‘bargain’ then find you’ve been duped.

Just as bad as an obviously damaged chassis is one that’s been repaired. Put the car up on a ramp and look for evidence of buckling or rippling, mismatched adhesives or any signs of welding. Inspect the aluminium floor for signs of damage. If it’s rippled or buckled it’s because of an impact at some point.

Also ensure the metal hasn’t been clouted by road debris.

Your final check from underneath is to make sure that the steel subframe which carries the engine hasn’t corroded. It’s the only significant piece of steel used in the car, and it has been known to rust. It is replaceable, but the part on its own is £500.

All Elises tend to sit pretty close to the ground, 
so you need to look for damage to the car’s underside as well as the front valance, headlamps and nosecone. The Exige features a front splitter, prone 
to knocks which can push it out of shape or cause cracks, so check it’s intact.

Repairing damaged glassfibre is a specialised business, so if the car has been shunted it will need 
to have been repaired by an expert. If it hasn’t been properly reworked, there’ll be sunken paint, possibly microblistering and perhaps even cracks in the panels.

The roof is surprisingly complex considering how basic it appears, and it can also tear all too easily. Whatever the weather is doing, make sure you remove and refit the top, to check that all the components 
are present and correct.


With that peach of a chassis and reasonable reliability, it’s possible to live with an Elise every day as long 
as you don’t cover huge mileages. Few people use 
it daily, keeping it instead as a toy, but as a regular plaything the Lotus is hard to beat. It’s as comfortable on the track as it is blasting around deserted B-roads.

There are few totally standard cars out there, yet that’s no bad thing as some minor modifications will make it even more enjoyable. What’s more important is that the structure is in perfect condition.

Some of the really low-volume specials make great investments but tend not to be so usable on an everyday basis. These include the Exige and 340R, the latter model being especially raw. But track down a good standard example and everything else you ever drive will pale into insignificance it really is that good.

A decent service history by someone who knows what they’re doing is essential. Look for evidence of maintenance having been carried out every year or 9000 miles though the 190 VHPD, Sport 160, Exige and 340R need attention every 6000 miles.

Lotus Elise
Lotus Elise
Lotus Elise
Lotus Elise
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