The design philosophy of Lotus is "Performance through low weight", a philosophy first adopted by the founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman. The motto drives Lotus to obtain very high performance with lightweight cars in spite of their relatively modest power outputs, with a strong emphasis on driving purity and dynamics. This concept was taken to an extreme by the London-based engineer Max David.
The result is a sports car which in production form in 1996 weighed in at just 720 kg (1500 lb). Compare this to a Porsche Boxster which is also considered to be an extremely lightweight sports car but weighs nearly twice as much - 1250 kg (2756 lb).
As a result the Elise’s acceleration, braking, cornering, and fuel consumption (all of which are improved by reductions in a car’s weight) was nothing short of astonishing in spite of the fact that the engine put out a relatively modest - 120 hp (89 kW). Compare that to 201 hp (149 kW) produced by the 1997 Porsche Boxster.
Although high-tech, it represented affordable cost of ownership for sports car lovers on a budget who still wanted performance and looks.
Besides the "standard" higher-performance variants listed below, Lotus also released some limited edition models such as Sport 135 (1998/9) with approx 145 hp (108 kW), Sport 160 (2000) with 150 - 160 hp (112 - 119 kW) and Sport 190 (allegedly 190 hp / 142 kW). These were more competent on track with sports suspension, wheels & tires, seats according to model. There were other special editions which were basically cosmetic treatments such as Type 49 ("Gold Leaf" red & white two-tone) and Type 79 ("JPS" black/gold) to recall their successful Grand Prix car type numbers.
The original Elise, called the Series 1 was augmented by a faster edition called the 111S, named after the Lotus type-number of the Elise - M111. The 111S was introduced in early 1999 and contained the VVC engine, a Rover K-Series engine with a modified head and VVT type technology rather than the standard Rover 1.8 L K-series unit. It also had more padding in the seats to the horror of purists and the relief of those with nerve endings in their bottoms.
In 2000, the 340R limited edition model, based on a Series 1 Elise was introduced. This roofless car was a special edition, limited to only 340 cars being built. The name 340 refers to the 340 hp/tone (254 kW/tone) power-to-weight ratio of the original prototype which had 177 hp (131 kW) while weighing just 500 kilos. The final production versions however weighed 568 kg in race trim.
Also in 2000, Lotus introduced the Exige - a hardtop version of the Elise with the 177 hp (131 kW) engine from the 340R. Many models received an upgrade to 190 hp (142 kW) with better drivability due to changes to ECU and cam timing.
Announced on October 9th 2000, the Series 2 Elise was a redesigned Series 1 using a slightly modified version of the Series 1 chassis and the same K-series engine with a brand new Lotus-developed ECU.
The design of the body paid homage to the still-born M250 project and was the first Lotus to be designed on computer. The Series 2 Elise is built on the same production line also created for the Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster in a newer facility at Hethel. Both cars shared many parts, including the chassis, although they have totally different drivetrains and power plants. The Vauxhall /Opel version ceased production in 2004.
The series 2 was also available as an 111S model, with the VVT engine technology. Also released was the Lotus Sport 160, which is a Lotus 111S Series 2 with the additional track handling package. The 111S models were discontinued in 2005.
This Series 2 Elise model comes in European 111R version or a version sold in North America, called the Federal Elise. It is powered by the all-aluminum 189 hp (141 kW) Yamaha-designed, Toyota-produced 2ZZ-GE engine, has a Toyota gearbox and is acclaimed as the best version of the Elise to date, with tremendous performance numbers, with many tests resulting in 0-60 mph (0 - 100 km/h) in approximately 4.5 s.
The 2005 Lotus Elise was the first to be sold commercially in the United States, in the summer of 2004. Approval for the Elise, however, required intervention by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) who provided a three-year exemption for the car, as it had failed to meet US bumper regulations. The next-generation Elise, due in 2007, will be required to comply with the rules unless Lotus gets an exemption extension, like it did on multiple occasions with its previous USA distributed car, the Esprit.
This model has been followed up by the 2006 Model Year Elise 111R and SportRacer models.
Launched in 2004, the Series 2 Exige, comes with the same high revving Toyota engine and six speed gearbox as the Elise 111R, replacing the Rover K-series engine.
The Series 2 Exige has been followed up by the limited-edition Lotus Sport Exige 240R, incorporating a Lotus-developed supercharger atop the Toyota engine.