Cold Start: Remember The Kia Lotus? I Saw The Forgotten Prototype At A Party In Germany

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It’s called the Kia KMS-II, and the world has pretty much completely forgotten about it since it showed its face back in 1996, prior to the release of the Kia version of Lotus’s Elan convertible.

 

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The Lotus Elan, you may recall, ended production after 1995, and was powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged Isuzu engine that made about 160 horsepower. Here’s Lotus’s rundown of that car, per its website:

With General Motors taking ownership of Lotus from 1986, the business needed a new small car. Such a car – the thinking was for a ‘new Elan’ – would sit below the larger and more expensive Esprit and Excel models.

The big idea for this new car was that it would be front-wheel drive. Ditching the traditional front engine/rear-wheel drive layout would appeal to new generation of potential Lotus customers. It would provide sure-footed handling and tap into the popularity of the hot-hatches of the era.

The priority for Lotus was to find a new powertrain. A new-generation 1.6-litre straight-four in both naturally aspirated and turbo versions with an excellent power-to-weight ratio was identified from within the GM portfolio, and so the project was given the green light. Peter Steven’s ‘cab-forward’ design wasn’t to everyone’s liking but was aerodynamically effective.

Given the Type number 100 and the project name during development of M100, the Elan  went on sale in 1989. Feedback from the media was initially positive and pent-up demand meant more than 1,200 had been sold by the end of 1990. The car picked up a prestigious award from the Design Council.

However, it was ultimately not a commercial success. The front-wheel drive layout meant the Elan the traditional ‘pure’ Lotus dynamics were missing and it was too expensive to build, particularly when it had to be reengineered to meet changing USA crash regulations. That the engine was branded Isuzu – a maker of SUVs and small trucks – didn’t help perception of the new Elan.

When Lotus was acquired by ACBN Holdings, also the parent company of Bugatti, it was decided to introduce the turbo-only Elan S2 with the remaining 800 engines. This short production run would lead up to the launch of one of the most iconic Lotus cars of all time, the Elise.

Lotus Elan Type100

As the story goes, GM sold the rights to the car to Kia, who shoved a then-new T8D dual-overhead cam, 150-ish horsepower 1.8-liter naturally aspirated engine under the hood (remember, this generation of Elan was front engine, front-wheel drive). Kia also changed up some exterior styling elements (the taillights are the big one) and some cabin bits, but otherwise the car was quite similar to the Lotus on which it was based.

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Kia Elans, having only been sold in South Korea and Japan in limited numbers, are rare to see today (though my friend who owns the prototype, a veteran car journalist named Jens, also owns one of those; see above); the KMS-II, though, is on another level of rarity, because there is only one.

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The forgotten concept car is easily one of the coolest machines I’ve seen all year. The front lower fascia is totally different than the production Elan, fixed polycarbonate headlights take the place of popups, and a simple quad-taillight look just works. 

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25 Responses

  1. Warm take: I love the Elan from a styling point of view. I was born in 1990 and started getting into cars when I was maybe 8-10 or so, and I’d see Elans in video games and car magazines. I knew that Lotus=cool and thought they looked neat, mainly because my aunt drove an NA Miata (which she still has and I occasionally get to throw around) that was the first “cool” car I ever got to ride in. She even let me row the gears for her as a kid which to young me was the coolest shit ever.

    …anyway, I think they’ve aged quite well. Obviously the pop up headlights date them, but I think they still look cool to this day. There’s something timeless about a small roadster that came in cool colors with pop up headlights. Naturally British racing green is the crème de la crème.

    …but deep down I know it’s a “never meet your heroes” type of situation because they’re, somewhat inexplicably, front wheel drive. I don’t hate FWD as much as a lot of people do and both my current and precious daily are FWD performance cars. But rear wheel drive is an essential part of the roadster magic, and when I’ve had so much time in the glorious NA Miata I know for a fact that I’d be let down by an Elan….plus 90s front wheel drive and 2022 front wheel drive are very, very different animals.

    Oh well, they’re still nice to look at. Thanks for the trip down memory lane David! I’d forgotten Kia got one too.

    1. There is nothing warm or hot about your take. The Elan is a legitimately good looking, elegant little car. The power plant is fine- and honestly, it’s VASTLY more reliable than anything else in a Lotus at the time- and to this day it’s still considered one of the best-handling FWDs ever put on the road.

      I love these things. Ever since I played Lotus Turbo Championship on my Amiga, I’ve wanted one. Hopefully that day comes soon.

  2. I also really like the styling of the FWD Elan. It is clean and purposeful and really has no bad angles. The interior is also well executed. I have never driven one.

    FWD cars can be made to handle well (allegedly this car is quite good in that department) but that still holds me back from getting one. And I have an NA Miata so it would probably be redundant and a disappointment. Then again, it looks so good and I do like obscure vehicles… in yellow!

    1. For this specific purpose absolutely nothing beats a Miata unless you’re in a high enough tax bracket that you can afford a nice Boxster or something like that. The Miata is, was, and forever shall be the perfect working class sports car. I’d probably have one as a weekend car right now if I could but alas…the wife isn’t an enthusiast (yet, still working on it) and would not be pleased with me dropping 5 figures on a weekend toy a few months after I traded in my perfectly nice 2 year old GTI for my Kona N.

      Front wheel drive cars can absolutely handle well as long as an LSD is part of the equation…and I don’t even mind a little torque steer personally. The combination of being able to feel the LSD working and a little tug from the torque steer when you’re going hard in corners is really entertaining and satisfying…thus why I love the Hyundai N cars and performance Golf variants so much.

      But if you’re tearing up a backroad and have the option to do so in a RWD, manual car with a roof that goes down you’d be silly not to. That experience just can’t be replicated and there’s a reason why the small, two seat, manual roadster that feels fast even if it isn’t archetype has existed for 50+ years at this point. It’s often more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

  3. Can’t resist: There can be only one.

    I think the Elan is sexy, but my second garage slot is taken by a 2012 NC2 PRHT 6MT MX-5 (looks like a nuclear launch code when you write it out).

  4. Got to drive multiple examples of both the LOTUS and KIA versions when they were new. For some weird reason the LOTUS always “felt” better. But it was the style of the LOTUS that stuck with me. It was and still is a beautiful design and execution. A lifetime later my only regret is that as far as I know there are no RWD conversion kits out there. Yet this was still the worlds most beautiful FWD sports car ever…fight me. And kids, back in the 1960s till around 72 the word KIA meant something totally different to most Americans. Always thought they could have spent time choosing a more fitting name in Korea before dropping KIA onto the US. Fight me!

  5. “Ditching the traditional front engine/rear-wheel drive layout would appeal to new generation of potential Lotus customers.”

    Wow, GM just… Really didn’t understand anything during the Roger Smith era, did they? It’s amazing they survived the ’90s with how many mistakes they made throughout the ’80s, this being just another on the pile of hundreds.

  6. Dear Kia:
    PUT THAT THING INTO PRODUCTION. Now. As-is. As a 2024. No notes whatsoever. Well, I mean, all kinds of notes about the original drivetrain being shit and please use a modern one but those are the only ones. Keep the analog gauges. Keep the styling. Keep everything else.

  7. I like the FWD M100 Elan more than I should 🙂

    We only got the Lotus Elan in 1991. The oldest Kia Elans are old enough to import here.

    Fun fact: Kia considered selling the Elan in the US, but then they went bankrupt and Hyundai bought them out, and Hyundai killed the Elan.

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