For years, I’ve dreamt of buying a Lotus Elise. It’s the budget “exotic” car, whose small stature and spidery eyes captivate both auto enthusiasts and people who don’t care about cars at all. But I finally drove one the other day, and I had to accept reality: The Elise isn’t built for me.
The good news is, it’s probably built for you!
This 2005 Lotus Elise is currently available for sale on Cars & Bids. Check it out and bid here.
The Lotus Elise is a dream for many, myself included. It’s an iconic British sports car that debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995, and when it arrived in the U.S. in 2004 with a price of $41,000, it was a hit with car enthusiasts. The Elise had great styling, a super-light fiberglass body, a mid-mounted Toyota engine with 190 horsepower, a redline of 8,500 rpm, and a six-speed manual that sent power to the rear wheels.
It also followed Lotus’ famous motto: “Simplify, then add lightness.” When it debuted, the Elise weighed under 2,000 pounds—about 400 less than the already-light Mazda Miata—and could go from 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds. It mixed classy styling with a go-kart soul.
The Elise became a gem on the used market, too. For years, it was the $30,000 sports car, and to me, that made it one of the most iconic cars on the 2010s internet. When you started getting into sports cars and wanted to buy one, I feel like one of the first stories you used to find was one from my boss at Cars & Bids, Doug DeMuro. That story no longer exists at no fault of Doug’s, because despite what they told you 20 years ago, not everything on the internet is forever.
But the main idea was: No matter the year, mileage, condition, or external inflation, a used Elise cost $30,000. Rarely did one cost more or less, and that accessibility further fueled the Elise’s popularity. (Unfortunately, those days are over. Right now, the cheapest Elise on Autotrader is $47,900. Inflation, right?)
The Elise’s upsides—price, looks, sportiness, and the generally reliable Toyota engine—were met with two main downsides. The first was that it became known as a stereotypical British car, with fussy electronics and bits of plastic that fell off sometimes. The second was that the Elise’s highly regarded fiberglass body was one big clamshell, meaning sometimes, a little scratch could total the whole car. But many people think it’s worth the risk. (It is.)
When I drove a maroon 2005 Elise recently, it was like meeting a celebrity. We picked the car up from the dealership selling it, RPM Garage in Dallas, and I remember walking through the showroom looking for the Elise in a sea of bright cars.
Barely any of them had maroon paint, so I thought the Elise would be easy to find. But it was so tiny, tucked away into a corner, that I didn’t even see it until the staff started pulling other cars out so the Elise could drive through. I cupped my hands over my mouth at the size—and cuteness—of it.
I got in my car and followed an RPM staffer to a nearby parking lot to film the car. The Elise was magical to drive behind; I’d seen so many photos of the halo taillights and “LOTUS” branding on the rear over the years, and here I was, trailing both in person.
Driving the Elise was a blast. It was a little go-kart, stripped bare as a soda can and ready to zip. The pedals were light and close together, and the gated manual shifter was distractingly fun; I find that when I can see the gates, I want to watch the shifter go into gear with each shift.
The lack of power steering made parking lots and multi-point turns into an arm workout, and I laughed the whole time. Here I was, in the smallest car on the road, having a much harder time turning the wheel than any of the SUVs around me.
Once the car got rolling, that lack of power steering was divine. The slight tension yet glide in the wheel every time I turned it, the acute awareness of the car and its weight under me—I felt like part of the Elise, not just its driver.
But I faced one hard truth in the Elise: Like many bare-bones sports cars, actual go-karts, and track cars, it’s just not built for me. The square shape of the seat doesn’t mesh with my rounder hips and thighs, and because my legs only had so much space to fill, I had to drive with my knees together and kick out each foot to reach the clutch and accelerator pedals. It was still fun to drive, but seat sizing always makes me think of the auto industry as a whole.
I find that when I can’t fit in certain seats, men who are bigger than me – taller or wider – can. It’s because the seat is built for a square body, and my body is not that. It makes me wish for more inclusive sizing and shaping of seats, because ultimately, a little seat curvature would’ve done a lot for my comfort.
But the Elise isn’t meant for comfort. It’s meant for fun and flashiness on a budget, and that’s what it provides—even if the budget is a little higher now than it used to be.