So, you want a Lotus Elise?
Just be aware that it’s not like buying another car.
There are many differences – the aluminum chassis and fiberglass body, the fact that many owners track their car, the rarity of the car – that present unique issues for used car buyers.
Listed below is a detailed buyers guide for the Lotus Elise S2 that should keep your smile pointed in the right direction, after you buy. This exhaustive list of tips is based on my ownership experience plus many hours of research and discussions with other owners.
So let’s dive in.
Should I Buy a Salvage Car?
It’s tempting to purchase a salvage Elise, because you can save thousands of dollars and, hey, it’s just a weekend car – right?
In this case, you may be right – as long as the reason for salvage is body damage, not chassis or flood issues.
The cost of labor to replace Lotus Elise body components is so high that the insurance company often totals the car due to it. In this case, there may not be anything structurally wrong with the car, and you might just get a cheaper Lotus with few issues.
Keep in mind, though, that the resale of a salvage car will aways be less than one that has not been totaled. And they are a lot harder to sell, so you’ll be in the car longer than you think.
To check if a car is a hidden salvage title, you can run the VIN through Carfax.
While corrosion isn’t a big concern with the Lotus Elise’s aluminum bonded chassis and fiberglass body, electrical issues are always expensive to resolve. And flood cars often suffer from electrical problems. So make sure you test every electrical function thoroughly if you are looking at a flood car.
Avoid Frame/Chassis Damage (at all costs)
The Lotus Elise/Exige uses a unique extruded and bonded aluminum chassis (see diagram below).
Have your local Lotus Dealer put the car on a lift and inspect the frame and lower crash structure for damage, attachment and alignment issues. If any frame corner is more than 2mm above or below the others, then you may have hugely expensive issues on your hands.
Examine the aluminum chassis for signs of damage. Due to the bonding used in construction, damaged chassis are usually just scrapped. If someone tells you the chassis was repaired, just smile and walk away.
Check the joints that connect the crash structure to the aluminum tub. Suspension attachments to the frame must be also free of damage. If connections or attachments are damaged, a new chassis is required.
Repairing the chassis is generally not recommended by Lotus. If the chassis has been bent or a suspension attachment point ripped, the chassis is considered a total loss and the normal way to repair the car, is to swap the chassis out.
Note: it does not take a large crash to cause chassis damage. Minor body damage does not mean the chassis is okay.
There is also a Lotus designed crash structure bonded to the front of the chassis. This can be repaired and a new one added, but it is not easy and can be expensive.
The suspension is easily damaged on an Elise.
You must remove the wheels to inspect the suspension correctly.
Carefully inspect all suspension assemblies for damage. It’s OK if the suspension arms are bent, but the ball joints, track rods, shocks and the anti-roll bar need to be intact.
The fiberglass body can have serious issues, especially the paint. While not an exotic material, fiberglass is labor-intensive to repair and replacement parts are very expensive.
Make sure you check the fit of doors and check to make sure the body components line-up.
The clamshell is particularly expensive to replace or repair (I had one replaced myself), so check it for deformation.
The low front of the body may scrape the ground. Check for fiberglass damage. It’s not super-expensive to repair if the glass isn’t cracked (you don’t need perfect work down there). But replacement parts are very expensive.
Spidering is often a sign of damage to the fiberglass underneath the paint. Check the front and rear “bumpers” and the doors for any area that could have been damaged by force and are now spidering. Because we are talking body panels, it can be expensive to repair.
Stone chips are common on Elises. Kind of unavoidable, given their use. Fixing isn’t terribly expensive.
Check for cracks/cobwebs in the arms of the side view mirrors. The factory may have overtightened the screws on the mirrors.
The slatted vents on the Elise are fragile, and can be easily damaged if the owner isn’t careful around them.
A design flaw in pre-2006 cars magnified the sun’s light, allowing the inside of the headlamp housing to become melted by the sun. Pretty easy to fix – replace the units.
The undertray of the car can get loose and begin to rattle. This is caused by overtightened bolts stripping. It shouldn’t be a huge issue, but could potentially cost $100-200 for retapping or bolt replacement. Make a note of it
Definitely make sure you get an ECU dump on the car you want to buy. It will tell you how hard the car has been driven.
A few revs over 8500 shouldn’t be a problem, but 30 minutes of time over that would be a concern. If the car is still under warranty, run the ECU dump by your local service department to see if there will be any warranty issues due to the ECI figures.
Oil & Scheduled Maintenance
Ask for receipts. If they weren’t done at a Lotus dealership, make sure the previous owner used fully synthetic 5w40. Anything else may void your warranty.
Oil changes should be performed every 7,500 miles, or every 3,500 miles for a tracked car.
Rear Toe Link Failure
Some owners who track their cars a lot have reported a rear toe-link failure when the car is pushed hard. The failure is caused by a design flaw, but is not covered under warranty.
If you plan to track your car, you will probably want a toe-link upgrade, which costs anywhere from $500-$1000 depending on whether you want to use Lotus parts or aftermarket parts.
Track pack cars (2006+ only) come with a toe link upgrade installed.
The Elise is an on-rails handler, known for its tight steering. You don’t want to see any slop in the mechanism, at all.
To check this, move the steering wheel quickly from side to side with the wheels in the straight ahead position. Observe the front wheels: if the wheel moves at all – even a tiny amount – without pushing the wheels, then you need to replace/repair the assembly. Not cheap.
Lots of owners track their cars, so clutch wear is a real concern.
Is there any slipping or late engagement? It will cost you a thousand bucks to replace a clutch.
On earlier cars check to see if the shifter has been replaced under a recall. It may break under stress.
Check the pads and rotors to see how worn they are.
The rotors on the Elise have a short life expectancy, so on a high mileage car you are looking at several hundred bucks to replace ’em.
Check for damage to spokes or the lip (inside and out).
Check too much added weights – a sign of an out-of-round wheel.
Check the unit by turning it on and driving around for 30 minutes. Coil freezovers are common, so keep the unit turned down from max.
The Elise’s interior is easy to scuff up, so don’t worry too much about scratches on the plastic sills and dash. Easy and cheap to repair.
Check the pedals for proper operation. Especially check the bushing on the throttle, which has become a point of failure on later-year cars. If it’s sticking, it’s an 8-hour job to fix.
On early-year cars, the window can fall out of alignment. In some cases, they fall completely off of their supports. It’s complex to fix a broken window assembly.
Examine the leading edge seal when going over the car. On early-year models the hood sometimes leaks through the front seals. This is caused by leaning on the hood as they ingress/egress. This is a labor-intensive repair.
The hood latch cable fails often. It can be replaced with any steel cable from a hardware store. Can be a bitch to get at, you have to remove the speaker trim.
Squeaks and rattles are to be expected in any vehicle with such a tight suspension.
The top, dash and console are typical problem areas for noise, but all are easily fixed.
Expect the windows to rattle in any Elise. If they do rattle, do NOT close the door with them loose in the pocket – you could wind up shattering the glass!
If you’re getting a sport pack car, keep in mind that tires cost $250 each.
Rain infiltration is a common issue with all Lotus models – given the weather conditions there, it’s funny that British cars get this wrong so often.
Inspect fabric-covered areas around the roof for stains. Given the construction methods of the Elise, there is no rust concern, however.
The Elise isn’t as expensive to insure as you might think. This is primarily due to the fact that so few of them were sold in America, which means a replacement parts black market doesn’t really exist in most cities.
For US owners, here’s where to get the best deals on Lotus Elise insurance:
- Call 1-877-416-2296 to get multiple quotes on the Lotus Elise.
- If you own more than one exotic or own classic cars in addition to an Elise, then call Hagerty. They are the best in the business and offer surprisingly inexpensive insurance (based on mileage). But they require exotic/classic multiple car ownership.
Other Guides To Check Out
GGLC video series
The Golden Gate Lotus Club put together the following excellent 3-part video series that walks you through the modern Lotus Elise (S2) in about 30 minutes. Highly recommended!
Part 1: Cosmetic
Part 2: Mechanical
Part 3: Maintenance
Ready To Shop?
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Listed below are sites that also cover the points above, with a focus on the older S1 models.
- Lotus Elise & Exige Buyer’s Guide by Octane Magazine
- Elise Buyers Guide on Sandercock.com (last updated in 2001)
- Lotus Elise Buyers Wiki on Elise-FAQ.info