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by Larry Roberts

January 23, 1999

In its fledgling days during the mid-'50s, Lotus Engineering Co. built thinly-disguised sports/racers that could parenthetically be driven on the street. Colin Chapman was the guiding light behind the company and being a racer by deposition, by 1957, he was mass-producing his famous Lotus Seven, the archetypal two-seat, dual-purpose sports car. With few concessions to creature comforts,(spartan top, postage stamp-sized windshield, etc.) the Seven was equally at home on a race track as on a city street.

That idyllic interpretation of the sports car evolved over the years to the point where Lotus cars were expensive, leather-clad exotics that have no kinship to their humble ancestors.

But that image was altered somewhat by the addition a few years ago of a new model to the Lotus lineup. Its one entry into the small sports car field, the mid-engined Elise, was introduced to the public in roadster form and although it was conceived for road use, its design parameters were those of a race car. While the road-going version of the Elise has enjoyed relative popularity in England, it isn't certified for sale here.

Now Lotus has elected to return to its roots, albeit, in a somewhat upscale, high-tech and relatively expensive form. Dubbed the Elise Sport 190, the new "dual-purpose" Lotus is built around a lightweight space frame that's reinforced with epoxy-bonded aluminum extrusions. Its powerplant is a 190 horsepower version of the Rover K Series 1.8 liter four cylinder engine that is also used in the MGF, a British sportster that hasn't been certified by our government for sale here either.

The Rover engine has been modified by Lotus Sport Special Vehicles Operations (a company that is separate from Lotus Engineering) and its performance has been considerably increased. It's output is upped by virtue of considerable engine work. The head, valve train, pistons and the rest of the engine "hardware" have been replaced by light-weight racing parts all powering through a close-ratio six-speed transmission. The brakes are standard Elise units that are considered up to the job utilizing extra-hard disc brake pads and ventilated rotors.

The Elise is made race-ready by the inclusion of an FIA (and presumably our own SCCA) approved triangulated roll bar, a competition wrap-around driver's seat and a six-point seat belt/harness system. It also has a factory-installed fire extinguisher system and a plethora of other competition equipment. The performance of the 1470-pound roadster is spectacular. It goes from 0 to 60 in around four seconds and hits 100 MPH in a bit under 11 seconds, with handling to match.

The Elise Sport 190 is equipped with a pollution-reducing catalytic converter in the exhaust system which indicates that it's legal for the street in Great Britain. But there is a form-fitted piece of exhaust pipe in its spare parts "kit" that can be easily installed in place of the converter when the car hits the track.

Since the Sport 190 hasn't been approved for street use in North America, it's for sale here for competition use only. And to further isolate it from the Lotus cars that are for sale to the general public, the Sport 190 is only available through Lotus headquarters in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

But if you're considering the purchase of the $50,000 Sport 190 to do some amateur racing, better hold off for a year or so. As yet, the SCCA hasn't approved the car for racing in its Showroom Stock class and the car's only racing venue is through the somewhat obscure Historic Sportscar Racing organization.

The Lotus Sport 190 of 1999 isn't the simplistic poor-boy racer that its predecessor, the Lotus Seven, was in 1957, but once it hits American race tracks, it will no doubt help restore the company to a place of prominence in amateur sports car racing once again.