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A Lotus Blossoms

The new Elise roadster is sweet temptation.

Oh, what a sweetheart. Visually, the two-seat Lotus Elise is one of the most stunning cars I’ve driven lately. Everywhere I went, people wanted me to roll down the window and answer the question “What kind of car is that?” The British designers laid on some truly delicious curves, which looked great in my car’s metallic purple.

The Elise is fun to drive, too. It’s so light that its 190-horsepower engine, adapted from the Toyota Celica GTS, is plenty peppy, particularly since the car has a six-speed manual shift. Mind you, it doesn’t have the electrifying acceleration of, say, a 550-horsepower Bentley Continental, but this is an entirely different class of vehicle. Call it a Miata on steroids. The vroom-vroom reminded me of the Honda S2000.

The tires (16 inches in front and 17 inches in back) are also special. They are Yokohama AdvanNeova and are made to cling to the pavement. “They are sticky tires,” says John English, president and CEO, Lotus Cars U.S.A. “They are designed to put a tremendous footprint on the road.” And the cost won’t kill a CEO: The base price is about $40,000; you can throw in the sports package and hard-top roof for less than $4,000.

Okay, now let’s get practical. I put 350 miles on the Elise, and from an ownership perspective, there are some issues. One is simply getting into and out of the car. People over six feet tall would have a problem squeezing through the door and fitting into the seat. I’m 5-8 and it was tight for me. The clutch pedal also was so close to the rest pad for the left foot that I sometimes hit it by mistake when I shifted.

There is only a very tiny trunk. The golf clubs had to rest on the passenger’s seat. And the radio was some newfangled thing that I couldn’t figure out without reading the instruction manual. I also didn’t trust the tires in the rain.

The Elise is not something you’re going to take to the office or out for an elegant evening. I didn’t try it, but getting in while wearing an evening gown would be a decided problem.

So it’s a toy. It belongs in a garage with three or four other vehicles. Take it out for weekend flings. You might even take it to the track. Unlike other exotic cars that are time-consuming and expensive to maintain, the Elise, which first hit the U.S. market late this summer, seems easier. “It doesn’t get much simpler than an Elise for track use,” English argues. “The engine is fairly simple. It’s not supercharged. It’s normally aspirated. You’ve got something you can take out of your garage and drive to a track and do some laps without a great deal of preparation.”

Lotus, which is based in Britain but owned by Malaysia’s Proton Saga, doesn’t have to sell tens of thousands of these cars. Its target is 2,800 units in 2005, and it’s considering bringing in another car called the Exige next year as well. Sweet temptation indeed.

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