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Open Road for Lotus

There really isn't any elixir of youth that can make you feel like you're 17 again -- pretty much everything that does is immoral, illegal or full of trans fats.

But then there's Lotus.

Lotus has that light, fast, small British sports car feel that many of us grew up with.

And you can feel righteous about driving a high-performance car, barely street legal, that gets almost 30 miles per gallon.

High-Speed History

The first Lotus Mark 1 was built in 1948 by Colin Chapman, using the chassis and drive train of a 1937 Austin 7 saloon.

Over the next several decades, Lotus' racing reputation was established not only as a successful owner-operator club car but also as a major Formula One contender by such luminaries as Graham Hill, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson.

Driving a Lotus reminds you of the 1950s and '60s heyday of British racing motorcars -- like Triumph, Austin Healy Sprite or MG -- before they became so imposing and heavy.

But the advantage of a modern sports car is reliability and power.

The early Brit roadsters had notoriously faulty alternator and electrical systems, and they couldn't put out the horsepower modern engineering has made possible.

(The 1959 Sprite delivered a measly 48 horsepower from its 948 cc engine.)

Lotus' dual achievements of power and economy are now the result of Japanese engineering: The 1.8-liter four-cylinder Toyota (TM) engine cranks out between 190 to 240 horsepower, depending on the model.

The company's philosophy has always been focused on keeping the overall weight of the vehicle down, rather than bulking the power up.

This results in an ultra-light body weight of less than 2,000 pounds, almost the lowest in its class.

The car is kept trim by utilizing a lightweight chassis structure of epoxy-bonded aluminum extrusions and a composite fiberglass shell.

Every car is carefully crafted, with the body hand-sanded and spray-painted.

Add top-flight suspension and braking, and the result is a car that is fuel-efficient, fast and easy to control.

Putting on the Brakes

However, this car isn't for everyone.

For one, it has a manual transmission: a six-speed gearbox that's clean and quick. The responsiveness of the car combined with the directness of the tranny took me about a mile to get used to, but after that it was effortless and intuitive.

The Elise in Action

Steering isn't powered, but you wouldn't want power steering in a car this light.

It's still effortless and absolutely direct -- the Lotus goes where you point it.

Like a true racecar, it is loud, with the roar of the engine right behind your head. And it is a bit awkward to get into and out of.

Luckily, I had help from Danny Boller of Lotus of Greenwich to get in and out of the Exige -- although I really didn't ever want to get out.

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