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.

Start Your Engine

Once in, Boller and I put the Lotus to the test.

The low-riding driver's cockpit has good visibility, and my large frame fit well while driving, with all controls within easy reach.

The Exige also has no lean on curves and very little tilt, or roll, because of the fully independent suspension and front antisway bar.

Braking is immediate and firm, with Lotus' power-assisted four-wheel ventilated and cross-drilled disc brakes utilizing ABS.

With a top speed of 150 mph, it can make the 0-60 mph jump in 4.9 seconds and do 0-100 mph in 12.9 seconds.

A unique feature of the power plant is the second cam that kicks in at 6,500 rpm. I heard a slight tap as the engine dug into its reserve, and then felt the second boot of power at high revs.

Options a Go-Go

The current U.S. Lotus line comes in two basic flavors, the Elise ($42,990) and the Exige ($50,990).

Both cars are two-seat, rear-wheel-drive, midengined roadsters with the same engine, transmission and suspension.

The Elise can drop its head to go topless, though, and the Exige has an air scoop on the roof, which is employed in the new S, a 220 hp supercharger model.

Both models have the option to remove the air conditioning to save even more weight, and unlike the Brit cars of my youth, they come with a plush Touring Pack option. This includes leather seating, power windows, an upgraded stereo with MP3 capability, a stowage net, a double-insulated soft top, additional sound-deadening material and full carpeting.

The Elise also has an optional Sport Pack, which increases the car's performance by swapping out the standard wheels for lightweight alloys and a track-tuned suspension.

The fixed-roof coupe Exige is being imported into the North American market for the first time this year. It has more racing options than the Elise, such as the Track Pack: adjustable dampers, an adjustable front stabilizer bar, an additional rear suspension brace and interior fittings for a race-oriented harness.

You can also get an optional limited-slip differential, a feature that improves acceleration and power when exiting corners.

Gone in 60 Seconds

Mark Starr, sales manager of Lotus of Greenwich, says Lotus has been available in the U.S. for many years, with approximately 50 Lotus dealers in the U.S. selling cars not only to daily drivers but also to Sports Car Club of America racers.

A racing variation on the Exige, the Cup 240, is strictly a competition car.

Not street legal, the $80,000 Cup 240 model delivers over 240 hp in a fully qualified SCCA racer. There are only about 15 of these cars currently running in the U.S.

Some folks won't be willing to put up with Lotus' Spartan comfort, with its ride quality more Formula One than grand touring. But for those who are, a Lotus provides the most unfiltered driving experience of any roadster sold today. Lotus' ultra lightweight chassis, crisp steering, solid power and low production numbers guarantee a memorable driving experience.

So while I certainly can't roll back to my teen years, a new Lotus is perhaps the most direct route to those days of the open road and the lure of the nimble, responsive sports car.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Russell Dean Vines is Chief Security Advisor for Gotham Technology LLC and a bestselling author. His most recent book is The CISSP and CAP Prep Guide: Platinum Edition, published by John S. Wiley and Sons.

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