Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lotus Eco Elise

What is it?

There are solar panels in its roof. Body panels made from a substance that you might have a good time smoking. And though it has been built for fuel economy and low emissions, this Lotus is even quicker than standard. The Eco Elise is an experiment intended to improve the green credentials of a car in its entirety. Lotus's modifications have concentrated not so much on the Elise's drivetrain but more on its method of construction, the carbon miles involved in its build and the chemicals used in its paintwork. It's also lighter than the standard Elise, and has an intelligent gearshift indicator - it's the only alteration to the car's drivetrain - to encourage you to use the most economical, low emission gear.

It's not the prettiest looking Lotus, this Elise, but it's certainly intriguing when you get up close, because sections of its bodywork appear to have been made from carpet underlay that's been frozen in clear, moulded resin. That's because these panels have been made from plant material and more specifically hemp, which besides being used to make rope and indeed, cannabis, has been substituted here for the glassfibre mat usually used in glass reinforced plastic. The roof, sections of the front panel and the boot spoiler are all hemp and resin, part of each panel having been left unpainted to reveal its intriguing but rather unsexy-looking construction. This particular hemp is grown on farms local to Lotus in the district of Norfolk, which means that less energy is expended transporting it to the company's Hethel factory. Little energy is required to grow it, too, and Lotus plans to substitute the polyester resin currently used for an organic version, further reducing the carbon impact of making these panels.

The panels are strong too - Lotus boss Mike Kimberley was recently to be seen banging a hemp panel on his desk to check its robustness, although the company has carried out more scientific trials, not least on the seats, whose hemp reinforced resin structure have been subjected to Type Approval strength tests and passed with ease. The result is that Lotus is seriously considering hemp as a material for composite bodywork, and it has other car companies interested too.

The Eco Elise's roof is a slightly busy looking piece of bodywork too, a pair of solar panels smoothly integrated into its surface. This Elise is also adorned with a list of its green credentials, which are also very evident inside, where you'll find sisal floor mats and upholstery made from a fabric that looks about as cuddly as an army-issue blanket. The painted sections of the car have been sprayed using water-based paint that's not only solvent-free but also uses less energy during its application - though Lotus is hardly first with this process. Besides their hemp-reinforced plastic carcasses, the seats score more green points for their upholstery, which is made from biodegradable wool that is undyed. Instead, the colour - a not entirely appealing beige - is achieved through the selection of wool colours to make the yarn. It's also used for the door trims and the steering wheel boss.

Does it do the job?

Despite being one of the lightest new cars you can buy, this Elise has been on a diet, too. The biggest saving comes from the special forged lightweight alloy wheels, which save 15.8kg, while a re-engineered Alpine stereo shaves off another 1.5kg, although it has to be said that this is far from the easiest stereo to use. The plant-based seats also make a contribution to the weight reduction of 32kg, no small achievement when the standard car weighs only 860kg. Less weight heightens the scope for speed of course, further torturing your conscience as you try to resist stretching the this rev-happy engine while facing a green light suggesting that you should be doing the opposite. It's very small, this green circle of light, but it's piercingly effective at reminding you to change up.

Follow its instructions and you'll find yourself selecting higher gears much earlier than you'd expect but equally, you'll discover that the 134bhp 1.8 litre Toyota engine of this Elise S is perfectly capable of pulling the car at low revs. It seems an odd way to proceed in a Lotus, but it's certainly effective - on a long run, featuring city, motorway and country roads, this Eco Elise returned 42.7mpg, which is a substantial improvement on its official combined 34.0 consumption and mighty impressive for a car that can sprint to 62mph in 6.1sec. It underlines the fact that in these credit-crunched times the Elise makes an excellent case for itself as an eco-performance car even in standard form, because its lightweight construction allows it to combine the performance of a sports car with economy of a supermini.

Should I give it garage space?

If you're considering a new Elise, there's plenty on this car that you'd want to include, even if most would prefer their hemp bodywork painted, and the seats finished more elegantly. But the point of this one-off car is to show the technology, and the good news is that most if not all of these greener solutions are feasible in small scale mass production. Lotus's aim is to explore low carbon technologies for every aspect of the car, and besides considering some of them for its own models, other manufacturers are showing serious interest too. It's hardly a major breakthrough, the Eco Elise, but it underlines the point that building an eco-car should involve a lot more than fitting low rolling resistance tyres, raising the transmission's gearing and sticking an 'eco' badge on the rear.

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