In 1991 Lotus revived the legendary Elan, which had been out of production since 1975. Rather than update the basic ideas behind the original Elan, though, Lotus controversially designed an entirely different kind of car. The new Lotus Elan M100 was still a small two-seat roadster, but it was front-wheel drive, one detail that put it in stark contrast to the traditional rear-drive design of the original Elan. Perhaps even more striking, Lotus employed a Japanese-made drivetrain for the new Elan.
This was largely the result of Lotus having been acquired by General Motors in the 1980s. GM already had a relationship with Isuzu as part of its Geo product line, so an engine was sourced for the Elan. While the new Lotus was the most expensive development project in the company’s history, coming in at over $50 million, that was very little to spend by General Motors’ standards. With GM’s backing, Lotus put the Elan M100 into production with eyes on the American market, which at the time didn’t have many small two-seaters to choose from.
The engine Lotus selected for the Elan was an Isuzu twin-cam 1,588 cc unit (almost exactly the same displacement as the original Elan) available either normally aspirated or turbocharged with an intercooler. The basic engine produced a respectable 130 hp, while the turbocharged variant produced 162 hp. Because the new Elan weighed in at just 2,200 pounds, the 0-60 time of the turbo version was just 6.5 seconds and the car could reach a top speed of 137 mph. In all, only 129 normally aspirated Elans are known to have been made, with the balance of the 3,855 cars produced equipped with the turbocharged engine. The only available transmission was a five-speed manual.
The bodywork was entirely fiberglass, built on the traditional Lotus steel backbone chassis. The Elan M100 featured Lotus’s signature slope-nosed styling found on the Esprit, and the chassis was found to be exceptionally stiff and yielded excellent driving dynamics and handling. Lotus called the front suspension design “interactive” and included unequal-length wishbones and coil springs and a sway bar. In the rear, the Elan used upper and lower centrally-mounted wishbones with coil-over shock absorbers. Brakes were discs all around.
On the inside, the Elan M100 featured more luxury than one might expect in a small Lotus, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power door locks and power windows, heated power side mirrors, all leather upholstery, tinted windows, a driver’s side air bag and air conditioning.
The Elan did not sell well in the United States for various reasons. A big one was the almost simultaneous introduction of the Mazda Miata that, ironically, was a more fitting tribute to the original Elan than Lotus’s own product. Another issue was price. Whereas the purchase price of the Lotus was $33,900, the Miata cost just $13,800 and offered comparable performance plus rear-wheel drive, a preferable setup for the traditional sports car buyer. The Elan was faster in a straight line and offered more standard equipment, but it wasn’t worth the money to most buyers. The Miata quickly gained the favor of the then underserved small roadster market while the Lotus just missed the mark.
U.S. sales of the Elan M100 were done by 1992, although the model remained in European production through 1995. In an unexpected twist to the Lotus Elan M100 story, the Elan design was licensed to Kia in 1996 after Lotus moved on to the Elise-era. Kia produced almost identical Elan cars – even using the Elan name – for domestic sale in Korea and export to Japan until 1999.
Those who want a fun, basic 1990s roadster for cheap will probably make the obvious choice and buy a Miata or a Toyota MR2. For someone who wants a Lotus badge or just something more distinctive, however, the Elan M100 is among the cheapest ways to get into Lotus ownership, and the Japanese powertrain does alleviate at least some of the reliability concerns that come with owning a British sports car.