By John Loxton

A 2006 Lotus Elise now shares my garage with my 2004 MCS and my wife’s 2002 MC CVT. As I drive the Lotus and the MINI, it is impossible for me to not find myself comparing them. Along with the obvious differences, there are many similarities between them. I thought MotoringFile readers might be interested in a comparison of the MINI and the Lotus Elise.

At first, this may seem a strange comparison, but I am surprised at how many Elise owners either now have or previously had a MINI. These cars are very different in concept, but share the underlying belief that driving should be a fun, even passionate, undertaking. Both the MINI and the Lotus are a joy to drive and both are produced in England with some components coming from other parts of the world. Both can be a bit quirky and both have some known issues, but that’s just part of what gives them their character.

I have always considered the MINI to be a sports car in a stylish and practical, but not particularly sporty, body. Never one to leave things alone, I have made a number of modifications to my MCS. These are the typical modifications of intake, exhaust, supercharger pulley, rear sway bar, better wheels and tires, along with some other odds and ends. These put my MCS closer in performance to a JCW MCS than a stock MCS and probably make for a better comparison with the Lotus. I certainly don’t have to tell MotoringFile readers what it’s like to drive a MINI or how it performs. I tell people who don’t have one that it’s a performance car, a sports car with a practical side, and fun to drive.

The Lotus Elise is an elemental sports car that is not much more than a slightly civilized race car. There is little in the Lotus that isn’t there to make the car go faster or handle better. Most available options are intended to make it even more at home on the track, but a few options do serve to make it a bit more suitable for the street. The design of the Elise makes no pretense at practicality and it stands out in a crowd. The Elise isn’t for everyone and it certainly isn’t a daily driver for anyone but the hard core sports car enthusiast, but there are owners who use them as daily drivers and a few have one as their only car.

The Lotus and the MINI could not be more different on the surface. The MINI is front-engine and front wheel drive; the Lotus is mid-engine and rear wheel drive. The MINI can transport two people in comfort, four if none are too large. Quite a lot of “stuff” can fit in a MINI, particularly if you fold the rear seats down. The Lotus is strictly a two-seater and there isn’t much room for anything else except those two people.

Styling is always very subjective. The MINI doesn’t appeal to everyone and neither does the Elise. The MINI is more than it appears to be to those not in the know; the Elise visually shouts out its sporting intentions. The Elise has black grilles and vents on almost every surface, making for a somewhat busy appearance. With the exception of the very small grilles just to the outside of the tail lamps, every grille or vent on the Elise is functional and serves a needed purpose. I chose mine to be painted black at least in part to reduce the visual impact of black grilles and vents.

The specifications show a number of similarities and a few differences between the MINI and the Lotus. The most obvious differences are the Lotus weighs less than 2000 lbs, about 700 lbs less than the MINI, and the Lotus is also almost 12” shorter in height than the MINI. Other dimensions are much closer. The Lotus is about 5” longer, but has a 6” shorter wheelbase. The Lotus is about one inch wider than the MINI, although it is narrower in the cockpit area. Ground clearance is about the same for both vehicles, but the Lotus, with much more front overhang, requires more care getting into and out of some driveways. Scraping bottom on the Lotus can also be much more damaging because the front fiberglass clamshell is what usually takes the hit.

The Lotus develops 190 hp @7800 rpm as compared with the stock MCS of 168 hp @6000 rpm or the JCW MCS with 207 hp @6950 rpm. Torque is 138 ft-lbs @6800 rpm for the Lotus and 162 ft-lbs @4000 rpm for the stock MCS or 180 ft-lbs @4500 rpm for the JCW MCS. Redline on the Lotus is 8000 rpm although transients to 8500 rpm are allowed while the MINI has a max of 6750 rpm stock or 7000 rpm for the JCW. The track intentions of the Lotus are obvious in the way it produces its power at higher rpm than the MINI. Torque is relatively low in the Lotus, and not developed until a high rpm, but with the weight of less than 2000 lbs, less torque is needed for exhilarating performance. The Lotus is also geared about ten percent lower than the MINI which helps improve performance off the line. Considering horsepower to weight ratio and gearing, the Lotus performance would compare with a MINI having about 275 hp.

The MINI has pretty conventional seating and as we all know has much more interior room than non-owners imagine. The seats adjust in many ways to allow for different sized drivers to find a comfortable position and the steering wheel tilts to further accommodate different driving positions. The Elise driver’s seat has only one adjustment — fore and aft. There are no other seat adjustments available and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust — either you fit or you don’t. The passenger seat doesn’t adjust at all and it is a couple inches narrower than the driver’s seat. The seats are actually about six inches below the very wide door sills. You sit almost on the floor. This, along with the fact that the top of the roof is only 44” from the ground, makes entry and exit a learned skill requiring some contortion, rather than something that comes naturally. It’s a good idea to practice your entry and exit skills in the privacy of your own garage until you get the technique down. It can be embarrassing to arrive somewhere with everyone watching — and they will be watching if you arrive in an Elise — and blow your whole cool image by awkwardly stumbling out of the car. The Lotus is a car you put on, like a pair of pants, rather than get into. Once in, however, I find it quite comfortable, even though I am 6’ 3” tall. The seats wrap around you, fit snugly and have little padding. The foot pedals are a bit close together for anyone with feet over about a size 10, but I usually wear tennis shoes or driving shoes in the Lotus.

There is very little storage space in the Lotus. There isn’t even a glove box. There is a narrow shelf under the dash and a little space behind the seats. The boot is a small compartment behind the engine large enough for a medium sized duffle. The Lotus has no spare tire and doesn’t come with runflat tires. Like many of us who have taken the runflats off our MINIs, a can of tire sealant is stored in the boot to hopefully get you far enough to get a tire repaired should you have a flat. The Elise comes with a removable soft top and there is an optional hard top. Hard top removal is a seasonal, rather than daily, operation since it requires tools and there is no place in the Elise to stow the top once it’s removed. The soft top can be rolled and stored in the boot when removed.

Instrumentation in both cars is similar, giving you just the basic information you need. Both the MINI and the Lotus come with speedometer, tachometer, coolant temperature gauge, fuel gauge and trip odometer. Warning lights serve for most other monitoring functions. The Lotus offers no cruise control, navigation system, automatic climate control, on-board computer, heated seats, or power mirrors. One of the few concessions to creature comforts is the optional “Touring Pack” which gives you additional sound insulation, leather seats, power windows, full carpeting and a radio upgrade. You can even get a cup holder if you order the “Premium Pack” which also adds an XM radio. In the U.S., the Elise comes with A/C, but you can pay $250 extra to have the factory leave it off. There is no transmission option other than the standard 6-speed. There is no power steering, but it isn’t needed since the Lotus only has a little over 700 lbs on the front wheels compared with the MINI which has about 1700 lbs on the front wheels. Steering is very light and responsive even without power assist. The Lotus comes with ABS standard and traction control is an option, but no other driver aids such as DSC or ASC which are available in the MINI. A Torsen limited slip differential is also available.

On the road, the driving experience and dynamics are very different, yet the results are closer than you might imagine. The Lotus is loud and rough. In stock form it is louder than my MINI with a Borla exhaust. You feel the bumps in the road much more distinctly in the Lotus and there is good feedback through the steering wheel. The throttle in the Lotus is very responsive. Blipping the throttle to downshift is an instantaneous thing in the Lotus while the MINI seems to take a moment to think about it. The Lotus has cat-like reflexes and responds almost as an extension of your thoughts. This is at least in part due to its light weight and direct, unassisted steering. There is almost no body roll in cornering the Lotus and grip levels are very high. Gear selection is smoother and surer in the MINI. The Lotus shifter is notchier and less precise. The MINI carries approximately 61 percent of its weight on its front wheels and at the limit, the MINI will understeer. The Lotus, with 62 percent of its weight on the rear wheels and a relatively short wheelbase, can oversteer and even go around on you if you get into a corner hot and back off. It’s more important in the Lotus to be smooth and to get your braking done before the apex, then power through the turn. Going fast in either car is a rewarding experience. It takes different technique to drive a FWD car and a RWD mid-engine car near the limit, but the results are more down to driver skill than they are to the relative capabilities of the two cars.

The MINI and the Lotus Elise are very different in appearance, ergonomics, mechanical design and driving experience, yet they are both rewarding cars for the enthusiast to drive. I love them both.