I invite my friend Murph along for the ride. He's got vacation days he needs to burn, and I figure nothing will prove the Elise's long-distance capabilities, or lack thereof, the way a passenger will. Murph isn't exactly built like Keith Richards, either, and the Elise is so small that it might be the only car on the U.S. market that conjoined twins would be able to drive without any modifications. At least our car has the Luxury package, which includes power windows, a Blaupunkt CD player, and extra sound-deadening material. You know you're hard-core when sound-deadening material is on the options list. Creature comforts may be lacking, but, as Murph points out when we roll into London, "it's pretty unique to be able to pull up next to a Porsche and know you've got the cooler car."
We've definitely got the coolest car in London, Texas. Strictly speaking, we might have the only car in London, Texas, as the citizens here haven't received the memo that says you're permitted to drive something besides a full-size pick-up with some type of deer-smashing apparatus welded to the front. Charlie Reichenau, owner of the London Short Stop gas station, has a look at the Lotus's shin-high front end and makes an ominous, and certainly accurate, prediction about what would happen if the Elise were to hit any of the Texas Hill Country's hoofed wildlife. Basically, Murph and I would get impromptu, highly risky antler grafts that would, at worst, be fatal and, at best, preclude use of the soft top.
Besides the Short Stop, a bar, and a scattering of houses, London's not calling us to linger, so, after stocking up on beef jerky and 93-octane, I bid farewell to the small crowd of Lotus oglers at the Short Stop and point the prow eastward. To make a properly memorable exit, I run the Elise up to redline in first and second gears and take the corner leading out of town at a speed never imagined by the local F-150s. Then I realize I left my hat on the fuel pump and follow my 8000-rpm exit with a sheepish return. "Back already?" Reichenau asks, and I joke that I'm already out of gas.
As I soon learn, I wasn't exaggerating by much. You might assume that any car with a 1.8-liter four-banger would have great range, but not when that four-banger is flirting with the redline more or less always. And not when the fuel tank could be siphoned with one pull from a turkey baster. For the next refuel, I push it until the low-fuel warning light comes on, and when I fill up, it takes only 7.9 gallons. If you were driving like a namby, you might make 200 miles on a tank, but given the Elise's high-revving personality, 150 miles is a more realistic limit. And after 150 miles, you'll welcome a stretch. Trust me.
The Elise doesn't look like a million bucks, but, to some of the less car-savvy denizens of the South, it at least looks like a couple hundred thousand bucks. During our many fuel stops, guesses about the Lotus's price range from high five-digits to $200,000. Most of the six-figure guessers look as if they also might consider toothpaste to be a luxury commodity wildly out the reach of the average man, but it's still safe to say that the Elise exudes an air of exoticism far beyond its price.
As we make our way out of the sinuous roads of the Hill Country and settle in on the highway to Houston, some of the Elise's ergonomic idiosyncrasies begin to emerge. For instance, the dead pedal is only about half as wide as my size-13 hoof, and the left half of my foot is asleep. I keep switching my left arm from the unpadded chassis sill to my lap, neither of which is a terribly comfortable place to leave it for miles on end. And the lack of cruise control means that my right foot stays jammed against the floor at a constant angle, inciting a dull, constant ache in my heel-I'm wearing Pumas with very little padding, because my running shoes are slightly wider than the space allotted to the gas pedal.
Still, even on the highway, I'm wearing a grin more often than not. The Lotus squirts through gaps in traffic like LeBron James driving the lane, and acceleration in sixth gear is strong despite the peaky motor. The Elise's go-to gear, however, is third, and occasionally I drop it down to put some serious emphasis on a pass. The Toyota four's two-stage cams go into banshee power mode at about 6000 rpm, so first and second gears give only a split-second taste of the engine's full juice before it's time to upshift. In fourth, you're going too fast. In third, however, the hit of power comes on at 60 mph or so, and the Elise feels as if it does 60 to 90 mph faster than it does 0 to 30.
The Elise tops out in the neighborhood of 150 mph, and I can vouch that it officially does at least 85 mph. Just before we get to Houston, a state trooper heading in the other direction suddenly barrels across the median and pulls out behind us, lights ablaze. We're keeping pace with minivans and semis in a 70-mph zone, but I have a feeling he's not after anything wearing mud flaps. Unfortunately, I'm right.
What are the chances a Texas trooper would give us a warning? I put myself in his cowboy hat, and the conclusion isn't promising. Two guys in a British sports car wearing Red Sox and Yankees hats. Probably support gay marriage and don't like Toby Keith. Possibly vegetarians. And definitely getting a ticket.
The cop hands me my first speeding ticket in nine years. I console myself with the thought that my streak was broken with a worthy car, something like getting an STD from a supermodel. But I should have heeded the warning emblazoned on many a T-shirt and never have messed with Texas.
A quilting conference in Houston means the city is overrun with drunken grandmas, so we're exiled to a hotel on the fringes of town. Besides tipsy quilters, Houston has the sharpest division between good neighborhood and bad neighborhood that I've ever seen. In a one-block span, we see both a trendy sushi restaurant with a yellow Ferrari 360 Modena parked out front and a house straight out of The 'Burbs, with boarded-up windows and rats running around on the roof. Socioeconomic schism, thy name is Houston.
The next day, I'm happy to get out of Texas and head for the bayou of Louisiana. Route 82 runs along the coast, and traffic doesn't move much slower than it does on the interstate, which is important, because I'm in a hurry to get to our destination, New Orleans. Technically, New Orleans isn't really on the way from London to Rome, but after spending a day with the cops and quilters of Texas, we're ready for some Big Easy-style debauchery.
Crawling down Bourbon Street, I have ample time to consider the Elise's exhaust note. It's got a nice, bassy burble and it certainly doesn't sound like anything made by Toyota. But it doesn't sound exotic. If I owned this car, I'd put in more aggressive cams and crank the idle up to about 2000 rpm, so it would play a frenetic staccato tune at all times. And I'd rip out the passenger seat and replace it with another fuel tank so you wouldn't have to stop every ten minutes. And I'd airbrush a portrait of a ninja on the hood, but that's, like, stage three.
Besides being great for gratuitous throttle blipping, Bourbon Street is also a perfect venue for pedestrians to inspect the car and, since the roof is off, to ask questions about it as we inch past. I say "It's a Lotus Elise" so many times that the words start to lose meaning. "It's a Lotus Elise. It's a Locust E-Lease. It's a Hocus Elite." Outside our hotel, I approach the parked Elise to find a woman excitedly telling her friends all the key specs. She knows more about the car than anyone we've met thus far, and when she introduces herself, it's clear why: her name, too, is Elise. Elise continues her monologue on the eponymous vehicle: "She's got an aluminum tub, and she weighs about 2000 pounds. She just came over to the U.S." That's right, I think, she does have an aluminum- What? She? Elise might think that just because she's a woman, the car is, too, but she's wrong. The Anthropomorphic Cartoon Car Gender Test poses the question: When you imagine a given vehicle as an anthropomorphic cartoon car, does it have big eyelashes on the headlights or big eyebrows over them? The Elise would have big, mean eyebrows, femme name not-withstanding. I rest my case.
We restrict our Hurricane intake in New Orleans with an eye toward the next day, when we have to cover 600 miles to reach mighty Rome. By the time we're outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, highway dementia has taken over. "Why did the elephant go to the dentist?" I ask Murph. "Because he had a Tuska-loosa!" Murph is a tough crowd, but then again, he's preoccupied with trying to spit tobacco juice into an empty water bottle while shivering uncontrollably. The soft top is in the trunk, but we haven't used it yet, and I'm determined to reach Rome having gone roofless the entire way.
At our final fuel stop, a woman in a Bama sweatshirt tells us, "Y'all be careful in that itty-bitty car. I don't want it to get any smaller than it already is." Thanks for the concern, Bama Mama.
Rome, Georgia, lacks the historical trappings of the Italian version, but it has an Outback Steakhouse that's still open, and that's affirmation of civilization to us. I don't need aqueducts or a gladiator arena as long as I can get a New York strip at 8:00 on a Sunday night.
The Elise draws so much attention in car-crazed Rome that we find a crowd standing around the car after dinner. I take one local car buff for a spin around the reaches of the empty parking lot of the adjacent mall and, er, test the limits of adhesion. "Nobody in Rome has a stock exhaust or a stock stereo," he tells me as I tighten the arc of our turn and the Elise continues to grip relentlessly, despite its motorcycle-like 175-section-width front tires. One of the local kids, spying us playing skid pad in the Lotus, takes out his mid-'90s 300ZX and demonstrates the art of the donut.
Within thirty seconds, I'm handing my license to an extremely unhappy officer of the law who demands to know if (a) I want to go to jail and (b) I like to run down children in busy parking lots. There are more children in the cast of Cocoon than there are in this parking lot, but I keep that observation to myself and assume the role of polite groveler.
The cops know the tire smoke didn't come from the Lotus, so, after a few stern warnings and, strangely, some advice about the best local places to speed, my license is returned, the fuzz depart, and the Outback Steakhouse of Rome reverts to its natural state of lawlessness and depravity.
Final tally: 1700 miles, one speeding ticket, and zero mechanical issues, even after our cleanliness-seeking photographer sprayed the engine with a pressure washer while I winced and murmured incantations that it might start again. The interior is mostly bare metal, there's no power steering, and the radio is so bad that you expect Ashton Kutcher to run out from behind a bush and tell you that you've been Blau-Punk'd. None of that changes the fact that the Elise is just about the most fun you can have for $41,000. When you're driving down a twisty road, the Momo wheel alive in your hands, your eyes at the height of a Camry's plastic door cladding, and that overgrown crotch-rocket motor sitting behind your ears just begging for ludicrous revolutions, there really isn't another car you'd rather have. The highway is a different story, but it's not as if you're driving a wheeled iron maiden-toughen up a little. I certainly hope that in the Colosseum of the American market, Lotus's little gladiator manages to fend off the lions. It deserves to live.