The best used Lotus cars to buy in 2021

This year promises to be huge for Lotus; no better time, then, to seek out the classics

By PH Staff / Friday, March 12, 2021 / Loading comments

Though it can sometimes seem like every year is a vital for one for Lotus – 'twas ever thus for low volume manufacturers – the sentiment rings true in 2021. We're not just talking about the Evija, either; the phasing out of the Exige, Evora and Elise in favour of the Type 131 will be a pivotal moment for the firm as it attempts to redefine itself for the electrified era.

All have proven magnificent in their own way. The Elise redefined expectations of an entry-level Lotus in the mid-1990s, and in its various iterations over the past quarter of a century has beguiled all who have driven it. The Exige has embarrassed many a more powerful and more expensive track car since the turn of the century, whether it's been powered by Rover or Toyota. And the Evora proved that the Lotus wizardry could translate into something larger and more usable. Though none of the three are without their flaws, the triumvirate remain epic sports cars to drive. They have been the bedrock of Lotus for a very long time, with tens of thousands sold and a reputation cemented.

With a new dawn imminent, now seemed the opportune moment to delve head-first into the classifieds to see which Lotuses represent the best buys in 2021. A new one isn't cheap, and a Type 131 will be at last £50,000; there are used ones around for far less than that, though, ones that typify everything that's great about a Lotus and its illustrious history. From Esprit to Elan and all that's in between, here is the pick of a fabulous bunch.


Up to £15,000…

  • Elan M100

Funny one, the Elan. On the one hand there's gutsy turbocharged performance, pert good looks and one of the best front-drive chassis ever. On the other is the fact it's not rear-wheel drive, and therefore not the icon that the first Elan was. Lotus isn't alone in resurrecting a name that isn't received as well as the original (and wasn't its last attempt, either; remember the Europa?) but that shouldn't detract from the Elan's appeal as an entry-level sports car.

Because it was still a Lotus, and that meant the M100 was brilliant to drive – even with FWD. Designed to tap into the surging popularity of hot hatches, the Elan is still cited nowadays as one of the best handling front-drive cars ever built. It was a step too far for fans at the time of launch, though, especially when the GM-sourced engine was factored in as well.

Now, almost 30 years later, the Elan seems to be enjoying a modest renaissance. Styling that wasn't received all that well now has retro appeal, a turbocharged one is still plenty quick enough, and they remain cheap, despite some appreciation. Even the very best M100s like this SE Turbo are £17k; within the strictures of our budget, even a low mileage, late Elan S2 is available with money to spare – see here…

Up to £25,000…

  • Elise S1

Now, hold on a second – you don't need £25k to buy an Elise S1. At least not yet, anyway. Even with the mystique that continues to surround Lotus's icon, and with the 25th anniversary year well under way, there are cars around for a lot less than that. This one is modified and high mileage, but someone nabbed it for less than £13,000…

So, there are still reasonably cheap S1 Elises out there; given everything, that's somewhat of a surprise. With £25k to play with, the best of the breed are available – see cars like this very low mileage standard car, this Type 49 or this 111S, all within budget.

Our money would go on the 111S with its additional power but, rather like pizza, there's no such thing as a bad Lotus Elise. The S1 was a revelation in the mid-1990s and, to anyone not familiar with Lotus, it will be today as well. The very earliest ones weighed in at just 723kg – or fully 1,007kg less than a new M3. The benefits of low mass are never more apparent, or more joyful to experience, than behind the wheel of an Elise; because obviously it's agile and immediate, but also as it doesn't have to be super stiff to do what it does. However much you decide to spend on an Elise, it'll feel worth every penny.

Up to £30,000…

  • Exige S2

Updating the Lotus Elise was never going to be an easy task, given how it reinvented the company. Revising the Exige was no small feat either; it may have been extremely rare, but the first Exige had an impact that belied its sales – and its diminutive stature. As track days were really taking off, so the Exige's ability to deliver motorsport-grade thrills in a roadgoing package became immensely desirable.

Handily, more of the same was on offer in the S2, which followed a couple of years after the last S1 had been made and switched Rover K Series power for the Toyota 2ZZ-GE. Any concerns about lost character for the S2 were swiftly allayed: perhaps it wasn't quite as unapologetically raw, but the Exige was as thrilling as anything else comparable – not least thanks to its 8,500rpm potential.

Today, the S2 Exige sits between the first Exige and second Elise in terms of values, reflecting the fact that its more common than the former and scarcer than the latter. At £30k you might just get hold of the supercharged Exige that many deem more desirable, though the naturally aspirated car is no inferior substitute. With no Lotus quite like the four-cylinder Exiges made again, values seem secure as well.

Up to £35,000…

  • Elan (pre-76)

Clearly, this list had to feature some Hethel products built prior to 1995, and where better to begin on the classics than the Elan? There's nothing quite like the original – even if, as is often the way with the true greats but not necessarily always true of Lotus, the idea wasn't all that complicated. It even worked when Mazda had a go…

Next year will mark 60 years since the Elan first went into production, and with it came a host of technical innovations: it was the first Lotus road car to use a steel backbone chassis with fibreglass body, as well as using disc brakes at each corner, independent suspension on both axles and rack and pinion steering. Which, combined with the famed twin-cam four-cylinder and a sub-700kg kerbweight, made the Elan sublime to drive. The fact it was immensely pretty as well didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but it did make the car even more desirable.

Through S1, S2, S3, S4, Sprint and +2, there's a plethora of Elan choice and a fair number of survivors – there are three times as many of these Elans on PH as the front-drive follow up. Such is there collectability that many are now advertised as POA, although £35k still buys a good'n: this 1968 S4 has recently had £20,000 spent on it to bring it back to its best, and the result looks flawless. Given the work that's gone in, £34,950 must be a steal…

Up to £45,000…

  • Esprit

It says a lot about just how good the Esprit was that it looks almost equally compelling with four or eight cylinders – and how many cars can you say that about? Though dogged with a Renault 25 gearbox and a less than perfect reliability record across its 28 years, the Esprit obviously couldn't be ignored – and not just because of 007.

While the very best S1s are out of even this pretty generous budget, there are still a glut of brilliant Esprits available for the money. There are S2s, S3s and X180s aplenty, but our money would go into a post-1994 S4. Partly that's because they still look so good all these years later, but it was also when the V8 arrived, catapulting the Esprit into another league of performance and pool of rivals. The engine made the Esprit into a real junior supercar, the kind of which Hethel hadn't made before, and regardless of the V8's record, it isn't hard to see the temptation. Try finding a 90s' 911 this fast for this little.

Hand on heart though, we'd probably get a four-cylinder one, ideally a GT3 like this if possible, to really experience the best an Esprit has to offer. Given those later models emerged as the Elise was hogging the headlines, they can be forgotten about in the tale of present-day Lotus; a mile or two in a well sorted one ought to remind anyone why they shouldn't be.

Up to £55,000…

  • Evora 400

An Evora could have featured in so many of these price categories, given the wealth of options available. It's here because more money opens up the door to the Evora 400, launched in 2015. And that's probably the best of the bunch, as sweet to drive as the early car but demonstrably quicker, as well as less expensive than the slightly sillier ones that followed.

Though perhaps less attention grabbing than the Elise and Exige that will also cease production this year, the Evora is no less important to Lotus's recent history. Because if not quite an everyday Lotus (or not on the Porsche benchmark, at any rate), it was one that could realistically be enjoyed on a regular basis – without usability issues getting in the way of driving fun. The Evora still steered, rode and handled better than pretty much anything else, with a more accommodating character than something like an Elise.

For £55,000, the cream of the 400 crop is on offer; this 67-plated car is just 17,000 miles old and, if discreetly specced, still looks very good on it. If the Type 131 turns out to drive as well as an Evora 400 does – and increases the appeal as an everyday prospect – Lotus really will be onto a winner.

Up to £65,000…

  • Carlton

As perhaps the most notorious four-door saloon ever made, and another of those brilliant Lotus collaboration curios like the Sunbeam Lotus, the Carlton had to feature here somewhere. Even if it's higher up than expected; the one auction listing on PH has bidding kicking off at £35,000, and the last classified ad we featured was for sale at £95,000…

This Carlton is less pristine than that one was, a daily driver for 20 years and thus comfortably past 100,000 miles. Still, with a host of recent parts renewed it looks eminently usable, and what a treat it promises to be: the twin Garrett turbocharged straight six, the towering performance, the iconic look and the Lotus-honed finesse. Now launched almost 30 years ago, there surely haven't been many cooler saloon cars.

That age means the Carlton will need treating like a classic now, even if it can still hold its own with most modern-day rivals. This was a rare, exotic, very fast Vauxhall when new – despite its humdrum silhouette. There's a PH Used Buying Guide for one if you want to find out what is likely to go wrong. It promises to be worth every bit of time and effort.

Up to £75,000…

  • Exige S3

Like the Evora mentioned earlier, the Series 3 V6 Exige is available for a lot less money than this threshold – just about half as much, in fact. But it's evidence of just how mesmerising the car really is that it can justify a much more senior price tag. Furthermore, a Final Edition car in a list of best Lotus buys in 2021 seems rather appropriate. This Azure Blue car even has a zero per cent finance offer…

Despite some reservations when the S3 was released back in 2012 – adding hundreds of kilos to the Exige with a bigger engine and platform – the drive soon silenced the doubters. It was less delicate the four-cylinder Exiges, but the V6 was still overflowing with feel and feedback. And, thanks to the fitment of the supercharged engine, a surfeit of performance as well. Even with the base 350hp engine, the Exige was searingly rapid.

After that point, the Exige range became quite confusing, with 360, 380, 390, 410 and 430 models added over time. Handily, they're all brilliant, and can be made to suit most budgets. What are you waiting for?

Up to £85,000…

  • Elite

Way back in 1956, the Elite was an audacious sports car for anyone; for Lotus, it was an enormously ambitious project to embark on, with its composite monocoque, composite panels and the 'Chapman strut' suspension. Here was a car with drag co-efficient of just 0.29, in the mid-50s. At Le Mans in 1959 an Elite finished eighth (and first in its class), averaging 94mph across 24 hours of racing. With a 1.2-litre Coventry Climax engine…

With this level of success and innovation, plus the Elite's timelessly pretty look, it was always going to be in demand. Lotus built 281 at the end of the 1950s and into 1960; like the Elan that came late, it's now considered in the highest echelon of Lotus icon. Rather similarly to the Elan, also, the Elite name was resurrected with rather less brilliance some years later – but we won't mention that for now.

Instead, check this one out. Delivered new to a county cricketer "who bought the car with his testimonial match funds" – what a way to retire – the Elite has a competition history and a desirable spec, with twin Weber carbs and the ZF gearbox. With near enough a complete rebuild less than 1,000 miles ago, it's surely as good an Elite as can now be found all these decades later. Which is why it costs £85,000. But you would if you could, right?

Sky's the limit…

  • 3-Eleven

It is possible now that you might consider tossing an unlimited budget on the deposit required to secure and Evija, given it's Lotus's first go at a hypercar – and a newfangled electric one to boot. But there's little more exhilarating on four wheels than a 3-Eleven, which is why it tops our list. Bringing Lotus feel and immediacy with supercharged V6 power and a sub-tonne kerbweight made for something truly ballistic. And with a manual gearbox, too, in case it wasn't all demanding enough.

That said, the joy of the 3-Eleven, as with so many Lotus sports cars, is that it was genuinely thrilling at any speed. Partly because you were driving a mobile hurricane, but also because of the immense tactility of every control. Stripping further kilos away from an Exige, as the 2-Eleven did a decade prior, served to ramp up a sensational experience. It was utterly absorbing.

On circuit, nothing on road tyres would come close to a 3-Eleven. The journey there and back would be a little, er, intense, but it was hard to care when playing at being the sports prototype superstar. So, while the big bucks could also go on a really mad Evora or Exige or something in racing drag from the Chapman era, we have no hesitation in suggesting the 3-Eleven, if you can find one. Just don't forget to budget for good thermals, too…


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