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Toyota MR-2 and Lotus Elise - Who got punked?

Our $25,000 turboed-and-tuned MR2, or this $50,000 box stock Elise?

By Andy Hope, Photography by Edward Loh, James Tate

Every now and then, you guys ask for this kind of story. Requests usually crop up when it's time to start talking about the Ultimate Street Car Challenge, or from readers who want us to take our modified car tests a step further. "Yeah, that old car you guys tested looks pretty sick, but I bet it wouldn't hold a candle to a bone stock [Evo, STI, Z06, etc.]"

We've been curious as well. Call it cynicism or simply our not-so-secret desire to thrash nice new hardware at the track, but we've always wondered what a thoughtfully modified sport compact could do against its new, class-leading counterpart.

The Lotus Elise is a thinly disguised race car that begins life not with a machine-welded unibody like a typical mass production automobile, but with a 169-pound tub made of extruded aluminum. A fully independent double wishbone suspension is bolted on, followed by disk brakes and R-compound tires. A 1.8-liter double overhead cam 2ZZ-GE Toyota motor is tucked in behind the open-air driver's compartment. Put on a helmet, lose the soft-top, and the cramped, low slung, driver-oriented cabin-with thinly bolstered seats and lots of exposed metal-gives off a strong race car vibe.

With such tightly engineered panel fits, the Elise stands in stark contrast to our duct-taped and zip-tied MR2 Spyder. Since starting life as a pre-production prototype in late 1999, our Project MR2 has made sporadic appearances in the magazine since early 2002.Initially, Dave Coleman set out to improve the handling with upgraded suspension components from TRD. After that success, Dan Barnes went looking for power by testing a bunch of exhaust systems. Unsatisfied, Mike Kojima tore the new exhaust off and had XS Engineering build a turbo kit. After more than a year in R&D, our MR2 finally emerged with the power to match its handling. So enamored were we with its newfound prowess, suggestions were made that it might be able to take down the new Elise.

In Project MR2 Spyder's most recent installments, engineering editor Jay has been preparing it for track attack. Normally, to keep things fair, we try to test cars that are as equal in performance as possible-stock versus stock, mod versus mod. Forget that. The Elise is a softened up race car, so we're not pulling any punches. First, the MR2 got a fresh set of Yokohama A048 race tires. Then we popped in some Project Mu brake pads. To finish it off, it went to Shoreline Motoring for some aggressive, track-oriented alignment.

The ensuing battle was difficult to score. This wasn't a heavyweight fight with boxers throwing knockout punches. This was more like a UFC cage match between flyweights, with one of them seriously doped up. With all the flailing and screeching going on, the only way to keep track of who was winning was with data acquisition and telemetry. Here's how everything went down:

First on the skidpad is the Elise. It's stable and easy to place on the line. But as the speed increases, it develops some serious understeer. Not Dodge Caravan understeer, but a lot more than you expect from a sports car. Trying to induce oversteer by lifting and stabbing the throttle just pitches it off the line, invalidating the test. Even with these issues, the car is able push its way around the skidpad at over one g going left, and almost that much going right.

Project MR2 Spyder jumps on its first chance to outperform the Elise. With its alignment set to toe-out in the front and the rear, it does anything but understeer. The back end waddles constantly and is highly sensitive to throttle inputs. As good as the turbo set-up is, it does not make controlling the car any easier during this test. But once the car settles into its sweet spot, it rips around the skidpad with vigor. Round One goes to the MR2.

Quarter Mile
Everyone thought this test was going to be a gimme for the turbocharged MR2, but the Elise takes advantage of the less-than-ideal conditions and puts up a good fight. This test is not run at a drag strip. It's done in a pretty good headwind on the slightly uphill front straight of our home track, Streets of Willow, which sits at 2300 feet above sea level. Therefore, the results shouldn't be compared to other quarter-mile times, but used only as means to decide who ran quicker on this day.

The Elise has a hard time getting out of the hole. Clutch out and the engine bogs down.Traction control on, off, 7000rpm clutch-dumps; bog, bog, chirp and bog. Whoever programmed the drive-by-wire e-throttle was seriously not into smoky burnouts or drag racing. Brutally slipping the clutch works. With its low mass, the Elise rockets off the line pulling over one g up to the 20mph mark.

The A'PEXi Power FC ECU has no qualms with letting the MR2 roast the tires off the line. The acceleration graph shows that it pulls hard all the way through third gear. But then the boxy MR2 hits a bit of an aerodynamic wall at the bottom of fourth. This is not an issue for the sleek Lotus, which manages to clock a faster trap speed. But the MR2 crosses the finish line first, proving itself to be the superior drag racer. Which probably won't bother Lotus engineers one bit.

This test is run in the opposite direction as the quarter-mile test. So the cars are going slightly downhill with a tailwind, but it doesn't seem to hurt them too much. With their light weight, rear bias, race tires, and ABS, both cars perform exceptionally well. Either one would surely be rear-ended in an 80mph panic stop on the freeway.

The ABS engagement feels less refined in the Elise, like it's releasing the brakes for too long. The car lurches forward briefly then starts slowing again. You can see this on the braking graph at around the 70mph and 30mph marks. It only adds up to twelve feet more than the MR2, which has always been known for its phenomenal stopping distance, but that's enough for the Elise to lose in the third of three tests, leaving it with one last chance to beat our pesky Toyota.

Driving the Elise on the track is an incredible experience. The rigid aluminum chassis is a near-perfect medium of communication between driver and tires. Most other cars are designed to isolate the driver from the road. Not this one. The non-power assisted steering is delightfully heavy. You can really feel how hard the front tires are grabbing. Its ability to turn in and transition from one direction to the other is amazing. Wherever the front tires go, the rear tires follow along without even the thought of stepping out.

The handling of the Elise would be perfect for a new driver, driving at around eight-tenths. But for someone who likes to get the car a little sideways and power through the corners, more front-end grip would be really nice. That could easily be fixed.

The MR2 is a whole different animal. The rear end is constantly wagging from side to side and has to be chased with a lot of countersteering. We're forced to brake for Turn One so the car will be stable in the braking zone for the Turn Two hairpin. The MR2's instability costs it time in the other high-speed corners as well. But in the low-speed sections it works great. Easing off the throttle rotates the back end.

Then the surprising, nearly instantaneous throttle response of the XS turbo set-up slings the car out of the corners and down the straights. That said, if you drive an MR2, please leave a little toe-in at the rear. Beyond making the car scary and dangerous, the toe-out makes the car slower overall.

The results are almost too close to call. According to the telemetry, the Elise laps the 1.8-mile road course 0.008 of a second quicker than the MR2. One more gust of wind down the front straight and it could have gone the other way.

The Winner?
Although it won three of the four tests, it feels wrong to declare outright victory for Project MR2 Spyder. Sure, we've proved that you can take an MR2 street car and tune it to beat a bone stock Elise. But ask anybody who drove both cars at the Streets which car they'd rather go ten-tenths in, and without hesitation, the nod would go to the Elise. It's a proper, buttoned-down track car.

Our MR2 is quite literally something else.For those who revel in the white-knuckle excitement of not knowing what is just around the next corner, this car may be for you. And yet we were able to turn some impressive numbers as we hung on for dear life while sliding around the track.

Still, the purists among us crave the Lotus. About the only strike against it is its reluctance to step the tail out. On the street, that's a good thing, especially in a flyweight car with an aluminum frame.

If someone were to dedicate their Elise strictly to track duty, we suspect all the understeer could be dialed out with a simple alignment. Then with a Honda K-series swap kit available from Prototype Racing and dry carbon body panels available from Lotus Sport, that someone could easily build an Elise we wouldn't even consider taking down. Until such time, we will thumb our nose and chortle with glee whenever we glimpse an Elise from behind the pitted windshield of our grubby little runabout.

Reading the charts
All this time, we'd assumed the average reader understood what's going on with all these fancy graphics. We spend weeks slaving over them to make a 100 percent accurate representation of all the data we get at the track. We're starting to think otherwise. To start, each track is represented by a bird's-eye view of the track broken into color-coded sections, with the driving line scribed inside in red. Some sections have a little graphic box that compares a given stat like average speed or average lateral g, peak speed or peak lateral g, exit speed or even section time for the fastest flying lap.

On the bottom of the page is a speed trace and sometimes a lateral g trace of each car on its flying lap as it progresses through each different-colored section. These actually tell you the most about what's going on. You can figure out cornering speeds, braking ability and even see the points where we shift gears and mark which gear the car's in. Squiggly lateral g profiles also show how well the car has taken a set in a corner. Take the MR2, for example. The line is far more lethargic and erratic than the Elise's because the suspension wasn't stiff enough for the R-compound tires' grip, forcing the car to constantly bite and slip as the soft suspension rolled over and hit the bump stops. The Elise clearly has the lateral g advantage in a dynamic track situation on account of its weight and balance.

So that's the basics. This time we've added some new elements for such a tight battle. We put arrows in to represent each car when they finish each track segment. Side by side means a dead tie, while other sections show one car barely leading. The MR2 is faster in the straights and corner exit, while the Elise will enter a turn faster and eat up the esses better.

Just for visual kicks, we also overlaid the lateral g profile onto the track map. Using the raw data and fancy math, we projected the magnitude of the lateral loads at any given point of the track as a horizontal projection off the driving line, 90 degrees from the direction of travel. The scale is all relative, but it helps to visualize what's going on at any given moment. The areas colored dark orange are where the two cars' lateral loads overlap.

Wheel hp 166 216
Wheel torque (lb-ft) 120 188
Weight (lb) 1971 2250
Weight distribution F:R 38:62 43:57
Track, front (in.) 57.3 58.1
Track, rear (in.) 59.3 57.5
Wheelbase (in.) 90.6 96.5
Front wheel size 16x6.5 +45mm 15x7 +38mm
Rear wheel size 17x7.5 +45mm 15x7 +38mm
Front tires 195/50R16 Yokohama A048 LTS 205/50R15 Yokohama A048 M
Rear tires 225/45R17 Yokohama A048 LTS 205/50R15 Yokohama A048 M
Item Price ($)
2000 Toyota MR2 Spyder* 12,350
205/50R15 A048M tires (x4) 772
15x7 Kosei K1 wheels (x4) 476
Project Mu Type NS brake pads 240
Autopower roll bar 440
Seibon hood and chin spoiler 1000
TRD suspension** 1504
TRD anti-roll bars** 496
TRD flywheel** 496
TRD strut tower braces** 496
TRD subframe braces** 345
TRD short shifter** 159
ACT clutch 472
XS Engineering turbo kit 3995
A'PEXi Power FC and fuel system 1000
Stoptech brake lines 156
Total $24,397
2007 Lotus Elise 43,990
Destination 925
Lifestyle Paint-Chili Red 1200
Touring Pack (leather, power windows, AM/FM/CD stereo) 1350
Sport Pack (alloy wheels, Yokohama A048 tires, suspension) 2480
Lotus traction control 495
Total $50,440
*Based on Kelley Blue Book suggested retail value for a model in excellent condition, with 80,000 miles.
**Price based on Japanese MSRP with a 113 to $1 conversion rate.

Set It Up Right
What you can learn from our time at the trackWhile both cars performed well during this test, each were limited by their set-ups. Here are some basic tuning tips that will make most cars perform better at the track. Just keep in mind that a car set up for the track will often be less stable during braking and cornering. It will also be more sensitive to varying surface conditions. Therefore, they should really be trailered to and from the track, or at least driven cautiously on the street.

Alignment: A basic four-wheel alignment is a must before taking a car on the track. If the car has adjustable ride height, it should be corner balanced as well. Remember, manufacturers typically set up cars to understeer, so they are more predictable and safer on the street. Adjusting the camber and toe beyond these factory settings can make it corner better, at the expense of this predictability.

Camber: Looking at the lateral g telemetry from the circuit test, you can see the cars spend most of the time cornering at close to one g. Adding negative camber will increase the outside tire's contact patch, therefore increasing its grip. This will allow the car to carry more speed through the corners and onto the straights. Typically, two to four degrees of negative camber is optimal.

Toe: Adding toe-out to the front tires will cause the car to turn in and perform quicker transitions from one direction to the other. At the rear, decreasing the amount of toe-in will help the tail swing out in the bends. This lets you get on the power sooner to accelerate out of the corners. Most cars want less than one eighth of an inch of toe-out in the front and zero to an eighth of an inch of toe-in at the rear.

Suspension: The single most common problem we run into while testing tuner cars is the suspension being too low and soft. G loads on the track are much higher than on the street, compressing the suspension to a point where it runs out of travel and bottoms out. This not only accelerates wear but makes the car unpredictable and dangerous to drive. Track cars need relatively stiff springs (with dampers to match) or the ride height needs to be set high enough to avoid this condition. Of course, there is much more involved with suspension tuning than this. But if you can at least keep it from bottoming out, you'll be off to a good start.

Brakes: These get pushed hard and frequently on the track. This wears them out and also creates a lot of heat. At the very least, the brake fluid should be bled to remove any bubbles and pads should be checked for wear. Hard-driven cars should use upgraded pads and fluid designed to work at higher temperatures. Cars using race tires will benefit from larger rotors and calipers due to their ability to dissipate the additional heat created by the extra traction.

Tires: Nothing will affect your car's performance on the track more than the tires. The wider and softer they are, the harder the car can corner, brake, and accelerate. But they must match the suspension and the brakes. If you don't have a stiff racing suspension and upgraded brakes, the car will be better balanced without racing tires. Once at the track, you'll be able to fine-tune your set-up by adjusting tire pressures. Decreasing the pressure in the front will promote oversteer and vice versa.

These are the basic concepts behind setting up a car for track duty. Keep in mind that with each advantage there will be some sacrifice. Negative camber takes away grip on straight-line acceleration and braking. Toe-out makes the car wander on the straights. And both these mods significantly increase inside tire wear. Also be aware that these changes will make driving on the street more difficult. The car will be more prone to spinning if the driver is abrupt with steering, throttle, and brake inputs. But if driven smoothly, the car will ultimately get around a track faster.

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By Andy Hope
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