What brands come to mind when you think of sporty, two-seat roadsters? Porsche? Mazda? Jaguar?
A carmaker that certainly isn’t on that list is Kia. Prior to the release of the rear-wheel-drive, turbocharged V6 powered Stinger in late 2017, the Korean brand’s sporting pedigree was limited to a front-wheel-drive warm hatch with a compact 1.6-litre engine, a car which only launched in 2013.
However, dig deeper into the history books and you’ll find that Kia in fact built a turbocharged, two-seater roadster in the mid 1990s, known as the Elan. Does that name sound familiar? That’s because the Elan was a Lotus product, designed in Britain by some of the finest sports-car engineers on the planet. But how did it end up in the hands of the Koreans? Let’s explore.
Wind the clock back to 1986. General Motors had just purchased a majority stake in Lotus for $117 million (in 2019 dollars), and granted the small British outfit the funds and testing resources to develop an all-new small, lightweight roadster in the vein of the Elan of the 1960s and 1970s. The plan was to take advantage of Lotus’ partnership with Toyota to assist the development of the new car, with the Japanese brand set to supply a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine and accompanying manual transmission.
By the time the M100-series Elan reached production in 1989, plans had changed significantly. Sitting under the bonnet was now a choice of two Isuzu-designed four-cylinder motors, with the base 1.6-litre mill producing a measly 97kW. A performance-oriented turbocharged model sat atop the range, with 121kW of power sent through five-speed manual gearbox – it was enough grunt for a 6.5-second 0-100km/h sprint, a figure that is still respectable today.
However, whereas the original Elan was rear-wheel-drive, the M100 powered the front wheels – a controversial decision at the time. Lotus claimed that the front-wheel-drive layout was “faster over a given section of road”, but while journalists praised the car’s cornering prowess and little body roll, it was never able to behave with the same playfulness as its rear-drive competitors.
Unsurprisingly to some, it didn’t sell as well as its maker initially hoped. The release of the ‘traditional’ rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5 and disappointing response among US buyers led to just 3,855 Elans being built between November 1989 and July 1992, with 559 shipped to American customers.
To recoup some of the development costs, Lotus sold the rights to the Elan to Kia Motors in 1995. The Korean company made a number of changes, namely replacing the Isuzu powertrains with a 1.8-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder from its small car range producing 113kW. Other modifications included swapping the Renault Alpine GTA sourced rear lights for Kia-made units, and replacing the British interior gauges and steering wheel with cheaper Korean equivalents.
Sadly, like the original Lotus variant, the Kia Elan was sold poorly and was short-lived. The brand killed off the roadster after producing just 1,058 examples over a span of four years, citing low demand in the few Asian and European markets in which it was sold.
Fortunately, Kia has moved on from the days of the Elan, now offering its own range of home-built performance cars, spearheaded by the V6 Stinger GT. Will it ever return to the two-seater convertible market? We certainly hope so.