Did You Know Kia Used to Sell a Rebadged Lotus Elan?
There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of it.
It's not unheard of for an automaker to collaborate with other manufacturers in developing technologies and platforms for shared use. In rare circumstances, some brands have even resorted to buying the rights for a particular vehicle. That's the case with everybody's some folks' favorite budget brand Kia, which once bought out the rights to a not-so-hot Lotus in the mid-1990s.
This story begins with what is perhaps the most controversial car ever produced by Lotus: The Elan.
Engineers developed the Elan with the idea of complementing its exotic Esprit with a more mild-mannered commuter. The idea read perfectly on paper—a nimble-handling daily driver sports car with a peppy powertrain to back it up. But the execution was bittersweet, proving that too many cooks in the kitchen will only sour the final product.
When the Elan underwent the final stages of development, it was not without the watchful eye of then-majority stakeholder, General Motors. As you may recall, GM also had a hand in a much more economical brand at the same time: Isuzu. By the time the Elan was released, it had received an Isuzu-derived, 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder that sent all 162 horsepower to the front wheels—the first (and only) Lotus to ever do so.
But, there was a bigger problem than the design. The Elan was released for sale in 1989—the same model year as the first-generation Mazda Miata, which was not only rear-wheel-drive but also nearly a third of the price of the Lotus. Both cars were convertibles, light on their feet, and offered superb handling as a dedicated sports car platform. Only one would prevail as a clear victor in time.
Lotus paused production of the Elan in 1992 after selling just 3,855 examples. Two years later, the brand would later produce one last run of 800 units to deplete its stock of Isuzu engines. With its cache of powertrains exhausted, Lotus was now sitting on the rights to a platform for a car that nobody wanted to buy. And like some sort of automotive miracle, Lotus had the opportunity to wipe its hands of the roadster when a lesser-known brand from South Korea came knocking.
Kia took the reigns of Elan production, keeping the nameplate—albeit with a Kia badge—and making minimal changes before selling it to customers within the footprint of its Asian markets. Kia replaced the Renault Alpine taillights, swapped out some proprietary interior bits, and substituted the turbocharged Isuzu engine for its own naturally-aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder, reducing the output to a more modest 151 horsepower.
Despite the changes, Kia didn't have instantaneous success with its new sports car, selling only 1,056 examples of its own Elan across all markets between 1996 and 1999.
Having such limited numbers and being nearly identical to its Lotus counterpart, the Kia Elan has quite the cult following. One such example recently popped up for sale in Norway (a market where the Elan was not originally sold) after being imported into the country in 2003. That particular vehicle is being offered at $10,636 with only 22,335 miles.
The entire history of the Elan begs to ask if the vehicle would have been more successful had it never been sold under the Lotus moniker. Or, perhaps the flop under Kia's watch was due to the automaker's limited market presence and financial distress in the '90s. Whether you view it as a cheap Lotus or an expensive Kia, there is one constant: it was a flop.
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