One of the strangest joint ventures so far!

At one point Lotus Elans were sold as a Kia

Kia ElanAt one point in the 1990s, a Lotus was sold as a Kia. This is completely true, and I’m not exaggerating anything. During the 1990s, the Lotus Elan was offered in Asian markets as the Kia Elan. It made no changes from the Lotus except a Kia badge on the hood and steering wheel, different taillights and a different engine.

Here’s what happened. In the late 1980s, Lotus came out with a small, front-wheel-drive car called the Elan to complement the brand’s midengine Esprit exotic. Front-wheel drive was new territory for Lotus, but the brand apparently executed it well; many period reviews of the Elan were positive. Nonetheless, it remained a rare vehicle; I was shocked to run across one for sale on Autotrader last week.

When the Elan was getting ready to end production, Lotus was apparently approached by Kia, then a fledgling South Korean automaker with a shallow product lineup, to see if Kia could buy up the rights to the Elan and sell it as a Kia. Presumably, because sales weren’t especially brisk, Lotus agreed to this, and a new car was born: the Kia Elan, also called the Kia Vigato in Japan and (apparently) the Kia Roadster in Germany.

Despite the new badge on the hood, obvious changes to the Kia Elan were minimal: Kia simply updated the taillights, presumably taking every possible opportunity they could to reference its British sports-car heritage. The most important change came under the hood, as Kia likely couldn’t have access the original Isuzu-sourced powertrain from the Elan; instead, they used a slightly more powerful 1.8-liter engine with 151 horses that likely helped the car’s acceleration just a touch.

In 1999, with Kia’s fortunes improving and the Elan growing older, the Kia Elan ended production — and the book closed on one of the most unusual automaker duos of all time.

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