Lotus founder Colin Chapman was the high priest of low automotive mass, and he became infamous among racers for building Grand Prix cars that would implode within yards of the finish line (either side). But his Elan demonstrated the rightness of lightness as succinctly as anything his company built. The flyweight Elan (available in about a dozen series, in roadster and coupe forms), eked a still-impressive 0–60 out of a hamster wheel-size 1558cc four-cylinder engine. It handled like a paring knife; bereft of weight, it rode with true suppleness.
Unfortunately, these cars were so underbuilt they tended to self-destruct when the doorbell rang. If it wasn't the rust, it was the electrical system; if it wasn't the engine fires, it was the lights sputtering out on a dark country road. But when they ran, nothing could match the Elan's sports-car purity.
Fans of the littlest Lotus who are wary of commitment – again, just so you can't say we didn't warn you: disintegrating body panels, Fourth-of-July electricals, the inability to go toe-to-toe with anything heavier than a tricycle – should seriously consider the Mazda Miata. That car was the '90s Japanese version of the Elan, meaning it was reliable and unburdened by stuff like traction control and turbochargers– but still, despite its sporty rep, it's a bit anodyne in comparison. Real men drive Elans.
What to watch out for: Far too much to go into in such limited space. Be advised that Lotus stands for "Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious."