The 1996 Lotus Elise weighed 725 kg (1,598 lb). Because of this low weight, it was able to accelerate 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.8 seconds despite its relatively low power output of 118 bhp (88 kW; 120 PS). Braking and fuel consumption are also improved by the car's reduced weight. Cornering is helped by a low center of gravity height of 470mm (18½").
Series 1 was designed by Julian Thomson, then head of design at Lotus, and Richard Rackham, Lotus's chief engineer.
Besides the standard higher-performance variants listed below, Lotus also released some limited edition models such as Sport 135 (1998/9) with approx 145 bhp (108 kW; 147 PS), Sport 160 (2000) with 150–160 bhp (112–119 kW; 152–162 PS), and Sport 190 (190 bhp (142 kW; 193 PS)). These were more competent on track with sports suspension, wheels and tyres, seats according to model. There were other special editions such as the 50th Anniversary Edition (green/gold) celebrating 50 years of Lotus cars, the Type 49 ("Gold Leaf" red and white two-tone), and Type 79 ("JPS" black/gold) which refers to its successful Grand Prix car type numbers.
The Series 1 Lotus Elise 80 was briefly assembled on a dedicated assembly line at Proton's Shah Alam factory between 1997 and 2000. The Malaysian-assembled Elise costs less than its British-built counterpart as it was manufactured with more Malaysian-sourced components. The Malaysian-assembled Elise was also exported to regional markets, including Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. However, parent company Proton had been severely affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which brought an early end to the Malaysian assembly of the Lotus Elise in late 2000, only three years after it commenced and with an estimated 150 units sold. The Proton-assembled Elises were assigned the code 'B' in the eleventh VIN position, while the original Hethel-built units were stamped with the code 'H'.
A faster edition called the 111S, named after the Lotus type-number of the Elise (Type 111), was introduced in early 1999 and had the 1.8 Rover K-Series engine also used in the Rover MGF. It featured a VVC system providing continuously variable lift and duration on the intake valves only. This technology, producing a flatter torque curve from lower down the rev range and a declared 143 bhp (107 kW; 145 PS). A small but useful improvement over the standard 16 valve Rover 1.8 L K-series 118 bhp (88 kW; 120 PS) inline-four unit. Fitted with a closer ratio manual gearbox and lower ratio final drive the acceleration was improved. Minor changes include more padding in the seats, headlamp covers, rear spoiler, cross drilled brake discs, alloy window winders and a six-spoke wheels. The rear wheels being slightly wider than before necessitated the fitting of "spats" on the back of the rear wheel arches to comply with EU regulations. The 111s was also fitted with a "chipcutter" front grille. 
In 2000, the 340R limited edition model, based on a Series 1 Elise was introduced. This roofless car was a special edition, limited to only 340 cars being built. The name 340 originally referred to the 340 bhp/tonne (254 kW/tonne) power-to-weight ratio of the original prototype which had 177 bhp (132 kW; 179 PS) while weighing just 500 kg (1,100 lb). However, in production models the 340 refers to the number of cars built. The final production versions weighed 701 kg (1,545 lb) and had a power-to-weight ratio of (269 bhp/tonne). A "Track Pack" was created that upped power to 192 bhp (143 kW; 195 PS) and weighed only 571 kg (1,259 lb).
In 2000, Lotus introduced the Exige — a hardtop version of the Elise with the 177 bhp (132 kW; 179 PS) engine from the 340R; as well as different front and rear body "clamshells", larger wheels, and a rear wing. Many models received an upgrade to 190 bhp (142 kW; 193 PS) with better driveability due to changes to ECU and cam timing.