The new Exige is one of the must-drive cars of the year, and this is the moment of truth
If you're not excited at the prospect of the rebirth of Lotus's wonderful Exige, then you're reading the wrong magazine. In many ways it's the ultimate evo car incarnate; light, stiff, nimble and blessed with the sort of feedback and agility that only the most special cars possess.
The S2 Exige takes the new Toyota-engined Elise 111R as its basis and ups the quotient of grip, braking stability, body control and sheer thrills to a level that makes you dizzy with adrenalin and forces you to attack your own personal outer limits to exploit it. Rumours of the Exige going soft - one of the options is a Touring Pack that includes full carpet, electric windows and sun visors, and then there's the more useable boot and the more tractable engine - have been much exaggerated.
Let's cut to the chase. The S2 is a worthy successor to the iconic original; a car of stunning ability that rewards no matter how talented the person behind the wheel. It's one of the most exciting cars I've driven in a long time.
However, it's a wonder that the new Exige exists at all. Lotus freely admits that it couldn't give the original car away when it was launched back in 2000. Exiges remained anchored to forecourts across the country, and even when the price dropped from £33,995 to £29,995 sales remained disappointing at best.
As recently as 18 months ago, Lotus denied any plans to develop another Exige. Fortunately the desire within Hethel to push the boundaries of the Elise concept to its limit was too strong to get bogged down by sales forecasts.
So 12 months ago (after many hours tinkering and covert development) the green light was given for an all-new Exige. It shares its Toyota drivetrain and brakes with the Elise 111R, which means 189bhp at 7800rpm and 133lb ft of torque at 6800rpm, a six-speed gearbox and, unlike the old Exige, a servo-assisted ABS braking system.
The benchmark sprint to 60mph is said to take 4.9sec (exactly the same as the 111R), 100mph comes up in 13.2sec and top speed is 147mph. An Elise 111R will hit 150mph, but the Exige sacrifices V-max in the quest for downforce, which makes a significant difference to stability through high-speed corners.
At £29,995 the Exige is Lotus's new flagship and a full £2000 more than the Elise 111R. Add the £1765 Performance Pack (sports seats with four-point harnesses, twin oil coolers and some carbon-effect trim), which I hope all customers will, and air-con at £1295, which I'd advise as the cabin gets very hot when the car is working hard, and the Exige quickly climbs up towards £35K. You can also opt for lighter alloys (£1175) and metallic paint (£595) if you want the ultimate spec. Big money for a little car, you might think, but if cars were valued on ability alone the Exige would be very much more expensive.
On the roads that surround the Lotus factory, the Exige displays a masterful balance, riding with a suppleness that the semi-slick Yokohama AO48 tyres and obviously track-oriented set-up would seem to suggest impossible. It resolutely refuses to be pushed off line by sharp bumps or nasty surface changes, although there is a hint of tramlining and you need a firmer grip on the steering wheel than you would in an Elise. But accept that this is raw feedback rather than unruliness and the Exige soon encourages you to start working those sticky Yokos to their freakishly high limits.
Turn-in is instantaneous and grip astonishing. Once the front tyres have bitten you can get straight on the power with no fears of the tail stepping out or the weight of the mid-mounted engine pushing the nose wide. Fast corners really are a test of nerve as the Exige can normally carry at least 10mph more speed than your brain thinks possible. Body control is awesome, both under braking and through fast and slow corners; roll is minimal and it never feels wrong-footed. This assuredness, even as you close in on the limit, makes any road unravel seamlessly.
Perhaps most encouraging is that it manages to distance itself from the Elise by offering a more physical, hardcore experience and the fact that the Exige responds more enthusiastically when you really grab it by the scruff of the neck and dictate how you want it to respond. It's not naturally a car for hooning sideways but if you've got the requisite skills it'll do your bidding no matter what you ask of it.
The Lotus test track's endlessly varied corners and surfaces highlight just how hard the Exige charges given a free rein. With the engine singing above 6200rpm (the threshold above which the cam profile switches and the real power can be found) it's a fiercely fast car. It's balance is basically neutral, bleeding slowly into very mild understeer, but if you want to explore beyond its grip limits a well-judged lift on turn-in or trail braking will edge the tail out and you can steer it on the throttle. It's not easy (the grippy rubber and rear weight bias see to that) but neither is it the tightrope you expect.
A few laps beside test driver Gavan Kershaw shows that with practice (and a large dose of God-given talent) the Exige can be as lairy or as precise as you like.
I can think of very little that could be improved upon, but Lotus is already working on some tasty motorsport-inspired options that will release what's left of the Exige's latent talent (Toyota already offers a factory-approved supercharger kit for the engine). But if you think you need more, you'll probably never be satisfied. Bottom line: sports cars come no more enticing nor more entertaining than the new Exige.
Words/Pictures: Jethro Bovingdon
Five stars rating
+Pretty much everything
-Doesn't look quite as special as the S1
Engine: In-line 4-cyl, 1796cc, 16v
Max power: 189bhp @ 7800rpm
Max torque: 133lb ft @ 6800rpm
0-60mph: 4.9sec (claimed)
Top speed: 147mph (claimed)
On sale: Now
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