Last year we had a superb day trip to Norfolk to try the limited edition Lotus Exige 240R
and came away in a state of euphoria; ears ringing to the whine of a supercharger and the whispers of a series production version of the powerplant. Not long after, a new addition to the Exige range was announced, the S. Boasting the same powertrain (but with a little less power) and a few of the less costly features from the 240R, the new S is the ultimate production incarnation of the Exige.
The Exige's new found (and very relative) practicality and every day usability have brought it into competition with cars such as the Porsche Boxster and Lotus found itself losing sales as customers couldn't specify some options without having to shell out on a bigger option pack. The commercial lesson has been learnt and now the option packs are more logical allowing customers to specify a more comfort biased S or a track version - much like Porsche's Comfort and Club Sport trim levels.
In either form the Lotus Exige looks great. Our test car's Aspen White paintwork may sound a little dodgy, but looks stunning in the flesh, and we think you'll agree in the pictures as well. White picks out the black detailing perfectly and the optional black alloys are great. The Exige S features a body-colour rear spoiler, front splitter and side pods as well; although these can also be specified in black according to preference.
The Exige S looks great, particularly bobbing and weaving in the rear view mirror of another car, and has real road presence. I'm still undecided about the rear end though; it looks a little too high and bulbous, but its mini Group C sportscar looks gained unanimous approval from everyone who cast their eyes upon it. The Exige remains hard to beat in a head-turning contest and draws grins and even yelps of delight from bystanders.
In fact that's a common theme. Those who drove the car found themselves doing the same. The track at Hethel was a little damp on the day of our visit but still the car talked, gripped and drove almost as faithfully as it would in the dry. Indeed, whilst the editor and I erred on the side of caution due to the presence of puddles, a less inhibited veteran of the Lotus test track, in the shape of our tame engineer host, gave it almost the full beans - most enjoyable.
Even in less than ideal conditions several things were very evident. Obviously the extra pace of the Exige S is appreciable, but even more so are the excellent stability under heavy braking, the grip and traction, the wonderful balance and neutrality and the Exige's tireless appetite for abuse on track. Anyone could drive this car quickly, it has no malice to a smooth hand, and the fun factor is huge. It does get a little hot in the cabin in the heat of battle but the remedy is at hand, for the price of a few horsepower, in the shape of the air conditioning.
On the road things become slightly more surreal than on track. The addition of road furniture and obstructions (i.e. other road users) makes the actual pace of the Exige S all the more vivid. It may have added a few kilos due to the additional hardware, in terms of supercharger and ancillaries in the shape of air conditioning and electric windows, but the increase in poke easily offsets the ballast.
Lotus quotes "at least" 218bhp as the output of the S, which may not sound like a huge improvement over the 189bhp of the standard car
, but it's the torque that's the trump card. Fed by charge air forced by a supercharger and cooled by an intercooler (itself fed by air from the now functional roof scoop) the engine boasts a much more linear power delivery. Gone is the 'camminess' of the naturally aspirated Toyota engine, the lowered cam switching point now mapped with Lotus's own calibration that changes it to offer the best performance for the given condition. It may be 20bhp down on the 240R (due to the deletion of the fifth injector setup too costly to mass produce), but we actually felt that the Exige S was more tractable and torquey than the 240R we drove last year thanks to the changes.
Real world pace is electric; 0-60mph in 4.1 seconds is seriously quick, but this in itself doesn't reflect the rapidity on tap. Any gear at any speed, the light weight and torque combine and the Exige surges down the road. Overtaking manoeuvres are more opportunistic and instinctive than planned, as any gap becomes exploitable. Out of tight corners traction isn't an issue thanks to the sticky rubber and the adjustable Bilstein suspension set-up that lets it function.
In the same corners the Lotus Exige sits flat, planted and neutral. The seats offer tons of support, and a not insignificant amount of comfort when it comes to the optional items fitted to our test car; they allow you to remain in situ whilst exploring the car's envelope. To do so on the public road requires good visibility, a good road and some self restraint. The Exige S is one of those cars that goads you into naughtiness. Supercharger whining, forced back into the seat, focused on the next braking point that turns into the next, oh-so-easily dealt with corner, one can easily venture into morally questionable speeds.
The damping is another wondrous Lotus set-up. The car doesn't hop over bumps, you can feel as much, but nor does it deflect from your chosen path or protest at the abuse. It simply takes what the road has to throw at it and translates it into a perfectly absorbed wheel movement. It's a wonder I can't pretend to understand, presumably performed by a series of strings and mirrors with some dry ice thrown in somewhere along the lines. In all seriousness the Exige has a more composed ride quality than many much 'softer' cars; it always has had, but the new dampers work a treat and are a noticeable improvement.
Also improved are the interior equipment, fit and finish. The Exige S is sanitised to a level S1 Exige owners will be befuddled by, but crucially not at the expense of pace, fun or ability. What you see here is the pinnacle of the development of the Lotus Exige, as far as 'mass' production is concerned. There will be no more power available direct from the factory in this generation of car. Indeed, until the new Esprit arrives in 2007 this is the fastest car you can buy from Hethel. The people at Lotus are proud of it; their pride is rarely ill justified.
The negatives? Well, over £40,000 for the car you see in the pictures seems like a lot of money for an Exige, but not so much for the fun and performance on offer. Some of the fit of the body panels isn't worthy of the price tag though. The rear view mirror is there only to meet legislation; the view obscured by the ducting for the intercooler. Consequently, reversing can be a sphincter clenching experience at first. The single biggest fault is that there isn't one in my garage, not yet at any rate...