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Thursday 24th January 2013


MUCKING ABOUT IN THE SNOW: PART TWO

When Lotus says 'come and play in the snow at Hethel', it's an invitation you can't refuse!


Lotus, we salute you. When snow blanketsyour test track at Hethel, you don't unwind the striped warning tape and declare it off-limits. Instead you ask if we want to come over and play. And wheel out a £54,000 V6 Exige S and a £61,500 Evora S.

Snowplough much?
Snowplough much?
Looking at the front splitter on the Exige, we have to laugh. The south loop of Lotus’s new 2.2-mile test track has been driven on, but the snow is five inches in places and the splitter looks a hell of a lot lower than that. 

One fast snow plough
They have a plough, but won't take on the track because it might damage the tarmac. And they don’t use salt. Essentially, it looks as though a Land Rover has done a couple of sighting laps. Looking on, occasionally lobbing snowballs at each other, are Lotus chief engineer Matt Becker and principal vehicle dynamics engineer Alan Clark.

So. We’ve got 350hp through the rear wheels (the supercharged V6 3.5 is the same in both cars) and no grip. Let’s go.

Oh my good God. The Exige is scooping up snow and dumping great gobs of it on the windscreen, so much so the build-up either side of the single wiper has shortened its wipe by about a third. The radiator grille is quickly clogged and the guys run the heater full blast to remove some of the heat building up in the cooling.

A scientific way to test Lotus ESC. Ahem.
A scientific way to test Lotus ESC. Ahem.
Slip sliding away
There is a small bit of a grown-up car assessment here. Lotus was late to electronic stability control, only fitting it when the Evora was sold in the US in 2010, but the company has embraced it whole-heartedly. We’ve got three settings of Dynamic Performance Management in the Evora, and four in the Exige. The extra setting is ‘Race’, which adds the merest of helping hands.

We dutifully try the settings before selecting ‘off’. Actually, they’re very impressive. Hoofing it on the ice in both normal and Sport settings doesn’t kill the engine stone dead as you’d expect; instead it carefully feeds in the power as it detects grip. Similarly, both cars are helped around the treacherous corners with a delicate pinch of the brake disc on the inside wheel.

The system also allows some tail-out sliding in Sport and the Exige’s Race mode while ensuring it can all be collected. It’s an in-car Jeeves, helping Woosterish drivers like ourselves to appear cleverer than we are. And while it can’t overcome physics of gripless ice and snow, Alan reckons he could lap faster in both cars in these conditions with the Sport setting than with nothing at all.

The result of the decision to turn ESC off
The result of the decision to turn ESC off
Nannies banished
Enough of that. Time to kill ESC altogether. The merest prod of the accelerator fires the Exige’s tail round and looses off a salvo of that lovely, free-revving, hollow-sounding V6 gargle. It all happens so slowly that your reactions needn't match the blurry movements of skilled drifters. This is the beauty of snow. Some steering wheel twiddling, a judicious few prods of the throttle and … another spin.

In the Evora we become noticeably better at holding drifts round the corners. There’s talk of tackling the virgin snow on the north loop, but Matt isn’t keen after a sighting lap. About a foot deep, he reckons. But security’s Hilux is half-inched and we’re in business. We make it to the handling circle, and Matt carves out an elegant ring, holding the Evora in a perfect drift all the way round.

But it's the Exige we're determined to master - only this time, it’s even more slippery. We’re a lot better on the throttle, though, and even get round half the circle in something approaching a drift.

Arch clearing was an occasional necessity
Arch clearing was an occasional necessity
Clogging it
But then that beautifully communicative steering starts to get really heavy. “I think the power steering’s failed,” I say. “It hasn’t got any,” comes the reply. Further investigation reveals that snow has built up in the wheel arches to the point where the wheels can barely turn. Matt solves the problem with judicious use of a spade. Sorted.

Now, those who reckon winter tyres aren’t worth it should probably stop reading now. Both these cars are on winter rubber, and we ask Matt what would happen if they weren’t. “We wouldn’t have got here,” he says, indicating the 500 yards from the pitlane. And on the track itself? “You wouldn’t be able to move. You can’t stop, and you can’t accelerate.”

He’s a big advocate of performance winter tyres, and not just in snow, either. He does add they don’t have the same sharpness or the steering feel of the equivalent summer tyres. But regardless, his view is that "everybody should put their car on winter tyres."

So there you have it. Not only are the Exige S and Evora S bloody good fun on a snow covered track - you knew that already - suitably shod they’d actually be okay to commute in over winter thanks to an ESC system that can discreetly rein in over-exuberance.


A little snippet of footage here from those shivering on the sidelines - note giggling!

 

Author: NickGibbs