- Available for £35,000
- 3.5-litre V6 supercharged, rear-wheel drive
- Fabulous balance between performance and handling
- Not much goes wrong
- Better daily prospect than the old K-series Exige
- Strong residual values
As all dedicated PH pop-pickers will know, Sir Cliff Richard recently celebrated his 80th birthday. To quote one of his own toons, Congratulations, but let's not forget another anniversary that passed by this year with somewhat less fanfare - the 20th birthday of the Lotus Exige.
The first Exige arrived in 2000 as a hardman coupe brother of the soft-top Elise that had been around since 1996. By applying the Chapman principle of light weight to a mid-engined chassis, both cars achieved cult status among those wise souls who rated delicacy and precision above headline-grabbing top speeds.
Just as that Exige came along at an asking price of around thirty thou, the Elise was entering into its second phase. General Motors brought its developmental heft to bear on the chassis to get it through Euro crash regs in exchange for a free run at creating its own Elise-a-like, the VX220. The 1.8 Rover K-series motor soldiered on in both the Elise and the Exige well past the point in 2004-05 when it was joined in the range by Toyota's more emissions-friendly 2ZZ-GE 1.8-powered 111R.
(Nerd fact: before the Toyota deal was signed, Lotus tried to do an engine deal with Honda but the price was set too high, probably because Honda was trying to make a living with its own S2000. Supplementary nerd fact: the S2000's F20 motor doesn't fit into an Elise, but the K20 from the EP3 Type R does, and you can bung a supercharger on it too.)
In the Series 3 model of March 2012 the Exige made a big split with the Elise. Lotus decided that its coupe needed to become a more useable everyday car. Instead of the supercharged Toyota VVT-i 1.8 four-pot that still powers the 2020 Elise to this day, the new Exige S had a 345hp/296lb ft version of the supercharged Toyota-sourced 3.5 litre 2GR V6 that had made its Lotus debut two years earlier in the Evora S.
The new V6 Exige used most of the Evora's aluminium tub and double-wishbone suspension, but it had a faster steering rack and a new rear anti-roll bar. It also came with Dynamic Performance Management, Lotus's switchable ESP system with Touring and Sport modes (but no mechanical limited slip differential).
Those Evora underpinnings made the V6 Exige physically larger than the old four-pot car in wheelbase (by 70mm), overall length (by almost 300mm), track, and weight. Wet and with one bod on board it weighed in at around 1,170kg, or 1,080kg dry. That made it at least 200kg lighter than the Evora. Whichever way you looked at it, the V6 Exige had the same sort of power to weight ratio as a contemporary Porsche 911 Turbo. It could hit 170mph on a good day, and there were no disappointments on the handling front. The easy flow of the old Exige over mixed road surfaces was still there, as were the mega grip and poise, but now the classic recipe came with a newfound ability to pootle that was never really part of the four-cylinder car's repertoire.
The new Exige's price was on another level too, at a little over £50,000. To maximise aural enjoyment Lotus announced the £52,900 Roadster in late 2013. As with other tubbed cars like the McLaren 12C, there was no loss of rigidity or degradation in handling. Combined with the deletion of the front splitter and rear wing, the rollup soft top knocked a useful 10kg off the coupe's weight and softened the Exige's hard-man visuals to quite a surprising degree. Lotus reckoned the airflow over the Roadster wasn't anywhere near as smooth as it was over the coupe, making its high-speed handling less predictable and mandating a hefty electronic chop in the top speed to 145mph. Dealers were allegedly briefed to tell owners that speeds over 90mph impacted negatively on stability.
The Roadster's loss of aero parts reduced downforce, adding 1.6 seconds to its Hethel test track time, but the acceleration was undimmed and electrifying with the 0-62 coming up in under four seconds and the 0-100 in nine and a bit. Although the Roadster may have been second best to the hardtop on the track, relative to just about any other car it would still pop your eyeballs with its magical mix of roadholding, ride comfort and rabidity, with softer damping that made it an extremely friendly proposition on the road. Hence the name, sort of.
In 2014 the track-oriented V6 Cup was added to the Exige range at £63,000. Stripping it of unnecessary sound deadening resulted in a net weight saving of 60kg, even with an FIA-approved fire extinguisher and A-frame rollover assembly with harness bar gained. You could option aircon for it, which might sound mad but which was a godsend on a sweaty day with all your gear on.
With a baffled wet sump, two-piece floating brake discs, fixed back racing seats with harnesses, isolator switches, fixed towing eyes, stiffer springs and two-way adjustable Nitron dampers the Cup immediately found a keen market among those who didn't want to trailer a car to a trackday. There was an even narrower-focus Cup R with X-Trac gearbox, full FIA-approved rollcage and a little more power. These Cup and Cup R models were the only Exiges that made it over to the USA.
Walk into a Lotus dealership today and your Exige choices are between a Sport 350, a Sport 410 and a Cup 430. The cheapest entry level 350 is over £62,000. Prices for the 2012-16 Series 3 V6 Exiges that we'll be concentrating on today start at around £35,000 for the S Roadster and £40,000 for the S Coupe, so you can see that this is not a steeply depreciating car. It is a very appealing one, too.
SPECIFICATION - LOTUS EXIGE S Series 3 (2012-on)
Engine: 3,456cc V6 24v supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual or automatic, rear wheel drive
Power (hp): 345@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@4,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.8 secs
Top speed: 168mph
Weight: 1,176kg (1,166kg Roadster)
MPG (official combined): 28mpg
Wheels: 17in (f), 18in (r)
Tyres: 205/45 (f), 265/35 (r)
On sale: 2012 - 2016
Price new: £50,850
Price now: from £35,000 (Roadster), £40,000 (coupe)
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The first word that springs to mind when the word 'Toyota' is uttered is 'reliability'. The Japanese company's hard-won reputation in that area made it a great partner for Lotus, and history has shown that this collaboration has played a big part in defusing the old 'Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious' joke.
The timing-by-chain V6 is not known for any major common issues. There was a thing with noisy cooling fan bearings, but most if not all affected parts should have been replaced by warranty-upgrade items by now. The supercharger is equally stress-free, which all means that you can simply concentrate on enjoying the V6's linear power and great pickup in any gear - although first-time drivers may take a while to get used to the best ways of balancing torque and traction off the line. It's easy to bog down or wheelspin either side of the sweet spot.
Touring mode is for regular driving, while Sport introduces extra slip and opens an exhaust valve (brought over from the 2012MY Evora) for extra din. The 'boring' tag that dogs Toyota as a brand is not appropriate here. This motor is meant to be quiet in a Camry but in the Exige it sounds every inch the racer, especially in Sport or Race modes, the latter coming with the £2,000 Race Pack option which was chosen by a gratifyingly high number of new buyers. This pack is well worth seeking out because it had a freakishly good third DPM mode ('Race') to go with its stiffer suspension and the now road-illegal P Zero Trofeo tyres instead of the normal P Zeros.
Race mode disabled all DPM systems except for ABS and kept the exhaust valve open all the time. It also had a Launch Control feature. Dip the clutch, turn and hold the DPM switch to Race position until 'Launch' appears on the LCD screen, put it in first gear, floor the throttle to dial up 3,500rpm, then drop the clutch and laugh. We think there might have been a limit of five of these launches permitted before you had to go for a dealer reset, but that number may have been subsequently increased to 20. In their original brochure Lotus said that 'use of the Launch Control system (where fitted) will invalidate the manufacturer's warranty on associated components'.
If you wanted more performance, there were plenty of options out there from the likes of Hangar111 (other specialists are available). A cold air induction kit and ECU reflash from Hangar111 will liberate another 15hp or so for about £1,300 including installation but not VAT. A phase one 37hp hop-up with stainless manifolds, sports cat and remap will be under £3,000, or you could blow £8,500 on a phase 4 458hp/368lb ft Komo-Tec chargecooler kit.
As you'd expect, most buyers went for the 6-speed Toyota EA60 manual gearbox with close-ratio gearset. Lotus's use of cables to operate the gearshift mechanism on its mid-engined cars resulted in an action that is heavier and less pleasing than you might hope for in such a sporting vehicle, but it is possible to improve matters by careful adjustment.
Hard-used cars may have clutch wear. A replacement clutch kit will cost you around £600, but getting someone else to fit it will take the bill up to nearer £2,000. There's no specific diagnostic to reveal the state of the clutch on any car you might be thinking of buying, but you can download the number of hard launches it's done. Or you could just do your own hard launch and then stick your head out of the window and sniff the air like a Labrador.
The engine association with Toyota meant there was also an automatic Exige option, using the compact U660E gearbox that was first seen on the 2007 Camry. It's a conventional torque converter transmission, not a dual clutch or a robotised manual. You can change gears yourself via big metal paddles which in the Exige are fixed on the column (on the Evora they rotate with the wheel, but this is a smooshy, unsatisfying, and quite un-Lotus-like process with frustrating delays on upshift commands. Left to its own devices the 'box operates smoothly enough, although over time these transmissions can develop a harsh downshift issue when coasting. If no codes come up for that, it's worth checking the mass air flow sensor for its rate of response and the throttle body for carbon buildup.
Servicing is on a 9,000 mile/annual basis. Minor services will be around £500 and majors £800, but they should only come round every four years. Checking and setting up the geometry should be done on a somewhat more frequent basis as these cars are all about scalpel-sharp handling and even a light kerbing will take the edge off that and make you wonder what all those road testers were on about.
Even going off the official combined consumption of 28mpg, the Exige's titchy 40-litre (8.8 gallon) tank will need refilling well before the 250-mile mark. Driving in the approved manner will drop that to the low 20s on public roads and to single figures on the track, where it's entirely possible to drain the tank in 50 miles.
Like the Elise, the Exige is built around a tub chassis made from extruded aluminium sheets epoxy-bonded together. Also like the Elise, the Exige is designed to do a few trackdays every year so don't be too concerned if the current owner of a car you're interested in quietly mentions how great the car is around various circuits. If they bang on about unlikely sounding lap times then maybe think about stepping away.
Suspension is Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs. There's no power assistance for the steering, partly because there was nowhere to put the pump but also because it can just about get away with not having it. Lotus admitted that if the car had been any heavier, a powered solution would have been needed. Nor was there any mechanical limited slip diff. The job of damping wheelspin on a lightly-loaded inside tyre was entrusted to the brake-based electronic system.
There were two choices on the single wheel design, the standard one being gloss black on the coupe or silver on the Roadster, the sport option being diamond-cut with exposed alloy. The slightly unusual front wheel size limits your rubber choices somewhat, but the P Zero Corsa (£180 front, £200 rear) will be fine for most. As noted earlier it's smart to keep an eye on the tracking. Exige tyres inherently wear more on the inside edges but excessive wear in any area should flag up a need for investigation.
Braking by AP four-pot calipers with cross-drilled 350mm/332mm discs and braided hoses is excellent. A new pair of standard front discs comes in at just under £500, with pads adding another £200 or so to that. Unlike the old K-series Exiges which had no brake servo and no ABS, Toyota-powered cars had both.
The brake pedal switch is a known weak point. If changing that doesn't fix the problem you might find yourself going down a bit of a rabbit hole which could involve changing the ABS unit at over £1,000 a pop plus the fitting charges that come with accessing it via removal of the clamshell. Suspension dampers aren't cheap either at getting on for £700 each.
Don't get too exercised by these numbers though. Light weight generally means light wear to chassis parts, so you're very likely to be pleasantly surprised by your consumables costs. Race mode actually reduces wear on the back pads because, unlike the other DPM modes, it doesn't engage electronic rear-wheel braking to minimise wheelspin, so run your car in Race mode all the time to save money, hurray!
An Exige's body panels are made of composite material which is both lightweight and strong. The amount and depth of front-end chips and scrapes will give you an instant heads-up on what sort of life a car has had.
Cup models didn't have mud guards so they will generally have some stone chipping on the insides of the wheel arches. 'Reverie' exterior carbon fibre components included items like the front splitter, rear diffuser and air-smoothing canards.
A spartan interior was always central to the Exige proposition, but the S3 showed that worthwhile improvements could be made without compromising that sparse appeal. The standard setup was more or less regular S2 Elise/Exige, but new S3 buyers had a choice of packs to lift ambience and comfort.
The Premium Pack was a very popular option. On the coupe, it upgraded the regular cloth seats to leather sports seats, added leather to the steering wheel, door panels, sills and dash, and put carpet/leather coverings into the footwells. There was also a trinket tray with divider and stowage mats. Same again for the Roadster, except the leather for the seats and door panels was quilted.
A Premium Pack Sport car brought the option of SuedeTex (Alcantara by a different name) for the leather door panels and centre console, while the seats could be in all-black leather or a black leather/slate grey SuedeTex combo with carbon effect leather inserts. There was also a Premium Sport steering wheel. The Convenience pack included a USB port, cruise control, the Premium Pack's trinket tray and a central cupholder that wasn't so brilliant at holding cups in place under hard acceleration.
It's a small cabin and not an easy one to get into or out of - anyone over 6ft 2in might struggle, especially if wearing a helmet - but there's enough storage space to make long weekends for two perfectly feasible. The comfy and supportive seats will add to your touring pleasure, as will the unsophisticated but effective cruise control option from the Convenience pack. As mentioned earlier, the aircon option was a bit of a no-brainer given that you weren't exactly short of power from the V6.
If efficient suppression of road noise and purity of sound from the (4-speaker) audio system are important, you'll probably want to look elsewhere.
In the search for an ultimate sporting drive it's all too easy to be taken in by the lure of big-name offerings that will often over-deliver on the power requirements of most UK drivers.
By contrast, Lotus has been trading in the subtler and more useable business of better-balanced power to weight ratios for well over half a century. In either Roadster or coupe form, the Exige S could be the best blend of ballerina handling and big-stick power that the company has yet created.
Roadster or coupe? Well, don't make the mistake of thinking that you must have the coupe for top sportiness and its more purposeful aero look. Many owners who have tried both reckon the lighter Roadster edges the coupe for normal driving, citing crisper low-speed turn-in, better ground clearance and (compared to of Race pack equipped cars especially) less of a tendency to follow road cambers.
Before we look at a few cars to buy, let's go slightly off topic for a moment. Back in April our Matt wrote this story about the arrival on the used market of the very first Exige, chassis 0001. The price for it then was £45,000, which seemed a lot in isolation but not so much against other low-mile S1s and S2s at the time, especially if you took into account the adjusted-for-inflation price of £56k that Matt calculated a £33,000 2000 Exige four-pot would cost today in 2020. That orange 0001 car was bought by a PHer who immediately declared his intention to use it as much as possible and not stash it away.
Point of all this Exige S1 talk being that investability could also be a thing for the Series 3 cars as long as the supply/demand curve favours it. The Elise S1 is already well established, as are the first Exiges, and the big step up made possible by the Evora drivetrain has certainly rounded out Exige performance in a very pleasing way. This all adds to long term appeal.
Remember that prices for 2020-model Exige Sport 350s (the current Exige S equivalent) start at £62,375 and go to well over £100k for a Cup 430, so the £45k or so that you'd be paying for a five-year-old, sub-10,000-mile Exige S is a pretty good indicator of its ability to retain value. Well-priced cars go quickly, and even high-profile dealers like Bell & Colvill who have traditionally not offered sale or return cars are having to relax their policy on that to reflect the shortage of good stock. So if you see an Exige S that looks and smells right, and seems to be at the right money, don't hang about too long.
Which brings us to PH Classifieds, a very well-used portal for these cars. The most affordable Exige S on there at the moment is this 2014 Roadster Premium in red with ivory leather. The mileage is 26,000 and it's had four owners, but it's got full main dealer history and the price is sharp at £34,850.
For £3k more here's a 2015 24,000-mile coupe in hard-to-miss orange with both the Race and Premium packs. Fruity. In mid-2014 Lotus launched the LF1 special edition, a coupe in a black and gold theme harking back to F1 days of yore when you weren't a proper driver if you weren't smerking at least 40 Players a day. LF1s had the Race pack and Trofeo tyres so they were proper cars underneath all the paint, stickers and half-scale Romain Grosjean helmets (seriously). 81 of them were made and PH Classifieds has one for sale at £46k, although apparently it's been reserved for someone. Boo.
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