Driven: Lotus Exige S

Bigger, heavier, faster, more expensive: not a collection of adjectives that fills a chap with joy as he’s about to try and understand the new Lotus Exige S. I mean who ever countenanced the idea of a 1,176kg Exige?

No celebs, no nonsense - just a cracking car
No celebs, no nonsense - just a cracking car
Don’t get hung-up on the weight though. From the seats forwards, this car may be very similar to the old Exige, but the improvements wrought in every single area of performance are so great that this car really deserves a new name.

In Meccano-speak, this car is an Exige running an Evora S supercharged V6 powertrain with a bespoke rear chassis assembly, a new steering rack, new front suspension geometry and Bosch’s latest chassis electronics. For a sniff under £53,000, it offers 0-100mph in 8.5 seconds and has hit 170mph at Nardo. Around the new Hethel circuit the car is claimed to be five seconds faster than the last hair-brained four-cylinder Exige, the Cup 260.

Like me, you’ll scoff at the claim – until you’ve driven the thing.

Exige is all new from the bulkhead back
Exige is all new from the bulkhead back
In with the new
But first the alterations. A completely new rear chassis assembly is bolted to the original Elise/Exige aluminium tub. All the components are new, and the suspension arms are of higher quality than those used on the Evora S. All the rear suspension bushes are taken from that car – they’re bigger and more capable than before. The front axle remains the same (sadly no Evora bushes for the front, they wouldn’t fit) but with new geometry and a different rack. There’s increased lock and reduced camber to keep the weight sensible – is this now the heaviest car without power assisted steering?

Apart from some small calibration changes, the powertrain is pure Evora S: 350hp at 7,000rpm and 295lb ft at a usefully low 4,500rpm.

Styling puts more ground between it and Elise
Styling puts more ground between it and Elise
The cabin is tight and familiar. Despite some snazzy seat trims and revised clock faces, it struggles to support the £50K price tag. You start the car using a key, which is a welcome change these days – it fires with a vigorous ‘parp’ and then rests. It never sounds expensive or sophisticated, because it isn’t, but it flings the Exige S up the road with some force. The cable gearshift is the best I’ve used in a Lotus – miles better than those early Evoras.

Conditions: wet
I only have time to drive the car on the new Hethel track. It’s wet, not something I would normally want in an Exige, but this isn’t anything like the old car. Its basic physics – 70mm longer wheelbase, more steering lock and more grip – immediately give the driver much more confidence than any predecessor carrying the same name, but it’s the way it works with the Bosch wizardry that takes the Exige into new territory for Lotus and, indeed, the trackday marketplace.

A zingy 350hp from the Toyota sourced V6
A zingy 350hp from the Toyota sourced V6
There are three settings, Touring, Sport and Race. In Touring the Exige is as close to unstickable as any track machine I’ve driven. Full traction control works alongside ESP and understeer control. In the lashing rain, you can use full throttle from before the apex and a few degrees of steering correction will suffice. Plough-in too early and the nose is trimmed by barely perceptible inside front brake applications. It will make less experienced drivers feel like instant heroes.

Sport mode removes the understeer control, increases the slip allowed on the rear axle, sharpens the throttle response and opens a bypass valve in the exhaust. It feels more urgent, but the extra noise is for spectators – the cabin is already full of angry V6 intake and supercharger whine. The car now offers less protection for the foolish and more movement for the adventurous but, as with Touring mode, the interventions are so subtle and helpful, you never find yourself cursing them.

Even in these conditions the Exige works
Even in these conditions the Exige works
Electronically enhanced
The real gem is Race mode. What you’d expect is a further reduction is assistance and almost-spin levels of rear liveliness. You’d be wrong. What you actually get is a state-of-the-art traction control map that can learn not only the grip level of the circuit underneath you, but which of the two OE Pirelli tyres the machine is rolling on. After experiencing its freakish brilliance, I asked project chief Matt Becker to explain how the hell a black box can learn grip levels almost instantly. “I asked Bosch the same question and they sent me a massive manual,” he says. “I still don’t fully understand it.”

You can quickly reach the point where you hold the throttle pedal wide-open and just feel the ‘brain’ juggling the input.

Race mode 'reads' grip levels
Race mode 'reads' grip levels
It’s not an inspirational powertrain like a GT3’s, but it’s vivacious, interesting and very effective. The brakes are superb in the wet (I didn’t try them in the dry) and the car now has much less roll than old Exige. All of the chassis changes and improvements centre around the new, much more robust rear axle assembly, and the rear anti-roll bar. Best whisper that last bit to keep the purists happy. The steering is especially gorgeous: faster than before, but wriggling with life and information.

Fun for all
The truth is the added rear support has allowed Matt and his team to make this car much easier to drive fast. That’s what I hadn’t expected. If you are someone of modest driving talent, there is much more to enjoy here than in a GT3 because the combination of mid-engined layout and quite brilliant chassis systems make it so much easier for the driver. More experienced hands will just revel in the traction control – it’s like a racer’s.

Familiar - and cosy - in here
Familiar - and cosy - in here
What’s wrong with it? I think the rear bumper’s a bit heavy-handed, the cabin as mentioned feels cramped and old, and you still can’t sit low enough relative to the wheel. It could also do with some lightly-locking rear differential for more pleasurable hooning. We were using the optional £2,000 track pack suspension, which still felt supple, and the standard Pirelli Corsa tyre which was blinding in the wet. There’s a stickier Trofeo version for an extra £800.

For the money, I can’t see anything to touch this as road/track device other than a used 997 GT3. It’s fast, capable and very desirable.

At last, from within the madness, Lotus has produced a world-class sports car.

Want to see more? Chris's video on the Exige S will follow later on today...

3,456cc V6, supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 350@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft):295@4,500rpm
0-62mph:  4.0 sec
Top speed: 170mph
Weight: 1,176kg
MPG: 28mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 236g/km
Price: c. £53,000

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (156) Join the discussion on the forum

  • redgriff500 25 Apr 2012

    At last one with decent amount of power but £53K for a faster Elise - how many will they sell ?

    Unfortunately not many I'd guess.

  • ticedtwice 25 Apr 2012

    Looks like a Noble does it not?!

  • housen 25 Apr 2012

    53k wow

    same old really

    but this one looks a bit chavvy

    but i think its to do with the colour they chose

  • wiliferus 25 Apr 2012

    Want, very very much!

  • smartypants 25 Apr 2012

    I think I need to drive one. Every other Elise/Exige I've driven feels NOTHING like a £53k car. I'd be very interested in taking that around a track.

    In a different colour though, that is vile smile

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