A full 14 years after the original Exige hit the racetrack, Lotus has decided to produce the first official
open top version
and in the process, the fastest Lotus convertible ever.
Good on track but this is where Exige rules
Visually it is instantly differentiated by the lack of front splitter and rear wing, which takes the racing edge away from the lines. In some ways I actually prefer the slightly purer shape and in no way does it lack presence.
The Roadster is designed with a more compliant chassis setup than its hardtop brother. Weight is down by a negligible 10kg to 1,166kg and the price remains at £52,900 plus OTR costs, although Lotus is expecting buyers to specify more options which will probably put all of that weight back in and bump the price appreciably.
Premium and Premium Sport options with quilted leather or SuedeTex for the seats, sills, dash trim and the rest are offered along with various special paint options and 'luxuries' such as heated seats, air-con, parking sensors, cup holder...
The top speed is limited to 145mph as this was felt to be the limit of what was sensible with the roof in situ. As for straight line performance, 0-60mph is despatched in 3.8 seconds, while a 0-100mph time of just 8.5 seconds bears testament to the fact that Exige has the pace to play with the big boys. Power is the same as the coupe - 350hp@7,000rpm and torque 295lb ft at 4,500rpm.
Supercharged V6 not lacking in punch
The roof itself is an absolute doddle to remove, unclipping, rolling up and with the plastic 'bows' removed and stored inside the bundle, the whole lot fits easily in the boot behind the engine without robbing too much stowage.
It is still a bit of a clamber over that wide sill but much easier without the roof for taller drivers. And once you have slid down into the cockpit there's plenty of seat adjustment and you don't feel cramped, even two up.
The tiny steering wheel is just right and the pedals are nicely placed and perfectly spaced for heel-toe work. The 3.5-litre V6 starts with a bark and sets the tone for the drive. The unassisted steering is pretty heavy at parking speeds but as soon as you are rolling it's fine.
And the steering is as wonderful as ever, the wheel writhing between your fingers, relaying a constant flow of feel and feedback. But it isn't nervy or twitchy, rather, it plugs you directly into the act of driving.
Steering feel? THIS is steering feel!
The extra compliance in the Roadster's suspension setup means that it rides beautifully and although you feel bumps and potholes, they don't crash through the cabin, nor do they deflect you from your cornering line. This is an easier - and arguably more pleasant - car to drive on the road than the coupe. In fact with the combination of accessible performance, suppleness and compact dimensions, I'd struggle to think of a rival that could match its cross-country pace.
At normal driving speeds wind roar isn't too much of a problem and my head was just about below the level where buffeting was uncomfortable.
A whiff of understeer set in through a few tight turns but the overwhelming sense was bags of grip and a nice flat, neutral stance. The linear delivery of the supercharged engine gives a muscular big capacity feel, a strong mid-range that means you don't have to stir the gearbox unless you want to. It's worth it though: the shift is good and there is a zingy top end surge awaiting you in the redline, matched by a creamy yowl from the exhaust
There are few things more joyful than driving a proper sports car along a challenging road. This kind of machine should be a sensory overload and lopping the roof panel off just adds to the sensation - the extra noise, the wind plucking at your barnet, the smell of freshly spread animal muck in a nearby field... Well, this is Norfolk.
Non-assisted steering a rarity these days
The Lotus Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) system developed with Bosch has three modes on this test car: Tour, Sport and Off. Tour is for normal daily driving with maximum backup from the electronics. Sport sharpens up the throttle, backs off the systems, opens up the exhaust bypass valves at high rpm and increases the redline from 6,800rpm to 7,200rpm
Track and field
I really liked the ability to switch out of Sport and knock the exhaust back a bit - it was a bit boomy and resonant in town and sometimes that can get a bit wearing. Other times, of course, it's just the ticket!
If you opt for the Race pack, you get an extra Race mode that maximises the car's on-track performance from the ESP point of view and gives you a launch control system. Springs and dampers are also 15 per cent stiffer on this version. It wasn't available on the test cars and to be honest, I struggle to see the point. The Sport pack is nicely judged for road use and if you want a speedy get away it is perfectly attainable using the old fashioned technique.
Not sure how quilting equates with 'add lightness'
We also had a chance to use
the Hethel test track
. On the circuit that tendency towards understeer is a little more prevalent. The engineers explain that
has a distinctly pointier front end thanks to the slightly different suspension settings, the extra camber and the aero from the splitter. The hardtop is about 1.5 seconds a lap quicker, too, if that kind of thing is a priority.
With a chance to explore the handling envelope it is clear that the push can be factored out with a little lift ... or thoroughly overwhelmed with a dollop of power. The Roadster is happy to move around and feels quite benign, its grip levels always superbly communicated - although you always need to bear in mind that the steering does require a fair bit more heft than an assisted setup should you need to whip on a 'dab of oppo'.
Racer for the road
We were on the P Zero Corsa tyre but those who want maximum performance at the expense of wet weather ability can specify Pirelli's Trofeo offering for an extra £800 - although whether they give the full race experience of delaminations and blowouts we're not sure.
Slightly softer than coupe; looks toned down too
In the hands of senior vehicle dynamics engineer Darren Cockle, the full potential of the car was unleashed. Darren hit the kerbs harder than I ever would have dared and braked savagely and late. "I'm pretty sure you could surprise a few people with this on a track day. The brakes just keep going and going and although it is a little softer than the coupe it is also a little faster in a straight line. We have tried to keep the true character of the Exige in this car."
They have succeeded, too. But by softening a few edges, toning down the looks and going topless, they have added a new dimension and a whole heap of extra appeal to the package as well.
So there you have it. A grown up Elise? Oh, it's much more than that. Fast, fun and brilliant to drive on road and track, the Exige S Roadster offers the full sports car experience in a truly attractive package. Yes you can pick fault for ease of access, limited luggage space and the price but this really is a very special machine. Lotus has had some well-documented problems in recent time but while cars like this continue to roll of the production line, we should all be very grateful.
LOTUS EXIGE S ROADSTER
Engine: 3,456cc V6, supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Torque: 295lb ft @4,500rpm
Top speed: 145mph (limited)
Price: £53,850 (OTR)