Car reviews - Lotus - Exige - S coupe
31 Aug 2006
LOTUS has built an impeccable pedigree over the past 50 years. A mere mention of the name and enthusiasts' thoughts flash to stylish two-seater sportscars and legendary four-seaters like the Lotus Cortina, renowned for their outright driving pleasure. Fast-forward to today and the Lotus brand still builds exciting cars like the Elise, Exige and soon the Europa S, all designed and built to exacting performance and handling standards. The supercharged Exige S is another milestone in the marque's long and illustrious career. It remains true to its heritage.
Design, steering, handling, brakes, acceleration
We don't like:
Interior rear-view mirror redundant, wide sills make entry/exit difficult, low-rent look to stereo
SOMETIMES less is indeed actually more.
After some highway miles and serious racetrack exposure to the new supercharged 1.8-litre Exige S, we left the experience wanting more.
Like previous Lotus sportscars we’ve driven, the Exige S is motoring in its purist form.
Firstly, just bolt two lightweight slim-line seats into a supremely strong bonded aluminum chassis boasting a rear mid-mounted 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine.
Wrap the chassis and engine in a sleek glass-fibre external skin and voila, you’ve got your true sportscar, one that tips the scales at a mere 935kg! By comparison, a Suzuki Swift is a porker at 1030kg.
Visually, the Exige S adopts something of a Darth Vader look with its body-coloured spoiler, rear wing and centre-mounted intercooler intake on the roof that looks good but does block the rear view, making the interior rear-view mirror redundant.
Even stationary the low-slung machine looks ominous and in darker colours has a purposeful and powerful stance.
Add a supercharged version of Toyota's 16-valve 1.8-litre four-cylinder into the mix and the Exige S takes on a whole new character. It's a road-ready racetrack star.
The engine’s one thing but previous experience with an early model Lotus Elise had armed us with the knowledge that Lotus cars ride very firmly, so we approached the Exige S with some trepidation.
But, despite the street-legal competition Yokohama Advan tyres (195/50 R16s at the front and 225/45 R17s at the rear), the S has soft, compliant springs mated to firm, controllable dampers.
The suspension delivers the best of both worlds in the ride and handling stakes and is far more supple than you expect.
Around town you’ll never mistake it for anything other than a sportscar though.
The ride remains firm but Lotus engineers have fiddled with it to create an agreeably controlled ride that does not rattle your fillings like the first Elise.
It has not gone soft though. Far from it.
A quick sprint on the highway and you are reminded that this is indeed, a very sharp car.
One thing that has not changed is the degree of athletic suppleness required to get into – and out of – a Lotus.
The wide sills, narrow "tub" and deep footwells that form the cabin, plus the car’s low roofline, means most people will need a reasonable degree of agility to effect a perfectly posed entrance, or exit.
Once inside, the first impression is of simplicity. The cabin is minimalist and paired back to the bare necessities with a simple speedo and tacho sitting directly in front of the driver, while the exposed aluminum works to remind you that this is a real sportscar, not a pretender.
You sit low and deep, with the car’s shoulder-line almost at your own shoulder-line.
Fortunately the new Probax seats do provide enough support and cushioning to isolate the worst of the bumps. They are superbly comfortable.
Driving the Exige S is easy. De-activate the immobiliser, turn the key and push the start button.
The weighting of the clutch is spot-on and the pedals sensibly laid out for quick heel-and-toe changes.
Precise is also the word for the close-ratio six-speed gearbox. The car slips into gear just like a Corolla.
The rack-and-pinion steering is pin-sharp, with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock requiring minimal inputs to place the car on the road. Turn-in is precise and when pushed there is a hint of understeer but the overall balance is wonderfully fluid and controllable.
At idle, you are well aware of the throb of the engine just millimetres behind your head. The twin-cam four is smooth and revvy with a rush of mechanical thrashing reminding you there’s something different about the powerplant when the supercharger comes into play.
At its heart is the Euro IV-compliant, mid-mounted, transverse supercharged 1.8-litre 16-valve four-cylinder with variable valve timing and twin front-mounted oil-coolers.
The engine develops 162.5kW at 7800rpm and 215Nm at 5500rpm.
Lotus claims it is one of the most powerful production cars in the world for its size, with a power-to-weight ratio of 173.8kW/tonne and a specific power output of 90.5kW/litre.
Stomp on the accelerator and the Exige S barks.
It will rocket away from standstill, hitting the rev-limiter rapidly snap into second, repeat the procedure and the pace warms up a notch as the variable valve timing plays its song.
It is at this point you quickly recover your senses and become more aware of the car around you, including the high-pitched whine from the supercharger as it gulps air into engine.
The Roots-type supercharger is driven from the crankshaft and cooled through an air-to-air intercooler via a roof-mounted scoop. In full song, the engine and supercharger deliver a mechanical symphony that drowns the radio.
Lotus says 80 per cent of the engine’s torque is produced at just over 2000rpm, with a maximum engine speed of 8000rpm. Like the power, the car’s torque comes on in a seamless manner and continues right up to the rev-cutout.
The Exige S will hit illegal speeds in the blink of an eye, so a wary watch of the speedo is mandatory. There is no cruise control.
If you must stop in a hurry, the car’s sling-shot pace is matched by impressively big brakes that haul the lightweight two-seater down without fuss, repeatedly.
The suspension has a reasonable degree of suppleness to iron out irregularities without compromising the car’s dynamics.
There is a crisp edge to the car’s dynamics but Lotus makes no apologies for that, and we’re grateful because all the faculties dumbed down from years of running around in eco-box hatches must be re-ignited. It’s an experience.
The price for all this fun is $114,990 but in outright handling terms the Exige S will not disgrace itself in the company of a Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4 or M3.
For those who want to raise the bar even further there are also three option packs.
A $7000 Super Sports Pack lifts handling to new levels via adjustable Bilstein dampers, adjustable front anti-roll bar with five different settings and forged ultra-light black alloys that are 9.4kg lighter than the standard wheels.
The adjustable anti-roll bar is 30 per cent stiffer than the standard bar.
Apart from that there is also an $8000 Touring Plus Pack and a $6000 Sports Pack.
The former adds dual front airbags, leather/suede effect seats, driving lights, electric windows, stowage net, carpets and floor mats, a leather-clad handbrake and shifter and a cupholder.
The Sports Pack offers switchable traction control, a roll-over hoop, sports seats in black microfibre and leather, carbon-effect door inserts and leather door panels.
The Exige S is not a car for everyone but delve deep and you can be assured of getting one hell of a drivign experience.
It is a piece of precision equipment that rewards above - and beyond - many other sanitised so-called sports cars available today.
But it’s not for the faint-hearted.
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