The aspirational engineers at Lotus take a break from pie-in-the-sky concepts with the exciting, high-performance Exige S.
Lotus goes back to advanced basics with new Exige S
Another week, another new Lotus. Thankfully though, this time it's a real car - with an engine, an interior and petrol in the tank. After so many grand (plenty would say ridiculous) plans, it feels good to be making the trip towards Norwich, UK, to drive a genuine, fully working car that's been developed by the masters of all things handling.
The situation is made all the more poignant because, firstly, the new Exige S was never meant to be part of the company's grand plan, and has been something of an engineers' pet project within Lotus. And secondly, because in the period between me driving the car and you reading this, controversial CEO Dany Bahar will have left the building in something of a hurry, due to, as Lotus calls it, "misappropriation of funds." But he's said to have started legal proceedings against the company, so that drama is just beginning.
Where this motoring soap opera will end it's hard to say, but surely anyone who loves cars and driving hopes that Lotus finds stability and the right management to allow them to continue to make great cars. Great cars, frankly, like this new Exige S. Although this new Exige continues with the same name and is based upon the current Elise/Exige Mk2 aluminium tub, it really is a very different animal, whether viewed as a technical object or subjectively, from behind the wheel.
It's quite a bit bigger for a start, with redesigned bodywork clothing an additional 70mm in the wheelbase and wider front and rear tracks of 25mm/38mm respectively. The reason is down to the muscle-bound 3.5L Toyota V6 mounted amidships: remember, up until now the Exige - whether Mk1 with Rover power or Mk2 with Toyota engines - have been powered by 1.8L, four-cylinder engines. The V6 is essentially the same as the one found in the Evora S, meaning it also benefits from the Eaton type Harrop supercharger. It develops 350hp and 400Nm - outputs that clearly chart the new Exige into fresh waters and into the paths of new rivals.
Developing the Exige's chassis to effectively deploy this kind of performance obviously meant meeting some significant challenges, but it also brought with it an opportunity. Working with next-to-no money, the engineers nevertheless managed to attend to a weakness in the then-current car they were well aware of: a lack of torsional stiffness in the rear chassis/suspension area. So, with a completely new rear subframe and new suspension components such as wishbones, bushes and retuned springs and dampers, the team was able to radically alter the way in which the Exige handles. For the first time, an Exige features a rear anti-roll bar, too, and there's a formidable new braking set-up.
The front suspension was also given a radical overhaul, the overall goal with the chassis being to retain the legendary agility and purity, but to calm the behaviour of the car on the limit for a safer, and more satisfying experience - and a faster one.
Even so, Lotus has called upon the dark art of chassis electronics like never before to complement the new mechanical changes. Working closely with German electronics company Bosch, the Exige S features an advanced traction control system that incorporates Electronic Brake Distribution, Electronic Stability Control and Understeer Recognition among the nerdy acronyms. It has four operating modes: Touring, Sport, Race and Off.
However, all is not as it seems, because each mode doesn't simply strip away more electronic intervention than the last. Touring, granted, is for wet, windy nights when you just want to get home. Sport - that's where you'll leave the switch on the dashboard for most of the time, as it sharpens up the Exige's responses and opens the exhaust valve for more noise. Race, however, actually learns the grip levels of the circuit in the space of a lap or two, and then does everything in its power to make your lap as smooth and fast as is possible, much like the technology deployed in F1 a few years back. "Off", well, that's just you and the car.
You still have to do the Lotus "twist and shimmy" dance to get into the Exige S, because the sills are still wide and the cabin as intimate and purposeful as ever. There have been a few minor strides in quality and features, but it's still all about the small steering wheel in front of you and the three pedals, not so much the switchgear.
Fire up the Exige S and immediately the deep, resonant blast of the V6 takes centre stage, but that's nothing compared with its impact when you're on the move. Sure, 350hp in a car as lithe as this (OK, at 1,170kg it's no longer the sub-ton flyweight, but then it's a bigger, different sort of car) is formidable, but what's really changed is the torque, and how it's delivered. In short, if you jump on the throttle at low to medium revs, the Exige now leaps forward as if rear-ended by a runaway artic. No Exige ever punched like this; ripping out of tight, second gear corners, or executing a nonchalant low speed overtake using fourth gear alone. You squeeze the throttle; the Exige S simply flies (0-to-100kph takes just 3.8 seconds).
And yet, it's still the chassis that leaves you slightly incredulous. Like the rethought steering, that strikes the perfect balance between feel and accuracy - so good that it's like placing your palms on the road surface itself as it passes beneath the car. That deft agility is still there, but there's a newfound confidence and maturity to the way the Exige drives, particularly at speed on the racing circuit, that means you spend less time hanging on to it, and more time probing your limits, as well as those of the car. Reserves of grip are huge, and yet it's surprisingly comfortable on the road - even with the optional Race Pack and its Pirelli Trofeo track-biased tyres.
So good is the chassis that, if anything, it's the new power train that still doesn't quite match it for lustre. It now has the performance to compete with serious supercars, but in its responses and soundtrack it doesn't possess that last percentage of sparkle and polish that defines a great Porsche flat-six or a Maserati V8. It's from humble stock, and it shows - just - and the six-speed gearbox, as with the Evora, has a remote, occasionally awkward character that can baulk if rushed.
The new Exige S is a truly exciting car. That e-word cannot be overemphasised here, as it is something of a rarity nowadays in a new car market obsessed with numbers, Nürburgring lap times and marketing. There are faster cars, more expensive cars - the Exige S starts at £52,000 (Dh300,000) - and much more showy cars than this Lotus, but there are very few that offer the same thrill - that classic Lotus quality of bonding man and machine together in direct, efficient, enthralling harmony. Try to think of a rival and it's a struggle: you'd need a car that's fun on the road, that can be thrashed on a circuit successfully all day long, and then be driven home in the same state with which it begun the day. A Porsche 997 GT3 is perhaps the only obvious rival, but then it cost twice the price of the Lotus and is no longer in production (for now).
The Exige S shows what Lotus' engineers can do on the sort of budget that a major car corporation sets aside for boardroom pencils. For that reason alone, the company deserves to survive and prosper. With Bahar gone and a nasty taste left in everyone's mouths, undoubtedly it's time for Lotus to take stock, get real and gradually build on the strengths it possesses. Any company that can make a car like the Exige S needs to be taken very seriously indeed.