NORFOLK-based performance firm Lotus has made a good living out of low cost, lightweight sports cars, but mentioning them in the same sentence as premium offerings from German companies signals a noticeable shift in the UK maker’s focus.
Recent years have seen a gradual uplift in quality, refinement and kit across the Lotus range, which has gone some way to justifying higher prices. There’s also been a quiet revolution in the performance department, with cars now more powerful, faster and increasingly capable.
A high profile product of this new approach is the firm’s Exige S. Granted, recently other cars in the Hethel firm’s stable have teased us as to what the company is capable of, but the Exige S is a complete package offering a brace of track day-focused attributes in a striking wrapper.
At first glance you might think the car is a little conspicuous by Lotus standards, but the ‘enhanced’ aerodynamic styling is not only visually striking but also functional. These changes do much to illustrate the engineers’ focus, as everything has been done for a reason. This philosophy is carried through to the bits you can’t see, with the Exige S gaining a slightly longer than normal wheelbase plus tweaked steering and front suspension geometry to maintain both the car’s high and low speed maneuverability.
Despite the detailed changes to the car, the main attraction remains its power source. The decision taken some time ago by Lotus to use Toyota’s 3.5-litre V6 has proven to be a smart one. Praised by many, it offers a reliable and robust way of challenging the likes of Porsche in the high performance market. The Exige S shares the unit found in the Evora S, and with its substantial 345 horsepower is capable of propelling the Exige S to 170mph and recoding a zero to 60mph time of 4.0 seconds.
Such numbers tell only half the story regarding the Exige’s giant-killing potential. The supercharged unit delivers its ample thrust from low down the rev range, which does much to enhance the car’s in-gear acceleration and overtaking abilities. It might not be the most tuneful of motors, but you can’t help but be impressed by its raw thrust – especially when it’s sat behind you on newly stiffened engine mounts.
For all the repositioning of its cars and the brand upwards in the performance market, Lotus hasn’t forgotten that the driving experience still matters the most. Slide yourself as gracefully as possible over the Exige’s super-wide sills, drop down into the supportive seats and you’re faced with the basic tools: steering wheel, stubby manual gearlever and sensibly-positioned pedals. Yes, you can have a stereo and a few other toys, but the automotive equivalent of a knife, fork and spoon is all you need to enjoy the Exige S.
It’s clear from the off that the car is a serious track day weapon; the firm suspension and accurate but unassisted steering see to that. Lotus is rightfully proud of the former’s ability to isolate occupants from most of what our poorly surfaced roads can throw at it while ensuring pitch and roll is kept to the absolute minimum whether you’re on a B-road or race track.
Lotus has also managed to strike an impressive balance with the steering. The changes to the donor car’s geometry certainly help when parking and taking it easy, and are on the right side of compromise. Predictably the set-up excels when you’re pushing on, as the helm offers the right balance of accuracy, speed and feedback this side of a dedicated track car.
And the engine? Simply put, the Exige S pulls like a train – anywhere, anytime and in any gear. The elastic nature of the engine ensures that you’ll run out of road or, heaven forbid, talent before the car’s V6 powerhouse cries enough. Its sound is more workmanlike than Porsche’s flat six motor, but the combination of supercharger whine and rifle-bolt gearshift make for an addictive experience.
The final surprise is how benign the Exige is when driven hard. Sure, if you behave like an ape when behind the wheel it will bite you, but with so much feedback available you always know what the car is doing. Grip levels are easy to judge and any initial slip is progressive and easy to catch.
There’s always an element of preaching to the converted when talking about cars like the Exige S. If you’re already interested it’s likely that any refinement or packaging shortfalls will be deemed inconsequential as the main attraction is the car’s performance.
Thankfully the car is refined enough so it can be used day-to-day, although it’s unlikely to be the only car in an owner’s garage. In short, the Exige S is devastatingly quick, a genuine giant-killer and good value for money. A judgment you can’t always pass on cars occupying this end of the market.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Lotus Exige S, from £52,900.Engine: 3.5-litre petrol unit developing 345bhp.Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the rear wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 170mph, 0-62mph 4.0 seconds.Economy: 28.0mpg.CO2 Rating: 236g/km.