Exige at speed


As Lotus unveils a new-look Elise at the Motor Show, its supercoupe cousin will also be making its UK debut. Here we test the Exige first.

If you were brave enough to suggest in he power-craze Eighties that eh defining sports car of the millennium would be a lightweight two-ester with a minimalist metal interior and a 1.8 litre engine from a family hatchback. It would not have been long before the men in white coats appeared at your door.

Until the arrival of Lotus’s ground breaking Elise in 1995, sports cares were in design freefall. Performance was every thing and that usually meant bolting a lump of an engine into an already heavy-duty chassis - the extra power could overcome the excess weight. Then Lotus struck gold. Instead of building a 250bhp car weighting 1500kg, it designed one that purduced 118 bhp andtipped the scaes at only 730kg. The Elise was bor.

Since then the car has spawned many spin-offs and high-performance specials, culminating with the Exige launched earlier this month. Identical in appearance to the Elise racing cars that have been competing in a one-make championship this season (and driven by AutoExpress in issue 622), the Exige is effectively a competition car for the road.

But although it looks like a current Elise (there are no pans to give the Exige the controversial facelift of the new Elise unveiled at the Motor Show) with a hard top and bigger wheels, a close inspection reveals more fundamental changes. Every exterior panel except the doors has been altered, yet Elisa DNA is evident in each curve. Beautifully proportioned, the Exige has the charm that made the Elise such an icon. Even the huge rear aerofoil, which would look daft on most cars, blends in. Black alloy wheels and a roof-mounted airbox complete the race car feel.

Unlike the race versions, which have a McLaren F1-style central driving position, the road-going Exige has a more traditional two-seater layout. As with so many aspects of the car, simplicity is thekey – but unless you’re an accomplished gymnast the Exige s nearly impossible to get in and out of gracefully thanks to a high, wide sill and low roofline. Once in, the cabin is a delight. The seats look thinly trimmed, but support in all the right places, and although your backside sits inches form the road and the wheel has no adjustment, few will find fault with the driving position.

The instrumentation is minimal. A compact stack binnacle contains only two dials, a speedometer and rev counter. Not that you will need a dial in front of you tot tell what speed the four-cylinder K-Series engine is doing. Thanks to a lack of soundproofing , you know it’s time to change up when your eardrums start to hurt. But despite it hmble Rover origins, he Exige’s engine is ideally suited to its application here. Light, revvy and very strong, it give shte car a turn of pace that’s in the Premier League performance-wise, hitting 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds in the wet and going on to reach a top speed of 136 mph. Given ideal conditions, Lotus’s claimed 0-60mph time of 4.9 seconds believable. Amazing stuff from a 1.8-litre unit that returns 28mpg!

Unlike some sports cars, extracting this performance is refreshingly easy. The clutch is light and progressive, the throttle perfectly weighted and the five-speed gearbox slots home accurately. In standard form, the Exige produces 177bhp- 34bhp more than the now defunct 111S – but Lotus expects that most customers will opt for the 190bhp conversion pack. Yet despite its performance, the engine is strangely soulless. Lacking the thrum of a Porsche flat-six or the wail of a Ferrari V8, the Rover unit sounds more like a metal filing cabinet falling down a flight of concrete steps.

In terms of chassis design, the Exige builds on the Elises strengths by incorporating several tweaks developed for the single-make racing version. The double wishbones and coil springs front and rear remain, but the Exige has a wider track and fully adjustable shock absorbers. Bigger brakes ensure that the additional performance does not go unchecked - even though ABS is still absent.

Unsurprisingly, the Exige feels like its smaller brother Elise on the move. The steering has the same crisp quality, uncorrupted by power-steering and loaded with feedback from the front wheels. Turn-in to a corner and the rack weights up progressively and lightens as the lock starts to unwind. With so little weight to move, the Exige's front end can be flicked from left to right without any delay and body roll. Put simply, it reacts and behaves just like a racing car. Up to a certain point - 70mph - the Exige is near identical to its open-top stablemate. However, drive the newcomer on a circuit and the differences are more noticeable. Lotus claims the rear wing and deeper front valance together produce 80kg of downforce at 100mph, effectively pushing the car into the road and improving grip. And it’s at high speed that the Exige starts to stamp its authority. Whereas the Elise tends to lose surefootedness as the ton approaches, the newcomer feels utterly unflappable.

As an ownership prospect, the Exige is a mixed bag -;632,995 is a lot for what amounts to an Elise with a roof. Include zero practicality, a thrashy engine and no equipment, and cars such as the Porsche Boxster and Audi TT seem like bargains. But to judge the Exige against more traditional sports 'cars is missing the point. Ultimately, the Lotus is a unique sportster - developed for the track but equally at home on a twisting backtoad. Light, fast and so rewarding to drive, it's the closest thing yet to four-wheeled heaven.

Auto Express (date unknown)