Lotus’s Exige S is a natural extension of the firm’s range, but also represents an insight into its future. Oh, it’s also one of the best sports cars ever built
SO, IT’S a slightly confusing time to be a Lotus fan of late, with the iconic British sportscar company going through various management and ownership changes in the last year which look remarkably similar to changes at some aircraft companies. Bosses have come and gone, new owners have come in with fanfares, and then reality hits that new ownership usually means the big and exciting plans of the previous owners get put on hold or shelved altogether.
For Lotus, that’s meant ambitious plans – overambitious, it’s now generally accepted – for five new models in five years are no longer giving them sleepless nights.
Instead, they are making smaller and more manageable steps towards a goal of enhancing the model range with more powerful and more luxurious cars that start to become buying rivals to marques like Porsche, but still retaining the Lotus DNA. For Lotus, that DNA is near perfect-handling lightweight sportscars that make drivers feel like gods.
The move towards Porsche sounds and is ambitious, but the previous Lotus owner’s plan of leaping straight to Lamborghini territory was a terrifying ask for a small firm.
The latest development is the new Exige S, whose genesis was the conclusion to a quite straightforward question: what would the amazing go-kart-like Exige be like if it had the brilliant 345hp 3.5 litre V6 engine of the bigger Evora S? Only one way to find out…
MORE POWER, MORE PRESENCE
The older Exige is one of the best known and most loved cars amongst those who spend a lot of time driving cars on racetracks: Lotus say that 70% of Exige owners regularly use them on tracks, and when it comes to handling, it’s almost the definitive car you don’t want to see in your mirrors on a twisty road if you spent a small fortune on something like a Porsche. At just 928kg, corners, acceleration, and braking were the Exige’s forte, but with around 270hp, it wasn’t exactly overwhelmingly fast on the straight stuff.
The new engine for the Exige S replaces a revvy 1800cc four-cylinder that was low on torque with a much stronger V6, with a hugely increased torque output of 295ft-lb.
Weight has gone up, but only to 1176kg, so it means it will do the classic 0 to 60mph benchmark in 4s flat, or fractionally less if you get the perfect launch, and peak at 170mph. Now the Porsche guy can’t rely on the straight bit of road to clear his mirrors.
The Exige S is a little longer and wider to make sure it can accommodate the larger engine and drivetrain, and to us looks better for it – more muscly, and more suiting its new beefier engine note. The extra body width also helps accommodate stonking Pirelli Trofeo tyres all round, 205s front and wide 265s at the back.
With the added width between wheels, and the low weight, the tyres give grip levels that – on a grippy track – are bordering on ridiculous, even in the wet. We drove the car at Lotus’s test track in England and without question there was more lateral force in the Exige S on a wet track than most cars give in the dry. This is a car that will give you sore neck muscles.
All the new power and grip comes at a price, with Exige S costing slightly over £50,000, which for Lotus is rare mark to surpass. Does it bring more to ownership than just more speed and a great engine sound?
It most certainly does. Despite all the extra power and grip, the true advancement in the Exige S lies in its electronic performance enhancements. We can’t call it traction control, because it is so much more than that, and sets a new standard for any car that is built for the road.
THE BRAINS OF THE OPERATION
The clever stuff is called the Dynamic Performance Management System, and makes previous typical stability controls and traction controls look a bit stone age.
It has three settings (and an ‘off’): Touring, Sports, and Race, and the difference between option modes is stark, but not in the way you might think.
In most cars, moving from a ‘standard’ handling and traction mode to a ‘sport’ or race mode is simply a case of a computer stripping away levels of intervention and allowing different preset limits to enter play. It feels faster or more action-packed simply because the computer isn’t nipping the excitement in the bud the instant it detects a bit of body sway or wheelspin.
In the Exige S, the changes in mode fundamentally alter the way the system works to make you faster, in the way a race car would have different modes to suit different conditions – all with the aim of making the car go faster, and none of them dull the car.
The standard Touring mode does everything for you bar ordering your lunch: even the most foolhardy and lead-footed of drivers would struggle to make it misbehave. Act deliberately silly, trying to make the car slide into a bend or on exit by just flooring the throttle – in the interests of science, of course – and the system intervenes to keep everything in a line.
But rather than strip the car of power, it instead harnesses it beautifully and creates arguably the fastest-but-least-dramatic car yet made to zap out of a turn with zero drama.
Sport mode gives you a flavour of what it is like to be a pro driver, allowing a little sideways slip and wheelspin, and more engine noise.
Race mode, meanwhile, is a whole new level for roadcars. Where a race mode setting in most other cars simply turns all driver aids off, the Exige S’s throws the most brain power at the system and starts to make instantaneous on-the-fly calculations of road grip and alter the system parameters to suit: it’s actually working out how to go fastest of all.
Floor the throttle in the middle of a tight corner in Race mode and the car will immediately wag its tail, but still drive forward incredibly quickly. Next corner, having sensed the road, it will do it even better, and even quicker. It’s an onboard computerised Vettel that will make your passengers look at you with awe. The trick for the driver is to try and carry off the ‘“Yeah, that’s all me…” look.
Incredible credit goes to Lotus’s development team and electronics partner Bosch for creating a new benchmark for roadcars: a system so good it is better than most racecars.
It’s got two seats, is a kerfuffle to get in and out, is the first Lotus to have a cup holder, is more comfortable than you’d expect, wildly impractical, and probably the best handing car yet built. How can you not love that?
Lotus Exige S
Top speed 170mph
Engine 3456cc V6 with supercharger
Max power 345hp at 7000rpm
Max torque 295lb-ft at 4500rpm
– 28mpg combined