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The Lotus Exige S has become very serious indeed in its third generation guise. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Though sportscar makers Lotus know they have to expand their product line for an appeal beyond hard-core enthusiasts, it's those very people who've built the brand buying models like this one - the Exige. Here is a totally focused driving machine that sums up everything this British marque is really about. The kind of car that Lotus founder Colin Chapman used to make. Uncompromising sportscars of course, can take many different forms and Lotus likes to think that it offers a choice to suit the most demanding tastes. The Elise roadster for weekend enthusiasts. The pricier Evora coupe for day-to-day drivers wanting more power and luxury. And this Exige for track tearaways unwilling to compromise or adapt to life on tamer tarmac. Now powered by a much pokier supercharged V6 engine, this third generation version is bigger and heavier, but crucially also faster and more satisfying. Everything in fact the Exige ever promised to be, offering the fun and potential open-topped thrills of an Elise with the long distance power and luxury of an Evora. Let's try it.
Despite the extra weight that the V6 engine brings to Exige motoring, this is still performance motoring stripped down to its barest essentials. All of the high-tech trickery that other sportscar makers use to optimise acceleration times - paddleshift transmission, four wheel drive even a limited slip differential - has been discarded here because Lotus think it isn't needed, a contention that's hard to argue with when in standard form, this car will demolish the rest to sixty sprint in just 3.8s, make 100mph from rest in less than 9s and top out in Roadster form at just under 150mph. Power steering doesn't even make the spec sheet, so there's nothing to get in the way of the wonderfully connected feeling you have with the road whilst at the perfectly positioned wheel. Not that technical innovation is totally absent here. Give any car 46% more power and 74% more torque and you need to give it a few extra tools to handle things more easily - namely in this case what Lotus are calling 'DPM' - 'Dynamic Performance Management'. It's all controlled via this Ferrari-like manettino-style rotary controller on the dash here that, via up to four settings, adjusts throttle, engine sound, rev limit, ESP intervention and chassis response to suit the way you want to drive.
Getting in and out of an Exige coupe remains something of a gymnastic feat, thanks to the combination of these high sills and the low roof line which will make this cockpit a tight fit for taller drivers. Should you take exception to this yet still somehow want this Lotus, this time round there's the option of doing away with the roof altogether and opting for the separate Roadster version we look at here. Yes, an open-topped Exige. In either of this model's first two generations, such a thing would have been faintly ludicrous as the end result would essentially have been nothing more than an Elise. Now though with this MK3 model, there's clear justification for a roofless version and the result is very pretty indeed, if simplistic with a manual soft top you've to clip on and off. Mind you, that'll be a small price to pay for getting a more intense Exige experience. Whichever bodystyle you choose, it won't help if your own bodystyle is somewhat portly, with wonderful body-hugging front seats that clamp you into place. Still, once you're installed behind the non-adjustable wheel, it's surprisingly comfortable even on longer trips, provided you don't mind the constant engine drone that'll loudly accompany progress if you don't pay extra for sound insulation, carpets and floor mats.
List prices suggest that you'll be paying from around £55,000 for your Exige S in coupe form - with not much more for the open-topped Roadster version. About the same, in other words, as you'd have to find for a normally aspirated entry-level Lotus Evora coupe. If, having considered all of this, you conclude that it is an Exige that you really want, then realistically, since very little equipment is included as standard, you'll need to set aside a £6,000-£7,000 budget for key extra options. Of these, the most crucial is the £2,000 'Race Pack' that as well as launch control and stiffer suspension adds the fourth 'Race' mode to the DPM Dynamic Performance Management System - a feature I can't imagine any self-respecting buyer of this car would want to be without. Apart from anything else, the lack of it is anyway going to make this Exige difficult to sell on. By the same token, I can't really see the point of Lotus having gone to all the trouble it has in making this car so much easier for day-to-day use if prospective owners aren't going to properly trim the cabin to suit. That means putting aside up to £2,000 for one of the 'Premium Packs' that'll give you things like sound insulation, floor mats, a sports steering wheel and leather trim. Other essentials include air conditioning and rear parking sensors, while track fiends may like to specify the option stickier Trofeo tyres. Less important is the 'Convenience Pack' that adds things like cruise control, a USB connection and a cupholder.
Tax liability won't be the first thing on your mind if you're thinking of buying a Lotus Exige but it's worth noting that this third generation Exige S model's increased 236g/km CO2 showing is quite a hike up from the old version's 199g/km figure. You'll pay a bit more in fuel too, the combined cycle figure having fallen from 33.2 to 28mpg. But then, with all this extra power on tap, you'd expect to have to pay a bit extra for your pleasures. More of an issue with the fuel consumption is the tiny 43-litre tank, which you're going to have to be refilling on an overly regular basis should you find yourself driving this car as Lotus intended. The Hethel brand expects most owners to be regularly venturing on to race circuits too, somewhere it's quite easy to go through tyres and brakes - which won't be cheap to replace. Personally, I'd allow an extra couple of thousand to buy myself a ready-mounted set of stickier Trofeo tyres and bolt them on for trackdays. Times of course when your standard insurance won't cover you. For the record, it'll be rated at a top-of-the-shop group 50. Add in service intervals every 9,000 miles and it becomes clear that running an Exige won't be an inexpensive venture. Still, at least it'll be one covered by a three year/60,000 mile warranty.
Is this the world's finest all-round road and track car? It certainly lays claim to that title with raw performance, agility and almost unparalleled ride and handling good enough round Lotus's test track to make this MK3 Exige model a full five seconds quicker than its predecessor. Yes, it's that much better. So no, the extra weight and power hasn't spoiled this Lotus. It's still a true race car for the road, developed by drivers for drivers. Hugely entertaining, richly rewarding and, if you carefully choose your setting on the clever Dynamic Performance Management system, able to take corners better than Pele thanks to a uniquely formidable downforce package that sticks it to the tarmac. To criticise this car's lack of day-to-day practicality is pointless. That's not its remit and in any case, all likely owners will have other more sensible cars installed in their air conditioned, timber-framed garages. That said, the designers needed to make this an easier car to drive to and from the racetracks it loves most. Good then, that they've done that too. An Exige of course won't be for everyone. But for the committed few, it offers a unique ownership proposition. More of a sportscar. More of an experience. More of a Lotus.
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