The S2 Exige test drive

Dan Harman, SELOC member and S2 elise owner, had to say:

Well I finally got around to a test drive. It seems an age since the initial rumours that had prompted my fiancée and I to place a deposit. I have to confess that my enthusiasm had dwindled as the course Lotus set for the car became increasingly apparent.

Thus it was with a certain amount of apathy that I hauled myself out of bed early on Saturday morning. The Alka-Seltzer that I'd stumbled about for at 6am had had very little positive impact. Not only did I have a pounding skull, but it was raining gently outside; hardly the perfect backdrop to test a new Lotus shod in semi-slicks with a certain reputation.

front of Exige at speed.

Pulling into their car park, I was immediately struck by the gleaming chrome orange Exige perched off to one side. I've been very critical of the styling in the past, but I'm happy to say it looks an awful lot better in the flesh. It doesn't scream bloodlust in the manner of its elder sibling, but instead proclaims a quiet purposefulness that will certainly command respect on the road. Doubltess further aided by the iridescent orange paintwork of this example.

Fi took the first test drive abandoning me in Wilsons’ showroom for 45 minutes. I used the time to read a recent review of the Exige by Car magazine, glad that my headache was finally subsiding. I was somewhat concerned by what they had to say and wondered if I’d have similar reservations. The reviewer was only moderately impressed, having managed to bend the steering rack correcting a slide. He was honest enough to admit it had been provoked by lifting off mid corner, but seemed to blame the car at least as much as himself. Not really fair criticism, and more indicative of talent failure than design fault; perhaps also hinting at modern expectations of docile and forgiving rides, no matter the dynamic compromise. He’d have been well served to have first checked his French dictionary.
Exige (Verbe transitif)
(a) to demand, require, insist on.
Wondering around the showroom increasingly bored of looking at locked 111Rs and a beautiful Elan+2, I was pleased to see the Exige appear on the horizon and pull back into the car park. Fiona looked impressed as she wondered back to tell me it was my turn.

Rear of silver Exige

Peter Williams handed me the keys, and invited me to hop in and manoeuvre the car out whilst he cleared a path through some cones. I strapped in, noticing the seats felt tighter but more padded than in my S2, and pulled the door closed. Oops - that’s not shut. Not counting on the increased solidity of the car, I'd used insufficient grunt. With a firmer tug it latched with a satisfying thunk. Was I really in an Elise derivative?

Adjusting the seat was the next surprise. In previous generations, it has always been a ratchety and noisome process. In the Exige the seat slid mellifluously forward and latched with a delicate click, no sign of the anticipated clunk. Perhaps Lotus really has started caring about the details?

Starting the engine, I was greeted with a more purposeful note than expected; very little hint of Singer's finest, suggesting a dark future for the aftermarket exhaust manufacturers of the Elise world.

Peter had cautioned me about the clutch bite point, and he'd been right - it was right at the top of the pedals travel. I'm sure its something one could easily grow accustomed to, but I'd be lying if I said it was love at first sight. Still it was easy enough to find and didn't present a problem as I navigated past the cones and waited for Peter to jump into the passenger seat.

Indicating to pull out, I was again surprised. The feel of the stalks had changed - they now engage with a weighty and positive action. Admittedly of limited importance, but another clue suggesting that new found emphasis on the smaller things that make up the whole.

Exige and tire smoke

It seems a bright orange Exige is a passport to junction priority. I was let out immediately and as I drew up to the first roundabout just down the road, two other cars arrived at different exits simultaneously. New to the car, I was happy to let someone else to lead the charge, but no one made a move. Ah, must be the orange paint and spoiler. I imagine police officers experience this daily when travelling in a fully liveried squad car. I paused a moment longer, and still no one pulled out, it became clear I’d have to take the initiative.

The route we followed allowed a couple of 0-70mph runs, where the car pulled respectably towards the 6250rpm cam switchover. At said point there was a decent shove in the back and an imminently looming limiter. The car felt swift, but in no way reminiscent of the paradigm shift I’d first experienced when graduating to an Elise, and again when I’d had a play in my friend’s Noble. I felt more than a little cautious gunning the car, disturbed by a rear mirror that provides an image entirely composed of mesh and wing. I was never entirely confident that there wasn’t that marked police car loitering behind, eclipsed by the Exige’s aggressive rump.

The gearbox had a decisive feel although without the positive weightiness of a BMW box, and despite being new it displayed none of the recalcitrance of a virginal PG-1. When changing down I detected a tendency for the engine to run on, but I'm still trying to work out if it was my incompetence or something about the car. It didn't happen every time, and I suspect blame lies either in my unfamiliarity with the clutch’s high bite, or simply an engine that revs further and thus drops more revs on change down. Sadly I didn't have enough time to get to the bottom of it.

The brakes have been described many times previously, and I have little to add other than to confirm these reports. There is very little action during the initial travel followed by reasonable feel when they start to bite. It reminded me of a Mercedes pedal but with more feedback. That might sound damning, but Lotus’s implementation is several orders of magnitude better than I’ve ever experienced in a Merc. They did squeal a few times at low speed which prompted me to wonder what pads were standard fit. Nothing too outrageous I suspected, but at least the noise was fairly inoffensive.

Exige show car

I was disappointed to find I lacked the ballerinas touch necessary to heal and toe with such sensitive stoppers. Not wanting to put my passenger through the windscreen I didn’t try more than a couple of times, but suspect I could develop the skill in time, ideally with a smaller audience. Nor did I get the chance to test the ABS deciding that there was too much traffic and sensing that Peter might not be entirely happy were I to do so.

Steering was heavy at lower speeds but lightened as velocity increased whilst maintaining a very positive feel. Turn in was markedly sharper and flatter than in the standard S2 and suspension compliance was a revelation. Despite having the sports setup the car rode bumps with far more aplomb than previous iterations and without the bone shaking clunks. I suspect the extra weight has proved an ally in this battle and I was hugely impressed with the solidity of the car over pot holes. Unfortunately the test route had no notable twists and a surfeit of traffic leaving me to regret that I couldn't spend time with the car on more testing roads.

In terms of dynamics I finished my drive with a lot of questions left unanswered, and the discomforting knowledge that I hadn't had time to become sufficiently accustomed to the clutch, brake & obstructed rear view to really explore the car anyway. These cars are significantly different to pedal than previous iterations and will doubtlessly require some brain reprogramming for most of us. However, what little the car had been able to reveal of its nature left me impressed, and convinced that there was a deep vein of talent to mine given more time and better conditions.

Arriving back at the dealership, I took the opportunity to inspect the car more carefully. Lotus has clearly evolved as a manufacturer of late, and the quality of fit and finish was almost uniformly impressive. The only significant black mark is due to the cheap looking moulding that houses the air conditioning controls. This is a poorly integrated hang over from previous generations, and has been remodelled on the federal cars. I can't help but hope they might make similar changes here as I the fed dashboards look more professional, whilst offering the additional benefit of relocating the stereo to within easy reach of the driver. The air vents have also changed and can now be shut with a positive click, sadly the plastic they are crafted from is out of place on a car in this segment.

The tailgate is opened with a catch inside the cabin, perhaps not the greatest idea in terms of security, although on reflection, it seems unlikely that a determined attacker would have much trouble getting into the boot of a fibre-glass car anyway. Perhaps it’s best they can do so with minimal damage to the body. The hydraulic ram that lifts and supports the tailgate is a great touch and something I wish they'd offer on all Elises. The fit and finish of the tailgate on the car I inspected seemed good with even shut lines and a very strong mesh protecting the engine bay. In style it reminded me of a fencing mask but sadly not in practicality. You can see a fair amount through a fencing mask; sadly this mesh offered very little transparency from the cabin.

Beneath the tailgate nestles a neat engine installation surrounded by a surprising amount of space. The engine itself doesn't look particularly impressive and the cheap looking plastic cladding does it few favours. On that count at least, Ferrari can rest easy.

The boot sits behind the engine and is similar to the 111R's in having lost a fair amount of capacity to packaging requirements. Unlike in the k-series cars, the intake plenum is now towards the firewall with the manifold exiting towards the bottom rear of the engine and causing the boot problem. On the plus side there is a fair amount of space around the intake giving me reasonable confidence that a supercharger installation won't have packaging problems. The boot opening also seemed smaller than on a k-series Elise, but it's not a huge concern when weighed against the diminutive boot.

Exige engine compartment

Fortunately the exhaust doesn’t look as bad in the flesh as it has in some pictures. The blackened up tail pipes made it largely unobtrusive unless specifically sought. The absence of chrome tips was definitely an advantage in this instance.

The central locking seemed fine and a handy addition, especially with a master control switch mounted in front of the gear stick where the cigarette lighter socket used to be; definitely a reassurance for those of us who drive through the less salubrious parts of cities. The lighter socket has now been pushed back behind the handbrake which doesn’t seem ideal for running speed trap detectors; there is however, a blanking plate of appropriate size in front of the gear stick giving some hope that this might not be the final layout on production cars. Electric windows were somewhat less impressive as the switches have an overly resistant feel and the windows move with an inelegant aggression.

The roof doesn't look particularly easy to remove and is properly lined with a studded flap over its front mounting point. Tucked in at the top of the windscreen were the most laughable set of sun visors I've ever seen, fortunately they can be tucked out of the way and ignored. The roof vent is non functional as reported and frankly I don't see much point in unblocking it given that it would just drop air into the empty uppermost expanse of the engine bay. It might be of more use were one to need air to feed into an intercooler.

Brake ducts are a noteable addition to the front arches, with vents in front of the wheels passing air through the discs and then out via a meshed opening in the rear of the arch. The front vents have angled slats presumably with the dual purpose of directing airflow to the disk and avoiding dousing the disks should it start raining.

Looking over the options list, it is apparent that few Exige’s will be leaving the showroom for less than 34k before any discounts. Air-conditioning which is pretty much a necessity comes in at £1295, whilst the performance pack is £1995 versus £1795 for the touring pack. I suspect most people will end up with the touring pack, not necessarily because they favour it, but because you apparently can't keep the convenient inertia belts with the performance pack - they are replaced with 4 point harnesses. It’s a shame as I believe this latter pack comes with the much loved 340R style seats, but that’s slight consolation if it means constantly fiddling with a multitude of buckles just to go to the shops. Harnesses aren't safe if improperly adjusted, and given that my fiancée and I both sit at different distances to the wheel it would be constant pain to keep adjusting them. Why they won't take a leaf out of Noble's book and offer both harnesses and inertial reels I don't know. Given the number of queries about it here on the forums it’s clearly something much desired, and it’s a little alarming that so many have both harnesses and inertias in the car if the mounting points genuinely aren’t up to it.

There are three paint options that attract no surcharge, calypso red, saffron yellow and old English white, the latter is likely a mistake on an Exige although with a stripe it might just work. The normal metallics then cost £595, leaving the extreme paints coming in at an eye watering £1010. This is more than a little unfortunate as my favourite, chrome orange, is one of these colours along with krypton green and an unconvincing seal grey. Daylight robbery I feel but I’d be compelled to tick that box on the spec sheet.

Only the performance pack comes with a secondary oil cooler which seems odd given that its standard fit on all models in the US and Australia. It's a tad disconcerting that it can't be had with the touring pack - who wants to buy a car with semi-slick tyres and never take it out on a hot track day?

The forged alloys cost a further £1175, but I doubt they'll be selling many sets given quite how unattractive they are in comparison with the cars standard wheels. Furthermore it's likely you wouldn't see any sign of your original wheels were you to buy this option which makes them cost well over 2 grand by my reckoning. I suspect who ever priced them up also worked on the paint option tariffs.

Exige interior

So are we going to buy one?

Well I'm not sure yet and nor is Fi. Firstly In terms of pace, the Honda Elise I tried at Bedford had the legs on this Exige, and by some margin. Nonetheless it was usefully quicker than my standard k-series S2, just not jaw dropping. I can't help but feel more power is needed to really set this car apart. Furthermore I'm not entirely happy with the two configuration options; the packs offer the following features:

Touring: Full Alcantara, Electric Windows, DAB & MP3 CD Tuner, Sun visors, Stowage Net & Carpet Set.
Performance: Alcantara sports seats, 4 point harnesses, Carbon door inserts & twin oil coolers.

Personally I'd want a hybrid of that lot as follows:

Ideal pack: Alcantara sports seats, harnesses whilst retaining inertial reels, carbon or leather door insert, twin oil coolers, stowage net, carpets and maybe the electric windows (they aren't that bad) and uprated stereo.

Apparently it’s not possible, but presumably anything is possible if one is stubborn enough and throws enough money at it. Sadly throwing yet more money on a 35k Elise isn't that attractive to me.

It is a beautiful car and has a Volkswagen like solidity that’s leagues ahead of any previous Elise, but coming in at 35k without all the options I want and lacking the performance I'd hoped for I'm just not sure.

One thing I did notice perusing the 111R & Exige option list, is that Lotus are offering LSS and wider front wheels for the 111R, the ugly forged ones previously discussed, despite previous assurances that this wasn't going to happen. This further erodes the raison d'etre behind the Exige given that these are the keys to the dynamics that differentiate the cars.

Anyway I'm waiting for Peter to get back in touch and see what he'll offer in trade in for my Elise, but looking at the size of his current stock I'm not really expecting an offer I'll be happy with.

If we do buy now, I know I'm going to be utterly distraught should a reasonably priced factory supercharged version make an appearance in the future as that’s the car I really want. Then again if it were to come in at much over 35k I'd have to wait and buy used if I'm honest.

Decisions decisions...

Secret Exige with cover removed.

Dan Harman (2004)