Lotus Exige
Oh! Brother

The aerodynamic limitations of the open top Elise are well and truly resolved in the rebodied, hard-roofed and very big-winged Exige. Fast? Oh yes.

There’s a moment in the Exige, just as third gear runs out at a frantic 7800rpm (probably 95mph-ish), when you suddenly see the oint.

Thus far the Exige has been hugely fast, but no more hugely fast than many other putative supercars. Bug get above 90mph and you suddenly enter the twilight zone, a strange new feeling through the seat and the steering and the way the car reacts. Grip seems to be intensifying, just as you thought it would be running out. It’s a feeling of immortality, a feeling that you are the best driver in the world. A feeling of downforce.

Of course, lots of cars claim to have downforce. Even more look like they’d be able to stick to the ceiling with their stupendous spoilers and wings sprouting in every direction. But the truth is that very few production cars even manage to neutralize high-speed lift, let alone create any positive attraction to the tarmac. Not so the Exige, a car that gets noticeably stickier as it gets faster. Got wants you for a roller skate.

Lotus doesn’t work for show alone and he Exige’s curvy form, however foxy it looks, all works towards maximizing aerodynamic efficiency. The hardtop and new sculpted rear panel passing air towards the aggressive rear wing. This inturn creates some inverse lift in finest aerodynamic tradition. They even go as far as putting on a completely smooth floorpan to prevent the good work up sp from being overwhelmed underneath. The result is 80kg of downforce at 100mph.

Which doesn’t sound like much, suddenly gaining a 12-stone friend. But it does create a noticeable, feelable difference, as the car seems to clamp itself down, just as mortal machinery would be skittering nervously kerbwards. And, being Lotus, the aerodynamics are also pretty clever: there’s almost no increase in drag over a standard Elise.

Being licence conscious and socially responsible (in that order), I didn’t find this out on the road. Instead, I had a go, thinking I was hard enough, on Lotus’s own Hethel circuit, an evil little track. Most of it is deceptive: frightening reverse curves, which look harp but are actually flat at silly speeds if you know the line. I certainly didn’t, but the Exige remained stick to the asphalt at massive, credulity-threatening velocities. I ran out of balls long before the Exige did. My speed tolerance threshold cut in, not believing I could go any faster.

Even the near legendary, sideways-at-any-speed Lotus test drivers have apparently had difficulty getting the Exige to oversteer, such is the adhesion. I didn't stand a chance. Even on the hairpins at either end of the circuit - traditionally a place to get some low-speed revenge on a car that's just petrified you - I couldn't get the Exige to do anything but stick. Having said that, it didn't exactly feel as though it would be progressive or transitional when you did breach its ultrahigh limits.

The Exige is based closely on the Lotus Sports Elise race cars, to be seen trading paint in support of the British Touring Car Championship this season. Very closely. The race car gets a central driving position; the Exige keeps two seats (Lotus reckoning that abandoning the passenger is a step too far). The race car has 200bhp from its 1.8-litre K-series; the Exige has 176bhp in homologated form, or 192bhp with the aftermarket track pack as fitted here. And the Exige also has a higher front splitter, specially designed Yokohama A039s rather than slicks and a rear wing blunted for pedestrian impact reasons.

But otherwise you're driving another in a long line of road-legal race cars. Most of which have been absolute pigs when taken from their natural environment. Fortunately, not so the Exige. Sure, the limits are massively high, socially irresponsibly so. But you don't need to go there to have fun. While the standard, minimalist Elise is amusing due to the very accessibility of its limits, the Exige manages to be similarly amusing at 40 percent of maximum lateral g.

The fundamental Elise-ness hasn't been lost. The steering is still unassisted, super-light and completely hesitation-free. The engine is still tractable and happy to lumber along at low revs when needs be. The gearchange is still too rubbery. And the cabin is still an aluminium wonderland. Only the enhanced stability, next-league grip and limited rear visibility differentiate the Exige in the real world.

Not that this is a practical, everyday kind of car or anything. Don't let's get silly here. The presence of the hardtop limits the door aperture to a couple of feet, meaning you need to limbo on in there, keys and cash falling embarrassingly from your pockets. There's also no luggage space worth speaking of unless you leave the passenger at home, with only the tiniest partition behind the engine for a very squashy bag. A lightly broiled squashy bag by journey's end, such is the heat soak. Reversing is also difficult, door mirrors only, thanks to the distortion of the see-through curved rear cover. And it's boomingly, monotonously loud. There are 190 horses back there, but it does sound like you're processing them in a meat rendering plant.

But none of this matters: this is not a family hatch. As a raw sports car, and especially a trackday-biased one, the Exige excels. Only the price tag - a wincing, wallet-clenching 02,995 - stands out as being more extreme than the car itself.

That's more than a Porsche Boxster 2.7, one of the most wonderful cars on the planet. And it's certainly a lot to pay for something made largely from plastic which fries your luggage melts your inner ears and leaks when the rain points in the right direction. Plus there's that additional challenge for anything Elise-based to justify any premium over the sublime simplicity of the raw, unadorned base model. The Exige's triumph is that, despite these numerous hurdles, you still want one. At almost any price. Addictive stuff, downforce.

And finally, the conundrum. Why ‘Exige'? Even Lotus employees seemed uncertain, pronunciation varying betweenX.E.G'and'X-eeyge'. I'm reliably informed it's French for'demanding'.

True, but only of your restraint.


36 SEPTEMBER 2000 car