In Your Face....
It may have got a fraction more civilized but the revised Exige is still one very focused trackday screamer
Story Tom Ford
Photography Stuart Collins
Woe, Woe! The king is dead! Or at least the Exige has, if you look at the paper specifications, succumbed to middle-age spread. The second generation is fatter than the original Exige and comes with ABS and a radio. In becoming a car that you can imagine driving for a weekend away, has it lost the racer's edge?
Mechanically, he new Exige is track-biased version of the 111R Elise, the one equipped with the 189 bhp Toyota engine. It gains sportier suspension (re-valved Bilstein dampers, ten percent stiffer springs) and Yokohama Advan AO48 tyres, on cast black wheels - an even lighter forged wheel is available as an option. There are also various aerodynamics changes including a new front splitter and rear wing, and a hardtop with an air intake to feed the engine. The side intakes are a little bigger and there are ducts from the front to channel cooling air to the front discs. There are even two option packs available. 'Performance' adds bucket seats and four-point harnesses, a crossbar, a few fake carbon bits and twin oil coolers. The 'Touring' pack gives you Alcantara trim, leccy windows, a digital radio, carpets and sun visors.
It weighs 875kg- the same as the Elise - which gives it exactly the same 0-60 time as the 111R. It has more downforce - that rear wing creates over ten times more negative lift at 100 mph than the trayless Elise, and the front splitter gives five times more pressure on the nose at the ton. But with the same gearbox and ratios, it is actually slower (147mph versus 150).
The new Exige has the same bhp/tonne as the Elise, so there is no knockout punch, no woundup haymaker of thrust. It won't keep up with a Boxster S on a straight road. It will do well against the Porsche from a standing start, where relative mass versus grip and horsepower will still count in its favour. On a circuit, or indeed a road with some decent straights, the Exige driver will find himself overhauled by cars with more grunt, even if he's wringing every last screaming revolution from that Toyota four-pot and cracking through that wonderful C64 six-speed gearbox with the accuracy of William Tell. It is not a car that provides you with the sort of horsepower that you can use to compensate for a lack of skill.
So the point must be the bits in between. Oh yes, the bits in between. The comers.
You have to abandon your reliance on the slow in, fast out technique because the only way to go really quickly in an Exige is to carry comer speed. In short, you have to learn how to drive a car that has more grip than go. Feed the car in through the comer, be smooth and linear with the inputs and it will pop your eyes. It changes direction like a housefly, instantly overcoming its momentum. Negotiating a roundabout, you need to use your brakes much less than in most cars. The change will spill from your pockets, your dinner will splosh from side to side, your nose will run. You will not blink. Its not a car, it's a cartoon.
Where the Elise will eventually start to push wide, the Exige tracks like a bobsleigh negotiating a banked comer. There is hardly any body movement, just enough to help the tyres telegraph their own intimate messages. The steering camber-chases and bobbles under your palms, feeding information about grip and texture of tarmac directly into you. Road markings become vision-blurring thumps. You can feel the difference in the paint thickness.
There is understeer on very slow comers, but check your speed; you're probably entering comers much more quickly than you think. It resists the 'porpoising' that can beset the111R during a long, loaded-up fast comer - it doesn't jog diagonally towards the outside of the bend.
The engine lifts itself again and again as the cam profile changes at 6z5orpm. It makes a twisty road feel like a series of positive jabs at the wheel and gearstick. This car is why the Romans didn't get the B-road contract.
The champagne should stay corked for a couple of minutes, though. It isn't perfect.
The Exige will lose composure if you do what I did, which was to get overconfident, carry too much speed, turn in and instinctively lift. Do this on a dry road and you'll swear a bit as the suspension unloads and re-loads while you struggle at the wheel, eventually recovering without anything untoward happening. Do it on a wet and filthy fenland back road and youll be finding out exactly how much of that 2.8 turns lock to lock you'll need to flail straight again. I reckon I used 2.9, having slightly bent the rack in a desperate lunge for tarmac rather than ditch.
The Yokohamas are among the best semi-track tyres you can fit, but they do have their limitations. When the tyres are warm, stick your hand under the arch and into the middle of the tyre - you'll find it has the consistency of Blu-Tack. But when cold they are ludicrously unhelpful. One surprising moment on the first comer of a cold morning had me out of the car checking if I had a puncture or a rear suspension failure - the tyres felt that odd.
The brakes are also a bit of a disappointment. Not in their efficacy, which is stunning at all temperatures. It's that the pedal moves a good two inches or so before the serious braking begins. The ABS system is like the 111R:s but here it involves itself much, much earlier. les possible the issues with the braking system on our test car were something to do with it having just completed some track work and being a touch worn around the edges.
It's hard not to love the Exige. Since I got out of it every car I've driven has felt remote, divorced and broken. The Exige is instant. On or off, nothing in between. The engine is bi-polar in delivery. Yet the Exige manages to retain some of the compliancy that makes the new 111R such a stride forwards for the Elise.
The S2's transitions are softer than before. It won't spit you into a tree if it senses fear, which the old car took spiteful delight in doing. It won't savage your senses and make you want to be sick. But it will still provide one of the most invigorating driving experiences this side of a single-seater, and that's what makes it worthy of being Lotus's flagship car. It's great. '17he king is dead. Long live the king.
To dedicated petrolheads, Gavin Kershaw's life seems like a dream. There's the day job of Lotus test driver. Then there's his hobby, which currently involves steering a race-speced Lotus Elise in the British GT series. 'Lucky git' does spring to mind.
Kershaw knows the Exige S2 inside out, having been responsible for setting up the suspension.
'The idea was to improve on the old one, but not lose its sprit,' he says. 'The performance figures are near identical to the Elise 111R so the only way we could differentiate it was in the handling.'
Kershaw joined Lotus when he was 16 as an apprentice, settling in the test and handling department so he could also learn how to improve his race cars. Then he started to help develop cars during 4x4s and saloons, and also did some demo driving on the press launches.
'When we launch the Esprit V8 we slid them around perhaps more than we should've but t did show off the cars well,' he recalls.
For anyone wondering whether they can make it as a test driver, Kershaw reveals something reassuring about his own driving history. 'Er, I did fail my test twice; the second time for being overly cautious.'