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Exige S Lotus' fastest made car pushed to the limit

Low, loud, lightning fast, requiring a can opener to get in and out of it, and with an angry devil of an engine screaming its cams off all the way to 8200rpm. But a supercar it is not; the Exige S literally does not fit the bill.

There are few cars that offer the performance of the new Exige S for under $300,000, and none have a tiny supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota engine capable of supercar speed. But for $114,990, the Exige S is only fractionally slower than a Lambo, Ferrari and Porsche Turbo on the straight – and can whip all of them through the corners.

This is the fastest production car Lotus has ever built, and oddly enough, it is the most refined on both road and track. Adding a supercharger and some mod-cons has heightened what was already a visceral, intense experience.

There are only a few subtle differences in appearance between the atmo Exige and Exige S; body-coloured front splitter, LED taillights, a small S badge by the A-pillar, and a little mailbox chute to suck air into the intercooler, which is roof-mounted for direct airflow to the mid-mounted engine.

Unfortunately, the intercooler blocks what little view there ever was in the rear view mirror, which now looks a wall of black casing and is only good for checking your own reflection.

But vanity aside, the lack of vision is a compromise that many Lotus buyers will be willing to make for the performance. There is nothing quite like the wail of a Lotus at full welly, but with the supercharger sitting directly behind the driver’s ears, it now hisses and spits like an angry Amazonian python.

Gone too is the long, loud wait until the 1.8-litre Toyota Celica engine comes onto its cams and picks up power.

The usual surge at 6500rpm is almost imperceptible, replaced by low-down torque and a less peaky powerband. The increase in power is modest on paper: 21.5kW over the standard car at 162.5kW, and up 34Nm to 215. But add that to a car weighing just 935kg, and you have a missile that sprints 0-100km/h in 4.3 seconds. That’s faster than a Porsche 911 Carrera.

The interior shows some more marked improvements over the Exige, with a focus on touring as well as performance. It is still an epic contortion process to get in and out of the thing, but once behind the wheel there is a more resolved, sophisticated air to the cabin.

Air itself is kept out with more wind proofing and cabin damping, and surfaces once left bare are covered with felts, suedes and plastics. The funky sueded dash is replaced by a coarse plastic cover, but it hides the new standard dual airbags. Seating is improved for the smaller driver – not so much for the taller punter – with a new set of ProBax seats that sit higher in the tiny cabin, but provide more support in the lumbar area for longer drives.

And while longer drives may seem like a masochistic proposition a car purpose-built for a twisty track, the performance add-ons actually make for a more liveable, all-round vehicle.

On a bumpy country road outside of Goulburn for the launch this week – and far away from both the Wakefield Park track and smooth Hume Highway – the Exige S showed remarkable poise. And ironically, one of the test cars wearing hardcore optional Touring, Sport and Super Sport enhancement packs, rode better than the standard car.

The three option packs are the only Exige options apart from metallic paint, traction control and a LSD.

The luxury Touring pack ($8,000) adds leather, electric windows, driving lights, additional insulation, a second cupholder (small lattes only please) and an upgraded stereo.

The Sport pack ($6,000) consists of racing ProBax seats, a cross-bar for racing harnesses, and switchable traction control, with the whol hog Super Sports pack ($7,000) adding one-way adjustable Bilstein dampers, adjustable ride height and front anti-roll bar, and lightweight seven-spoke black alloys.

Both the standard suspension and the Super Sport suspension setting was the same on the day, but dampers alone made a huge difference to ride quality on the road.

And while it still revs hard all the way to 8200rpm, and sounds like a bomb blast while doing it, the S is happy to cruise in sixth up and down hills at a stately 3500rpm with enough poise to enable a full conversation without even raising the voice. The track is another story.

The Elise and Exige have always been the king of corner speed, with the tuned suspension and rack offering purist handling and the low weight of the car allowing speed and agility. Supercharging just makes it all happen a lot faster.

Despite the traction control, the S will respond like a dog on heat every time you sic it on the apex, but too much enthusiasm or lingering on the brakes still produces lengthy slides. Get the balance right, and the amount of speed able to be held through a corner is simply phenomenal.

Cornering in the Super Sport car was slightly more predictable, less twitchy in the rear if too much speed was applied. And when the tyres let go, it is catchable, controllable, and hilariously fun.

So it remains in my mind as a track car for the road – but the Exige S is a car you would drive to, from and in between days on the track.

Lotus Cars Australia expect a modest increase in sales from last year’s 60 cars to about 120, aided by both the Exige S and the upcoming Europa, which will feature alongside the S at October’s Australian International Motor Show.

A grand touring version of the Exige, the Europa is the car to reduce the compromise between performance and livability, aimed more toward real-world performance while the Exige S stays focused on the straight and narrow track.

But for the moment, the most hardcore, fastest production car Lotus has ever built is also the one with the least compromise.

This review and much more will feature in The Sunday Telegraph CARSguide section on August 27, 2006.

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