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With its hardcore sportscar focus, the company's products are sometimes seen as too impractical for everyday use — too challenging just to get in and out, with little space for luggage and spartan comfort levels. They are weekend toys to take to a track.
It's all true. There isn't a more awkward car to enter than a Lotus Exige, and once there, it's noisy and cramped. The ride is crashy and cargo space negligible. Features that would be standard elsewhere are options or unavailable. So whippet-like is the Exige, it makes even other sportscars look like Saint Bernards.
However, what's surprising about this is not that few people go for this approach, but that more people do not. Lotus offers something unique among sportscars and all the attributes that are recited as drawbacks are exactly what appeals to us.
We discovered this over a week with an Exige S, when our initial doubts about its suitability as daily transport were quickly overtaken by a delight in its raw, connected driving experience.
The Exige S puts a supercharged version of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder Toyota engine within the existing Exige body shape, which is shared with the Elise.
The loan car lifted the $114,990 starting price to $136,000 by fitting all three option packs. The Touring pack adds front airbags, some leather trim and carpets, while the two Sports packs add racing seats, traction control and roll hoops, plus lightweight alloys and adjustable dampers and front anti-roll bar.
The Exige is tiny — at 3.8m long it's only a few centimetres longer than a Toyota Yaris — and very, very low at 1.16m, but with a dramatic shape that means it stands out like a true exotic should.
From the driver's seat, the gawps of other road users are not always obvious because you are viewing the world from axle height. The wide sill, over which you must carefully step to get in, effectively becomes an armrest.
The racing seats were a good fit, which was just as well because the only concession to varying driver size is fore-aft slide. A tiny Momo steering wheel, simple controls and plenty of bare metal give the cabin its special race car ambience. Only the garish and fiddly stereo strikes the wrong note.
There is some luggage capacity behind the engine bay, in an awkwardly shaped 112-litre recess that is unconvincingly lined and has wires intruding. Two soft weekend bags would be your lot.
The most obvious difference between this car and a standard Exige is the supercharger plumbing, which sucks in air from a vent in the roof and completely obscures the rear window. It takes a while to retune our normal reflexes in favour of the widely placed wing mirrors. They do the job, but reversing isn't easy.
The basis for the engine in this car has already appeared in the Elise 111R, although supercharging changes it completely. It's a high-tech unit with trick valve timing and an electronic throttle, although it takes a little while to warm up.
Even then, it can be rough and uneven at idle with occasional rev surges. It sounds raucous and a little highly strung, perhaps, but rasps and rips compellingly through its rev range, with peak power of 162.5kW at 7800rpm and the ability to reach 8500rpm in two-second bursts. The higher it revs the sweeter it gets, if a crazed bandsaw can be described as sweet. Peak torque of 215Nm also arrives high at 5500rpm, although there's enough above 2000rpm to make it surprisingly driveable at commuting speeds in high gears.
Lotus is famous for achieving performance with small engines by keeping weight down, but this engine takes the Exige into another league. Flat out it will reach 100km/h in 4.3 seconds — as quick or quicker than supercars costing two or three times as much and boasting at least two more cylinders. With only four pistons, the Exige sips premium like a hatchback, averaging 9.1 litres per 100km.
The Exige loses out only on top speed, which for a car this quick off the mark is a relatively modest 238km/h. This is despite obvious attention to aerodynamics with a front splitter, rear diffuser, flat underbody and prominent fixed wing. Oddly, the drag coefficient is a remarkably high 0.434.
Lotus's aluminium skeleton can take much of the credit for keeping weight low — even fully optioned the Exige tips the scales at just 949kg. Nearly two-thirds of that sits over the rear axle, getting power to the ground with authority through 17-inch alloys and street-legal competition tyres.
With 16-inch wheels at the front, this car delivers superb grip with cornering speeds limited largely by driver nerve.
The Exige stays very flat and thumps its wheels down into any road irregularities, giving rise to — unwarranted — concern about the hardiness of the alloys.
Encounter a big pothole through a fast corner and it can even throw the front wheels off line.
However, the unassisted steering is so direct and precise the driver is never in doubt about what the road is like and how much to turn the wheel.
It has drawbacks, such as heaviness when parking or a slight tendency to tramline, but they are a price we willingly pay.
An unmediated connection with the car runs through all the Exige controls, with great brake, throttle and clutch weight from perfectly placed pedals. The gearshift can be a little sticky when cold, but has a no-nonsense mechanical character that makes it a delight to use.
Lotus announced production cutbacks recently but also an intention to produce three new models between now and the end of 2009. These include a new flagship Esprit, a new mid-range car and a Lotus-Proton high-performance model.
Meanwhile, the new Europa, which features a different body on the same platform as the Exige/Elise but with more equipment and greater claims to comfort, appeared at the Sydney motor show.
One danger in a bigger model line-up is departing from core Lotus values, but if the Exige S is anything to go by, we doubt that will happen.
The real challenge for Lotus will be to meet heightened safety expectations — with additional airbags, for example - without adding a lot of weight to its newer models.
Meanwhile, as most cars get increasingly complex and impose a suite of software between driver and road, there is no disguising the bareback nature of a Lotus.
As the company makes more models, then more people might rediscover the excitement of being behind the wheel.
|(base)||1.8L, ULP, 6 SP MAN||$18,400 – 25,630||2006 Lotus Exige 2006 (base) Pricing and Specs|
Lowest price, based on third party pricing data