Lotus Exige S review (2012 onwards)
What - Lotus Exige S
Date - May 2012
Where - Norfolk, England
Price - £52,900
Available - late summer 2012
Key rivals -Porsche Cayman R
Summary - Awesome road weapon shows that Lotus continues to excel at what always comes best
We like - Thrilling performance, simply outstanding chassis, now much more than an Elise derivative.
We don't like - Stark interior, far from everyday practicality, getting in and out requires dexterity.
What's your take on Lotus? Is it the manufacturer of a range of bespoke, finely honed sports cars? Or a company that has, for far too long, been resting on its laurels with, until a couple of years ago, all its cars based on a single model?
No one can argue against the finely honed sports cars argument. But it's also true that, since the brilliant Elise was launched to a thrilled audience in 1996, every new model - Exige, Europa, 340R, 2-Eleven, plus the Vauxhall VX220 and Tesla Roadster - has been a reworking of that original machine. Until the Evora came along.
To succeed with such a business plan, Lotus has had to work hard to differentiate the models, with the Exige being an extreme combination of track day and road car. For 2012 there's an all-new Exige that pushes the boundaries way beyond anything Lotus has done before.
What you get here is a longer, more powerful, grown-up Exige, a car that's aimed at being more acceptable for road use yet still a formidable track day weapon. At £53k plus it seems pricey. Until that is, you drive it.
Get this. Previously the biggest engine in an Exige was a 1.8 litre with a supercharger. The 2012 version has a 3.5-litre V6, also supercharged. It's the powerplant from the Evora S and it pumps out 350hp.
Lotus has basically transferred the whole back end from the Evora into this Exige, which is one reason why the car is longer and wider. The origins of this engine are humble, but by supercharging and clever programming of the electronics, a Toyota lump has been transformed into something genuinely thrilling.
Twice the performance you could possibly use
Weighing in at under 1,200kg, the new Exige tramples the tarmac into submission, thundering down the Lotus test track with acceleration barely tailing off. The max is 170mph, although fabric roof issues mean the convertible version is limited to 145mph.
On the public roads there's twice the performance you could possibly use, yet it's still spine-tingling to punch through the gears from low speeds and, of course, overtaking is a mere moment's work. The increase in torque is 74% over the last Exige S.
Ride and handling
While 350hp is healthy though not exceptional horsepower for a mid-range sports car these days, Lotus has always had much more up its sleeve than power alone. Even so, the new Exige S seems to have had the book thrown at it in the handling department.
Where to start? Completely new rear suspension, with bespoke forged components. New lightweight 17 and 18 inch alloys. Four-pot brakes all round. The first Exige with an anti-roll-bar - at the rear. And that's before we get to the Lotus DPM.
Dynamic Performance Management is the Lotus take on the electronic stability programmes you see in many cars these days, except here it's focused directly on getting the most out of the Exige, rather than limiting your enjoyment.
The Off setting is for nutcases
The systems are too involved to go into here, but the result is that the driver gets the choice of four settings - Touring, Sport, Race and Off. The first is the everyday road mode, benign and intervening earliest when the Exige even thinks about getting out of shape.
Sport sharpens the throttle, increases the rev limit and, at the same time, opens the exhaust valves at mid-to-high revs. Grip thresholds are increased and the understeer control is switched off.
Race 'learns' the grip levels of the road surface and then delivers the optimum amount of power and torque to the wheels - to just below the level at which things would go pear-shaped.
The Off setting is for nutcases. Why? Well, Lotus has calibrated the setting of Sport and Race so well that there's simply masses of fun to be had while minimising the risk of a catastrophic trip into the hedgerow.
Around the Lotus Hethel test track, it is possible to have an increasingly drama-filled lap with the systems still in place. Even Lotus test drivers post a quicker lap in Race than Off.
Curiously, it's the Sport mode that gives a bit more involvement, allowing greater chassis adjustment with the throttle than Race, which simply gets it right all the time. But track or road use, the combination of this engine and chassis makes the Exige S the sort of car you can put up alongside a 911 GT3 for its all-round entertainment value.
Don't believe it? Well, specify the optional Race Pack with Pirelli Trofeo tyres, and you'll see what I mean.
You need to be very creative with your choice of interior colours and trims to make this Exige seem like a special place to be. Sure, there is sat-nav and heated seats are on the options list, but there is no escaping the basic Elise architecture of the fascia, floor or doors.
So while in some senses the 2012 Exige is more grown-up, the drop down over the wide sills into the thin but well-shaped seats remains old-school sports car. The Cayman R occupies a different world.
Lotus claims 28mpg for the Exige S on the combined cycle, and while this may seem a touch optimistic, the light weight will certainly help.
The MSN Cars verdict
Set aside any cynicism. The latest Exige S is a simply astonishing sports car, possibly the best Lotus has ever built. Devastatingly fast, with a brilliant chassis that can be set to suit your whim, it genuinely does compete with the 911 T3, but at half the price.
The new body looks mean and handsome too, the extra inches adding greatly to the Exige's gravitas. Only the interior is likely to disappoint, which is the reason why this great new Lotus doesn't get the full five stars.
Need to know
Engine, petrol: 3.5 V6 supercharged
Torque: 295lb ft
0-62 mph: 4.0s
Top speed: 170mph
Mpg combined: 28.0mpg
CO2, tax: 236g/km, 35%