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Top Gear drives the Lotus Exige S

  1. Formula One drivers faced a grim choice at the French GP in the Sixties and Seventies: a face full of gravel or a helmet full of vomit. The Clermont-Ferrand track wound around an extinct volcano, with 48 turns in three minutes, or one every four seconds. Even the toughest blokes felt queasy here. So, despite the bits of lava being spat at their heads by cars in front, most ditched their full-face helmets for a pair of goggles and a thin balaclava. Better to be hit by grit than to throw up behind a visor. The risk paid off for some. But others weren’t so lucky, and the track was dropped after Helmut Marko was partially blinded by a flying stone in ‘72. But it wasn’t bulldozed. An abbreviated version is still here (now known as the Circuit de Charade), with the rest now forming a gnarly public road, set deep in the Auvergne Mountains. And I’m here in a car that should handle both.

    Words: Dan Read
    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This feature was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Thankfully, I have a windscreen. And a paper bag. Both of which I’ll need if this new Exige is anything like as quick and grippy as the last. That thing outran an Apache gunship around the Top Gear track, defeated only by radar lock from a distance. If it can do that, it should twist my guts into a fleshy knot around Clermont. But Lotus has moved on since then. We’ve seen a bold plan for a bulging new line-up of cars, with a rather more casual take on the old performance-through-light-weight idea. Critics are aching to get their teeth into the new management, and diehards are nervy about the product (or, at least, the potential future product, if and when it happens). So as the first tangibly new car to emerge under this regime - and as the model that currently represents Lotusness like no other - the spotlight isn’t just pooling around this new Exige, it’s burning a hole through the roof.

  3. And, on paper, you can see why some people feel uneasy. The buzzy 1.8-litre supercharged engine has been swapped for a 3.5-litre s’charged V6. The car is longer and broader, with wider tyres. The solid engine cover has been replaced by glass. It has electric windows and stability control. It even has parking sensors. It’s heavier, by 170kg. And here’s the thing: prices now start at £52,900, rising to over £60k for a top-end model. That’s a whopping 20-ish grand more than before. Which drops it right in the ballpark of a generously equipped Porsche Cayman. But should we really be thinking of the Exige as a rival for the little German? Has it distanced itself too much from the old-school thrills and lethal accuracy we loved so much about the old car? Let’s see…

  4. Firstly, remember this is still a Lotus. You didn’t think they’d dump in a new engine and go down the pub, did you? What these blokes don’t know about ride and handling, you could write on a valve cap. Yes, it’s heavier than before, but it’s still only 1,176kg. To cope with the bigger engine, there’s a new rear subframe, and the front-suspension geometry is radically altered. It’s still built around the same aluminium tub as before, but it’s decorated with completely new bodywork and a new wing for a sharp and Stiggy look. Despite the extra fripperies inside, it’s hardly lavish, and, from the relatively upmarket dash downwards, the metalwork is mostly exposed. Thanks to the engine transplant, it now has 345bhp, giving it the same power-to-weight ratio as a Porsche 911 Turbo. It’ll do 0-62mph in four seconds. And carry on to 170mph.

  5. So if the old Exige was a track car for the road, maybe this one’s a road car for the track. The 700-mile drive from Norfolk to Clermont should help to figure that one out. Our car is factory-fresh, the very first car off the line, so we’ll also be bedding it in. The first job is to cram cameras and clothes in the tiny boot, under the rear hatch beside the mid-mounted V6. We squeeze in a soft bag about the size of a toddler, but the rest is coming in the cabin. So with fleeces stuffed behind the seats and tripods between our legs, we head for the motorway. And immediately develop a headache. This car is on the optional Pirelli Trofeo tyres, part of the Race options (a softer Sport set-up is available). They’re slicker and stickier, but on rustic surfaces they really make themselves heard. The noise is far less stressful when we hit glossier French autoroutes, but in the UK, it’d be more pleasant being run over by a floor stripper.

  6. It’s not always so hectic. The engine’s right behind your head, but unlike the smaller outgoing 1.8-litre, this one settles into an easy-going cruise. And it’s torquey, with sixth handling everything up from 40mph. You can see it in the mirror, which itself is far more useful than the one in the old Exige, thanks to the advent of that rear screen. As we circle Paris, on the Périphérique, we’re caught in a swarm of hatchbacks - some of which disappear for minutes in the enormous rear three-quarter blind spot - but at least the newfound rear visibility makes it easier to see them coming. The ride is obviously firm, but the slightly longer wheelbase and more cultured damping seem to take the edge off it. If the last one felt like lying directly on bed slats, this one’s more like a posh futon… though it could do with more back padding. Even the new Alpine stereo has a surprising clarity. Small things, but they combine to make a journey in this Exige a touch less masochistic than before.

  7. Besides, you’re forced to stop every 200 miles for fuel. Or earlier if you don’t gamble on the accuracy of the digital fuel gauge. Even a retirement-spec bladder will outlast the 40-litre tank, and if you’re hammering around a track, you’d better make sure there’s a petrol station nearby. We managed 21mpg at best. But nobody ever said this was a tourer (that’s the Evora’s job). We just wanted to stretch it a bit. Probably too far. Most people won’t have to drive this sort of distance to a decent track, but for those that do - especially with a mate and a couple of helmets on board - we advise you to pack light. Two shopping bags at most. But enough sensible talk. With most of France now behind us, the Auvergne volcanoes start to grow on the horizon: a long line of mountains with the tops blown off. Time for some proper roads.

  8. You’ll find the old circuit to the west of Clermont, marked on signposts as the D5F, or on the map as a complicated grey squiggle. It’s almost exactly as it was in the old days, bar some white lines down the middle and a roundabout at one end. It kinks and writhes like a wild hosepipe. It’s lined by tall trees and sharp cliffs. And the prehistoric stones are still here, raked up by tyres and scattered over the road. They shower the underside of the car, and, through the skeletal seats (heated, by the way), you can sense each piece ping against your bum. With no carpet to muffle the sound, the cabin’s filled with a sort of white noise. It’s like tailgating a gritter.

  9. But after a few hundred yards, you ignore the gravel. The Exige eats it up and spews it out - its 345bhp supercharged V6 summons a sort of earthy strength, powering through each gear and devouring the next one without pausing for breath. And despite being supercharged, its reactions feel like something naturally aspirated, with zero lag and a properly urgent throttle. The relentless acceleration carries on all the way up to 120mph, where the aero - especially that rear wing - start to drag it back a little. Until that point, there’s something atomic about the way it delivers speed, like it’s been fired from some particle accelerator… a white neutrino that could stick to the tail of a Ferrari 458. All this is accompanied by a deep industrial sound, with a hint of race-car howl from the exhaust. It doesn’t sound quite as thrilling as a more exotic supercar, but this thing’s more about mechanical purpose than noisy exhibitionism.

  10. And, around the bends that had F1 drivers puking, this little Lotus clings on as hard as ever. The extra weight somehow hides itself, controlled and disguised by the new rear end and cleverly tailored suspension. The front end changes direction a touch more aggressively than before, and the wider tyres add yet more grip without sucking the life out of the chassis. You’d swear you can feel them through the steering wheel: every twitch, every nodule of rubber. It’s the sort of feel usually reserved for racing drivers, and the more you push, the more assured it feels, adding weight and texture at the point most systems go mushy. Of course, there’s no power assistance - electro or otherwise - but it’s almost spookily natural, and there really is nothing synthetic between your hands and the wheels. It’s enough to make the new 911 feel a bit… dead.

  11. Weirdly, the gearchange doesn’t have quite the same connection. It could be because this particular ‘box is so new, but each shift requires a deliberate movement to get the lever into the right place, especially as you shift across the gate. If you rush, it gets a bit crunchy. And what of the stability control system? Some might wonder what place it has on any Lotus, let alone the most hardcore product in the range. But it’s a legal requirement these days. So rather than view it as a clumsy afterthought, the engineers treated it as a fundamental part of the set-up - something to work with the car, not against it. But it’s always more of a background aid, subtly adjusting torque flow - backing off if it detects a little understeer - or gently braking an inside wheel to coax the front end through a corner. The throttle sharpens and traction control relaxes as you go through the three modes (Tour, Sport and Race), or you can disengage everything except the emergency brake assist. The steps between the settings could be more noticeable, though Sport and Race are marked by an increasingly racy exhaust note - though you can turn up the volume while in Tour by pressing a button on the steering column.

  12. It even has launch control. Move the knob into Race mode, push the clutch and move it once more to the right. Then bury the throttle while it holds the revs steady at 3,500rpm, waiting for you to release the clutch. When you do, it sends a well-judged amount of power to the wheels, and off you go. It works fine, but it’s just a bit unnecessary. There’s so much raw grip anyway, and the throttle’s so naturally reactive, there’s really no need for a system to manage it for you. It might be a gimmick to show off in the paddock, but who will it impress? Besides, you really don’t need to turn things up to 11 to have fun here. It’s the interaction that’s more important, from the throttle response to the beautifully weighted brake pedal, which pumps underfoot at exactly the right pressure. It’s easy to find a rhythm in this thing, steering wheel moving around, suspension compressing like toned muscles, the whole car flowing with the road… but always in control, and never intimidating - even here at Clermont, over the spiky kerbs and nasty corners with nowhere to go if it all goes wrong. Except for the sharp end of a concrete wall.

  13. In fact, the Exige doesn’t feel at all scary on this twisted old track, yet it tackles it harder than anything else for this money. Or any money, come to think of it. So let’s not be too literal about the price, which - let’s be honest - is enough to send some people in the direction of a Cayman without looking back. But they’d be missing the point. Because this isn’t some overpriced copy. Yes, it’s a touch more cultured now, but even some racing cars have rear windows. This is still an unavoidably hardcore road car - it’s just a bit less irritating than before, a touch more serious and a hell of a lot faster. Perhaps, then, we should think of it not as a Cayman rival but more as something to worry the track-focused 911s… a sort of junior GT3. It’s just as much fun. And possibly even more rewarding. For half the price. Put it this way: if the last Exige was a training jet, this one’s a Tornado. And there’s nothing soft about that.

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