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Top Gear drives the Lotus Exige V6

  1. There’s a room deep within Lotus’s Hethel HQ. It’s simply called the damper room. There are some solid work benches, a couple of oily piston-driven machines, a radio, a single computer, and racks and racks and racks of drawers that will later be shown to contain little discs of metal. Oh, and a hammer. This is the equipment that makes a Lotus a Lotus. In short, the damper room is where the magic happens.

    Words: Ollie Marriage

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

  2. Lotus will tell you that what goes on inside is a science. It isn’t - it’s an art. Those little discs are called shims (it’s basically a flash name for a washer), there are wide ones, narrow ones, thin ones, thick ones, ones that have notches cut in them, sprung ones and ones shaped like circular saw blades. They slot on the piston inside the damper and, once tensioned up and locked inside the casing, control how the oil moves through it (at the simplest level, more oil movement equals softer ride; less equals harder).

    And that’s it, that’s the magic. But think about it: the order the shims go in, the number, the thicknesses, widths, cuts - the possibilities are almost limitless. And you know what? These little slivers of metal, some weighing less than a gramme, none bigger than a two-pence piece, make a massive difference to the way the new Exige handles and drives.

  3. And this is making Top Gear nervous. Because Lotus has asked us to lend a hand with a spot of chassis development. On the all-new Exige V6. There is an obvious upside to this and that’s that we get to tell you about the new Exige way before everyone else, but the risk is that we tell you it’s crap because, well, we developed it, and we didn’t have a clue what a shim was until 10 minutes ago.

    Two things look to be in our favour. Firstly, bar a couple of minor, minor tweaks, Lotus has got the standard suspension setting nailed - it’s the optional Race set-up that needs doing. And, secondly, my amateurish feedback will be filtered through Paul Fleming. Paul’s the Principal Engineer of Vehicle Dynamics, a man who has spent the past 15 years either driving Lotuses or shut in the damper room. With shims.

  4. So, the new Exige. Well, the central aluminium tub hasn’t changed, but the rear subframe has. That’s because, instead of supporting a small four-cylinder, it now has to cope with the 3.5-litre supercharged V6 from the Evora S. This means the Exige is no longer such a small car - the new one is wider, longer, and, yes, heavier too. By about 170kg, which in Lotus-land is a lot.

  5. Put your purist panic to one side for a moment, as the new Exige still only weighs 1,100kg and, with 345bhp, has the same power-to-weight ratio as a Porsche 911 Turbo. But I must admit to some trepidation here - the Exige has never been about pure speed, and I’m concerned that the changes the new engine necessitates (wider rear tyres, better high-speed stability to cope with the 170mph top speed, etc) might have harmed the Exige’s delicacy. Nor am I totally convinced after a few miles in the Sport version, either. This new Exige V6 has all the usual supple Lotus loveliness and accuracy, but it’s also a bit too smooth and easy, and the longer wheelbase means the rear wheels are further behind you and so slightly slower to react. And there’s something odd going on with the steering - it’s almost too sharp and weights up a little too abruptly when you turn into a corner.

  6. After much deliberation, I share my opinions with Paul, who doesn’t treat me like an idiot, and admits that they are still trying to get a more natural feeling into the steering. But that’s not something the damping can sort out, is it?

    Turns out it is. As Paul tells me: “The damping affects so much more than just the ride characteristics - it also alters stability, steering linearity and response, traction, refinement, NVH - in fact, pretty much everything to do with the way the car moves along a road is packed into just 15mm of piston travel.” We’re back in the damper room, having removed the suspension components from all four corners of the car. The springs are changed for ones approximately 10 per cent stiffer, and we change the shim stack. This is car development at its most straightforward: you drive it, assess it, change it, drive it again. And again. Until you’re happy. Paul reckons he’s tried around 40 different front suspension settings and 60 rear, “although I’ll continue working until someone says: ‘Stop’ ”.

  7. This harder, track-orientated set-up has had so far only one brief outing - at the Nürburgring, where it was reported to be a bit nervous. Paul is wary: he knows from experience that the set-up won’t be a million miles off, but reckons it’s going to be oversprung and underdamped.

    So out we go again. Same car, slightly different arrangement of shims and a new spring. And it feels utterly different - and not nearly as good. The firmness you expect from an Exige is now there, catseyes are more abrupt, but the rear suspension feels jacked up, making it nervous under braking and prone to oversteer. Yikes. The front and rear seem out of phase, there’s more graininess in the steering and yet the ride over longer undulations is still good. In short, it’s all rather confusing.

  8. There’s one change we haven’t made, though. We’re using Pirelli Corsa tyres at the mo, but the Race Pack will also come with slicker, grippier Trofeo tyres. We head back to base, make the switch, and once again I appear to be driving a different car. The Race Pack Exige now feels far more harmonious. Sure, there’s more cabin noise, but you can drive it harder into corners and the nervousness has all but vanished. It’s now more of a track weapon: really agile, grippy and tight, free of inertia and chuffing rapid down the back straight at Hethel.

  9. But even so, at this stage in its development, the Exige’s rawness seems to have been toned down. There’s some electronic stability control intervention, and although it works brilliantly to gain traction and deliver power, I’m not totally convinced by its presence here. Nor do you expect there to be a switch which alters the exhaust noise, throttle response and traction settings. It injects a hint of artificial at the expense of mechanical.

  10. So it looks like the Exige is changing. It used to be a track car that worked on the road, currently it feels like a road car that’s devastating on track - bigger, smoother, marginally less precise and noticeably heavier than before. But with work still to be done, this opinion might count for jack. As we leave, Paul is off back to the damper room to play with his shims.

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