Ollie Marriage27 June 2013

First Drive: Lotus Exige S Roadster

May not be a great leap forward, but it broadens the Exige’s repertoire...

Lotus Exige S Roadster

Ah, Lotus has removed the Exige's roof.

It has.

Why bother? The Exige is a hardcore track car.

It is, and although Lotus obviously doesn't admit as much, you get the sense that it's been done because it was easy. Structurally, this wasn't a massive task - cut out the roof panels, insert the Elise's removable soft top and home for tea and medals. No extra strengthening needed as the bonded aluminium tub is already so tough. Lotus, being Lotus, made it more complicated, though.

How?

By its single-minded focus on getting the dynamics perfect. The Roadster, with a jot more emphasis on comfort and usability than the Coupe, has been adjusted. The front wheels carry a quarter of a degree less camber. The rear carry a quarter of a degree more. Yes, a quarter of one degree. This removes a fraction of steering effort and enhances turn-in. The damping has also been backed off. Again, by no more than a smidge. This zeroing-in on the last nth of damping control is what makes Lotus different.

See more pics of the Lotus Exige S Roadster

Any other changes from coupe to roadster?

Quite a few when you start to pick it apart. At 1166kg the Roadster weighs 10kg less than the coupe, for starters. You might imagine that's because the soft top weighs less than the old solid panel, but in actual fact the lion's share of those modest savings come from the removal of the rear spoiler and front splitter.

Ah, that's what's missing!

Correct, and doesn't the Exige look a little less imposing as a result?

Limp, if you ask me.

Shouldn't have asked. But I agree it is a bit bland with none of the clever surfacing that characterises the new Porsche Boxster, for instance. There is a reason for it, though. The coupe's spoiler delivers actual, real downforce, but such is the Roadster's cabin turbulence with the roof removed that it mucks up airflow over the top of the car, vastly reducing the effectiveness of the spoiler. That's why it was done away with. But rest assured this is a much more raw and uncompromising machine than it looks. If not actually that fast...

You're pulling my leg.

In part, yes. The mathematical result of an equation that includes the numbers 345bhp, 295lb ft and 1166kg is a 0-60mph time of 3.8 seconds and an even more impressive ability to sprint to the ton in 8.5 seconds, figures that make the Exige S Roadster the fastest ever Lotus soft top. However, it can only reach 145mph - some 27mph down on the coupe's Vmax. This is a bit disappointing (it's due to the Elise's roof mechanicsm not being that, er, robust at super-high speeds). But then I asked myself when the last time I found it necessary to do 145mph in the UK was. The answer was never. Can't even think of a track day circuit this side of a dull punt down a deserted runway where the Exige would be able to trouble its speed limiter. Hanger Straight at Silverstone maybe? Answers on a postcard...

And what is it like on a track?

Really rather great. The car we drove was running what Lotus terms its standard Sport suspension. You can upgrade to a Race pack (and change the tyres from Pirelli P Zero Corsa to P Zero Trofeo), which we know from driving the Exige S coupe, makes quite a difference, but this felt like the right compromise for the Roadster - a dash more compliance, albeit with marginally less incisive steering and a hint more understeer. But we're talking mere fractions softer than one of the world's greatest driver's cars - this is still an enthralling car to drive with gorgeous steering, a car that's a pleasure to pilot at any speed. The only real weakness is the gearbox - the shift is still too slack. Strong brakes, massive, instant shove and a lap time only 1.6 seconds slower than the coupe's around Lotus's Hethel track.

And on the road?

Perhaps even better as the added bonus of having the roof off in order to hear the birds tweeting and the supercharged V6 howling isn't one that should be overlooked. Bear in mind that the cockpit, as well as being quite cramped for two, is also reasonably turbulent - this is not a car for relaxed conversations. It's easy to be lulled into that impression, to forget that this is, after all, an Exige, a genuine hardcore Lotus, because the ride is so composed. The steering dances gently in your hands, and the car breathes with the road, seems to be able to take its time, is never tense or fidgety. Doubtless speccing the Race pack would add fight and make it feel sharper, but as I said earlier, the Roadster seems to suit the standard set-up. Just don't make the mistake of thinking it's a boulevardier. That's not Lotus's style.

See more pics of the Lotus Exige S Roadster

Here's one for you: does a hardcore roadster have a purpose?

I have to say that's one I'm battling with. I can see why Lotus has done it - it's such a relatively simple engineering job that the Roadster costs no more than the coupe - both are priced at £53,850. That looks tempting. And as a road car, I reckon the Roadster is the way to go - the roof structure is quick and simple to use and, roof off, the cabin's natural claustrophobia is negated. But those wanting a drop top road car might not want the inherent compromises of the Exige S, they might well be swayed by the greater usability, style and equipment of a Porsche Boxster. Lined up against that the idea of a track-day derived roadster looks to be a curious compromise. It is bound to be one that will naturally have a smaller audience.

So should Lotus be doing an Evora Roadster?

Now there's a leading question. And the official line on that (in fact the official line on anything to do with future product) is, ‘no comment'.

What about the motorbike announced earlier this week?

The C-01 is nothing to do with Hethel, but is instead a licensing deal with German company Kodewa. The trouble is that this is the first all-new thing we've heard about from Lotus since DRB-Hicom took over a year ago. A motorbike. It doesn't seem to be very joined up thinking or to put our minds at rest that the firm is on the right track. They insist that all is well, cars are being built at the rate of 50-60 per week, sales are up and plans are in place, but as yet there's no hint what those might be.

Come on, you must be able to have a stab?

Well, what we do know is that, while design chief Donato Coco is still in situ, development and engineering boss Wolf Zimmerman has gone, and with him the much anticipated 5.0-litre V8 engine that was due to underpin a range of new cars, including the Esprit. As for the Esprit, it's the car we're all hoping Lotus will build, but somehow I'm not confident.

So we'll have to make do with the Exige S Roadster for now?

We will. It may not be a great leap forward, but it broadens the Exige's repertoire and has enough talent and ability to tempt buyers who previously wouldn't have considered a Lotus, let alone an Exige.

Now share it...

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear's code of conduct (link below) before posting.