Lotus Exige S

You have to hand it to the chaps at Lotus. I’ve been to Hethel three times during the current turbulence and not once has anyone whined, moaned or complained about what must latterly have been a near intolerable working environment. And if you think that’s just because everyone puts on a brave face for every passing hack, I know different. If heads are down, it’s only because they’re buried in their jobs, calmly getting on with the important work while turmoil rages around the boardroom.

And you won’t find a much better example of that work than this Lotus Exige S. I know it sounds like just another mild variation on a theme to try to inject fresh life into a familiar model. But it’s not. Tub aside, it’s a new car.

It’s that way partly because if the Exige S is to sell for £53,850, Lotus has to be able to show it’s done more than reheat old soup. But it’s also because of the curious domino effect created by a single modification. In this case, it was to almost double the size of its engine, replacing the Exige’s 1.8-litre four-cylinder motor with a V6 displacing 3.5 litres and, once supercharged, generating 345bhp.

This engine meant new suspension to carry its weight and transmit its loads, new wheels and tyres. But it also required a bigger engine bay and the only way to achieve that was to stretch the back of the car, which meant not only new bodywork, but a new wheelbase too.

Obviously the new engine meant a new gearbox and the longer wheelbase would have in effect meant slower steering, so a revised rack was required. And because the whole shooting match was so much heavier and more powerful, new brakes would obviously be needed. So one new engine ends up mandating an almost entirely new car.

It’s also rather different in concept. Though it could be used on the road, the old Exige was essentially a track day car, which relied on the unusually robust characters that bought it to not mind the racket on the way to the Nürburgring. Once there, it would always be worth it. And it was. Years ago I drove an early Exige around the Nordschleife and discovered a vehicle capable of feats of grip and agility quite beyond what you could reasonably expect of any car wearing a number plate.

I remember being delighted to have made its acquaintance and still more pleased I wasn’t going to be driving it back. But some things haven’t changed. The Exige is still a pretty undignified car to enter and exit, particularly if you’re over six foot and middle-aged. Your head goes first followed by a leg; once your backside has hit the seat there remains the issue of the other leg. I ended up grabbing the offending limb and physically manhandling it into the cockpit.

Inside, however, there are all sorts of items I’m not used to seeing in any Lotus. There’s a cable to connect your iPod and even seat warmers. In a Lotus! Try to reverse it and you’ll discover it has parking sensors, too.

Has Lotus gone soft? When you first drive the Exige S you’ll be forgiven for thinking it has. The supercharged Toyota V6 may develop 345bhp, but it’s far quieter than any other engine used by Lotus save perhaps its ill-fated homegrown V8 that produced near identical power from the same capacity 16 years ago.

Most of all it’s smooth: this is the first Exige that doesn’t fizz and buzz, and it changes the character of the car entirely. It signals the fact that this is not just an entirely different Exige, it’s a new kind of Lotus, probably the most broadly able there has been.

It is, for instance, the first Lotus to lay credible claim to supercar status, not just in the sheer volume of its performance, but also its ability to deploy that potential over long distances without frying the nerves of its occupants. With no paddle shift transmission, four-wheel drive nor even the limited-slip differential used by other manufacturers to optimise their acceleration times, the Exige S is still a comfortable sub-4sec 0-62mph performer and capable of hitting 100mph from rest in 8.5sec. Without its slow and awful gear-change, that figure would probably come down to not far off 8sec, which, for guidance, is approximately Ferrari F40/Jaguar XJ220 pace.

But it is the civility with which such performance is delivered that means the Exige deserves to be considered anew by those who have hitherto thought it a better idea in theory than reality. Once you’re in, the supportive seats and fine ride will keep you comfortable for as long as the tank holds fuel. There’s even enough space in the boot to not rule out abbreviated holidays for a couple of careful packers.

You’ll still have to tolerate its foibles, though, which seem still less forgivable now the car costs well over £50,000. For the money the quality of interior finish is frankly poor; you have to press one of three buttons on the key and then turn it in the ignition before the engine will start, and rearward and over the shoulder visibility is terrible. Those parking sensors serve a greater purpose on an Exige than almost any other car to which they are fitted.

Lotus hopes you’ll put up with such inconveniences because when you get to the track, as all owners surely will, the Exige S will make finger food out of any similarly priced Porsche or other comparable car.

It does not joke. For the first time in the life of the Exige it feels like it finally has an engine that can exploit fully the potential of its chassis: it feels properly balanced, not just between over and understeer, but between the provision of power and grip. Now there’s the torque to challenge traction at the apex of any slow or medium speed corner, enough to make you question Lotus’s continuing unswerving loyalty to the open differential.

My fear, which was that the 1166kg weight of the car (which is considerable by Lotus if by few other standards) would compromise its feel, was largely misplaced. The steering is heavy though not oppressively so, and if it gets loose it needs a little more room to round up, but this is balanced by a correspondingly more forgiving nature, brought by that longer wheelbase and quicker rack. The Exige may be transformed as a road car, but its element remains the track.

Through its history, Lotus has shown both how capable and confident it is at building thoroughbred driver’s cars and also how shaky and unsure of itself it becomes when it strays from this territory to chase sales in more lucrative, luxurious ends of the market. The Exige S is a different kind of Lotus but only because it’s the first to place an equal emphasis on performance and handling. It remains a driver’s car to its boots. It would make a hopeless everyday conveyance, but if you’re looking for a car with enough refinement to make the journey to the track actively enjoyable, the Exige S will not only do that but also, when you arrive, make you the envy of the paddock.

ENGINE: 3.5 litres, six cylinders, supercharged
TOP SPEED: 170mph
PRICE: £53,850
POWER: 345bhp at 7000rpm
FUEL/CO2: 28.0mpg, 236g/km

Andrew Frankel