• Sep 22nd 2009 at 11:55AM
  • 32
2009 Lotus Exige S 260 – Click above for high-res image gallery

Over its 61-year history, Lotus Cars has spent a considerable amount of time clawing its way back from the brink of insolvency. The company's most recent bout with financial disrepair came in the early Nineties after the front-wheel-drive Elan proved a commercial failure (surprise!) and the Esprit toiled away in the shadows of newer, more powerful supercars. As hope for the historic marque's triumphant return began to fade, a group of Lotus engineers pooled their collective will to create an all-new, back-to-basics model that would revive Colin Chapman's company and give hardened enthusiasts the purist's driving tool they craved.

In September of 1996, the Elise was born, and four years later, its hard-top sibling – the Exige – came on the scene. Over the last decade, we've seen a raft of super-special-limited-edition variants follow in its lightweight wake, but the ultimate version is this: the 2009 Lotus Exige S 260. Packing more power and "more lightness" than the 240 Sport we sampled last year, there's no doubt it's a telepathic terror on track, but we wanted to know if it was up to the depravity of Michigan roads, so we set our chiropractor on speed dial and headed out...

Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Max Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

But first, a quick recap of high school physics.

The definition of kinetic energy is e = 1/2 * m * v2. You can rearranged that equation to v = square root ((2 * e) / m). Automotive translation? You can make a vehicle quicker by either increasing available energy (more power!) or by cutting its mass (more lightness!). With this latest Exige, Lotus engineers have clearly said: "Screw it. Let's do both." And with that, they've taken the 240 S – already one of the lightest street cars on the market – and shaved nearly 60 pounds by replacing the engine cover, rear wing, front splitter, roof and side ducts with carbon fiber pieces, and they've fitted a set of lightweight sports seats and plonked a minimalist battery in the "trunk."

With the weight reduction out of the way, the engine tweakers in Hethel extracted a further 17 horsepower out of the supercharged, 1.8-liter Toyota-sourced four-cylinder engine to bring total output up to 257 horsepower and torque to a reasonably stout 174 pound-feet. While that's nothing to write home about in the two-ton luxobarges that populate the Great Lakes State, fit it to something that weighs just over 2,000 pounds while meeting the Fed's safety standards – all while returning 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway – and you've got one of the most potent performance creations available to man. Assuming you can fit inside.

Lotus manages to achieve such a low mass (while meeting modern regulatory standards) by using a novel architecture built from a collection of aluminum extrusions riveted and glued together. The issue of ingress and egress stems from this: the chassis was originally designed for a convertible. The side beams are large enough to support most of the structure, meaning they're both tall and wide. In an Elise sans roof, no big deal. You just step over the sill and plop your backside into the seat. With the roof bolted in place, the experience is closer to sliding through the window of a race car or, more appropriately, down the barrel of a cannon.

Once you've wiggled your way inside (helpful hint: place your right foot in the well, sit on the sill, grab the wheel and tug yourself through), you're ensconced in a carbon fiber shell with a minimal amount of padding. The driver's seat moves fore and aft (the passenger seat is fixed) and both thrones benefit from cut-outs to accommodate a five-point racing harness and HANS device. As the seats are solid pieces of carbon fiber, there's no lateral give, so you'll want to start shopping for diet books on Amazon... yesterday.

The Exige's diminutive size and cramped cabin causes your legs to cant towards the center of the car where the trifecta of proper pedals reside, and while the steering wheel is fixed, the upright seats allow the wheel and shifter to fall readily to hand. Although early Elises were bereft of carpeting, exposing the matte aluminum to reaffirm your hardcore surroundings, the Exige receives carbon fiber caps on the door sills and dashboard, while the steering wheel, door panels and center console are coated in Alcantara. Cubbies? All you've got is an aluminum tray to the right of the radio and (hopefully) a helpful passenger.

Starting up the Exige involves pressing the unlock button on the key, inserting it into the column, twisting it to the "On" position and – within 30 seconds – pressing the engine "Start" button on the left side of the dash. If you miss the 30 second window, you simply press the button on the fob and the four-pot behind your head spins to life.

Historically, Toyota's high output, variable valve timing-equipped 1.8-liter four is too high strung and lacks usable grunt near the bottom of the tach. Fortunately, the supercharger Lotus has fitted to the Exige addresses both issues, removing the torque deficit and vastly improving daily drivablity. Combined with the Exige's low mass, the engine makes trolling along in stop-and-start traffic a remarkably effortless process. The trade-off? With the intercooler mounted atop the engine and fed by the roof-mounted scoop, the rear window has been replaced by a solid bulkhead, leaving the outside mirrors as the only means of conveying what's going on behind you. Combined with the oh-so-low roof and seating position, road monsters like the Honda Fit tower over the Exige. Those afflicted with Napoleon complexes need not apply.

Naturally, maneuvering around a garage or parking lot takes some effort as the Exige – like its predecessors – doesn't come equipped with power assisted steering. However, once you're on the go, the effort falls away and the helm is pure mechanical perfection. Once you escape the confines of urban life, any worries about size, steering or visibility simply melt into the distance.

Climbing up the Exige's graduated tachometer towards 9,000 RPM, you'll notice there's no marked redline. Instead, a series of three red LEDs illuminate on the dash when it's time to shift. When the engine is cold, the indicators come on between 5,000 and 6,000 RPM. Once the coolant and oil are up to temperature, you can throttle down, spin the 2ZZ past 4,000 RPM – where the VVTi kicks in – all the way to its 8,500 RPM redline and enjoy the mechanical duet of the engine and supercharger ricocheting around the undampened cabin.

With the engine rocketing towards redline, the Exige's gearbox is ready to deliver six perfectly spaced ratios to keep the supercharged four in its meaty sweet spot. The aluminum shift lever benefits from short throws, although the linkage on our (likely abused) press car could have been slightly more precise. The narrow footwell – a minor annoyance earlier – became an asset, with closely spaced pedals that made heel-and-toe action a breeze.

Off the line, the Exige has you covered with a variable launch control feature. Unlike most systems that give you one option to create the perfect standing start, Lotus allows drivers to set the engine's launch control speed anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000 RPM via a knob on the left of the steering wheel. Once it's set, simply floor the long pedal and the system holds the engine at the pre-set speed. Drop the clutch and you've got a perfect launch time after time. After fiddling with the settings, we found the magic mark (4,500 RPM), allowing the Exige to burst off the line with the perfect amount of wheel spin. No bogging, no slithering, just thrust – even on less-than-perfect surfaces.

But as good as the engine, launch control and auditory assault are, they're far from the best part.

It's no wonder automakers around the world tap Lotus Engineering to sort out their suspensions – the Exige is the perfect case study. Simply put, the roads in southeast Michigan suck. They're loaded with bumps, cracks and heaves. But even though the Exige is clearly not tuned for comfort, the suspension does a remarkable job of dealing with Michigan's worst.

Unlike most stiffly sprung sports cars, the Exige doesn't bounce around. The copious quantities of mechanical grip convey every nuance of the tarmac into the cabin, but none of this is as jarring as you'd expect. Flying down a curvy road at a clip far beyond what most cars are capable of, your backside just inches from the road, the Exige is supremely confidence inspiring. Even hitting a frost heave mid-corner left our little Lotus unperturbed.

Unfortunately, it's not always sunshine and sweeping tarmac. But even at those times, the Exige impressed. Cruising down the freeway in a downpour, the window defogger did an admirable job of maintaining forward visibility – and even with the nearly slick Yokohama Advan A048s fitted at all four corners, the Exige never slipped or slithered. While it's far from a daily schlepper – a four cubic foot bin behind the engine bay and whatever space you can manage in the passenger seat is what passes for cargo space – as a play thing, the S 260 approaches four-wheeled perfection.

Another benefit of the Exige's small engine and featherweight design is decent fuel economy. The EPA rates the Exige S260 at 20/26 mpg city and highway and we averaged 19 mpg on two fill ups of the 10.6 gallon tank. The Exige and its carbon fiber doesn't come cheap though. The S 260 adds $9,000 to the starting price of the S240 and the out-the-door tab affixed to our example came to $77,115. That's more than $30,000 less than a Tesla Roadster, which shares its lineage with the Lotus Elise. Given that most drivers of either this or the Tesla are likely to put on far fewer miles than on an average car, we'd opt for the 2-3 minute fill ups of the Lotus if it were our own money – assuming, of course, that we wedge ourselves inside.

Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Max Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      I've always WANTED to like the Elise and Exige, but the problems started when I actually drove an Elise.

      You see, I like the idea of a light sports car, but the Loti twins are kind of odd ducks.

      Compared to other track toys, the Exige and Elise are outclassed in all or most performance categories. Compared to other light sportscars, the Exige and Elise are overpriced, less practical (and that's saying something in this segment), and relatively less reliable (though not unreliable).

      You can have just as much (if not more) fun by properly prepping an MX-5. You can take or leave the power adders. You'll save a lot of money, end up with a wash in handling, and have a car that you aren't afraid to spin off the track or kiss a hay barrier with.
        • 1 Year Ago
        mx5 not a chance compared to this, yeah get an mx5 if you want to be smoked by regular sedans anywhere... please
      • 6 Years Ago
      Close but no cigar on the physics. Horsepower is not a measure of energy, but of power, of course. And what makes a car 'quicker' isn't its velocity, but its acceleration. The capacity to accelerate is directly proportional to torque and inversely proportional to mass (F=ma). Any 2000-pound car will have the same kinetic energy at the same speed and this says nothing about quickness or power. (Note of course that the actual power going to the wheels depends both on engine speed and gearing.)
      • 6 Years Ago
      First car I would buy if I won the lotto. No question about it.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Old or not, this is the best performance bargain on the planet!

      King of the track, yet still usable as an everyday driver. If I did not have a family, and a wife that would kill me if one of these showed up in the driveway, I'd be on my way to the dealer to buy one right now.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Its a definate beauty, looks very comfortable, and jet like cockpit, but then again it needs to be, due to its sorta, rough ride and rough entry into the thing... wish i could buy one someday ;-P
      • 6 Years Ago
      But its so damn ugly!
        • 6 Years Ago
        I think it's gorgeous!
        • 6 Years Ago
        You know, I used to think that, too, but gradually I've come to appreciate the design's heritage. What I like most about the appearance is that it is smooth, functional, and non-apologetic. It's content to be what it is. When you drive one, you'll stop thinking about how weird looking it is. It's like a lion that's mutilated from too many dominance challenging encounters: proud to stand tall, especially because of its scars.
      • 6 Years Ago
      This proves that there is such thing as too raw
        • 6 Years Ago

        The history of Lotus?

        Like the Elan, or the last few generations of Esprit? I think you're thinking of Colin Chapman, and not the car company. Certainly Chapman's philosophy was that less was more, but Lotus didn't (re)discover the concept until relatively recently.

        Lotus has sold more Esprits than any other single model... and none of the generations of Esprit were significantly lighter (if at all) than comperable vehicles available at the time.

        I'm not saying that the Loti are bad cars... they're not. Climbing into an Exige after being in a large car is a sublime experience. The niche is getting too crowded, though. When the Elise debuted, there weren't really many track day cars available. These days, there are plenty of purist vehicles available at competitive price points, with superior performance.

        Compare it to a Caterham or Atom on the track, and the Exige will be obliterated. Compare it to a lightly massaged MX-5 or S2000 on the street, and the Exige will be embarassed.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "Compare it to a lightly massaged MX-5 or S2000 on the street, and the Exige will be embarrassed."

        uhhh. no.

        no other way to say it really.. simply isn't accurate. in order to approach the power/weight ratio in an MX-5 you'd have to do a lot more than a 'light massage'.. and then there's the issue of the chassis rigidity, which overpowered MX-5's suffer from; generally combatted with reinforcement which is well beyond a 'light massage'.

        Don't get me wrong the MX-5 is a world-class roadster and a great track car, but it's really no competition for the lotus - any of the modern lotus actually - nor is it meant to be - it's half the price and twice as well behaved on the road.

        The S2000 is a different story and with modification they are competitive with the Elise and Exige, but a factory supercharged lotus elise or exige in the hands of a skilled driver on a tight autocross track will win every time.

        If it's ariel atom or caterham-style driving you're after, lotus offers the two eleven which is a purpose-built track car (on the same chassis)
        • 6 Years Ago
        Obviously, you are not too familiar with the history of Lotus, the Exige, and who it's made for. It's a driver's car. Period.

        Compare it to a Caterham or Atom and it's downright cushy.

        Amazing number of Mustang driving nancies read Autoblog, that's for sure!
        • 6 Years Ago
        Chris O., actually the Lotus Elise is their best selling model ever. And I've never met a Miata or S2000 driver that hasn't told me they'd love to have an Elise or Exige.

      • 6 Years Ago
      before we start shredding this car for being a track day only sled, let me remind you buick driving nancys that this exige is far more comfortable and "luxurious" than real men's racing monsters like the Ariel Atom or Caterham Super 7. once you get used to getting in and out of it, the exige provides every daily driving practicality and comfort of the Smart ForTwo, except it's not a slow upright slug. i didn't intend to use it as a commuter but my S220 gets 26mpg on average (a bit more than this S260) and makes the otherwise mundane daily drive into a twice-a-day track session joy.
        • 6 Years Ago
        agreed. Lotus' suspension tuning is absolutely exceptional.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have to point this out, because this is an automotive blog. The people reading this blog want to know cars and like to talk about them. If they learn incorrect terminology here, they're going to be embarrassed when they use it in front of someone that knows what he's talking about.

      "enjoy the mechanical duet of the engine and supercharger ricocheting around the undampened cabin."
      To dampen is to make something damp or wet.
      To damp is to resist motion (like vibration or sound).

      To call the cabin undampened is technically correct as long as it was not wet inside while you were driving it. But it would have made much more sense to call it undamped.
        • 6 Years Ago
        While you are correct undamped is probably a better choice of words the definition for dampening is as follows:
        to dampen (third-person singular simple present dampens, present participle dampening, simple past and past participle dampened)

        1. (transitive) To make damp or moist; to make slightly wet.
        2. (transitive) To depress; to check; to make dull; to lessen.
        * 2007 October 16, Jane E. Brody, “Despite Strides, Listeria Needs Vigilance”, The New York Times,

        Pregnant women are 20 times as likely as other healthy young women to contract listeriosis, probably because in pregnancy the immune system is dampened to prevent rejection of the fetus.

        3. (intransitive) To become damp; to deaden.

        I believe the author is using definition number 2 there where "ricocheting around the undampened cabin." means the cabin is not made any less intense.

        Of course "to damp" means:
        to damp (third-person singular simple present damps, present participle damping, simple past and past participle damped) (transitive)

        1. (archaic) To dampen; to render damp; to moisten; to make humid, or moderately wet; as, to damp cloth.
        2. (archaic) To put out, as fire; to depress or deject; to deaden; to cloud; to check or restrain, as action or vigor; to make dull; to weaken; to discourage.
        3. To suppress vibrations (mechanical) or oscillations (electrical) by converting energy to heat (or some other form of energy).

        * To damp your tender hopes - Mark Akenside
        * Usury dulls and damps all industries, improvements, and new inventions, wherein money would be stirring if it were not for this slug - Francis Bacon
        * How many a day has been damped and darkened by an angry word! - Sir John Lubbock
        * The failure of his enterprise damped the spirit of the soldiers. - Thomas Babington Macaulay
        * Hollow rollers damp vibration. - [1]

        Using the only non-archaic meaning is to dull vibrations, exactly what the author was likely talking about.
      • 6 Years Ago
      one word: want!

      Simple gorgeous in every aspect.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Explain to me how a Tesla is worth 50% more than this.

      With gas at $3.00/gal for 93, you would have to burn 10,000 gallons of fuel to make up the difference. Assuming a 20 mpg average (let's face facts, it's an Exige, you're going to thrash it), that's 200,000 miles just to get to the base price of the Tesla. Notwithstanding how much your electric bills will go up charging your Tesla for 200k. So there's a massive price advantage for the Exige.

      Oh, and the Tesla is marginally better looking and a touch faster to 60, but the Exige will rip your teeth out in the corners, steer better, brake better and absolutely wreck the Tesla on any racetrack that isn't a 1320.

      Elon Musk, your goose is cooked.
        • 6 Years Ago
        You are completely missing the point of the Tesla if you are trying to calculate "break even" points for running on electricity instead of gasoline.

        Would you compare the Exige to a Miata by trying to calculate the "break even" point?
        • 6 Years Ago
        I saw a Tesla roadster for the first time on the road about a week ago and it was so bland and boring I almost did not notice it.
        It was dark blue and I was really disappointed.
        For the price that it is I expect something that catches your eye right away.
      • 6 Years Ago
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