The new two-seat Lotus Exige Coupe, based on the soft-top Elise, spurs such euphoria from behind the wheel that if the secret of its sheer delightfulness were more broadly known, it'd be deemed a nonconsumable narcotic.
It takes little time driving an Exige to realize that it, like the Elise, perfectly embodies Lotus founder Colin Chapin's mantra: "Simplicate and add lightness." The overwhelming simplicity is apparent as soon as you slip into the thinly padded driver's seat and take in the bare-bones interior with lots of exposed metal and scant carpeting.
To put its lightness in perspective, consider that the entire chassis - same as on the Elise - weighs just 150 pounds and is a tub-like structure of extruded aluminum bonded together with an aerospace adhesive.
Only 300 2006 Exiges are slated for the U.S. at an $8,000 premium over the Elise. Exterior body panels, designed to improve aerodynamics and better force the car against the road, distinguish it from the Elise. Other than some cosmetic and trim differences, most everything else is shared between the two little Lotuses.
At 100 miles per hour, an Elise roadster has about nine pounds of added air pressure holding the front wheels to the road, while the Exige has 42 pounds. The difference can be felt through the steering wheel. We took both cars to 120 mph, where the Elise's steering felt fingertip-light, while the Exige's was more confidence-inspiring and solid. Rear-wheel downforce (airflow pressing the car against the road) is 4.4 pounds for the Elise and 48 pounds for the Exige, which also helps handling.
Like the Elise - which has been on sale in the U.S. since mid-2004 - the Exige is a tiny, simple, 190-horsepower street racer that will run rings around far more powerful sports cars on twisty roads. Because it's remarkably easy to drive competitively, we suspect it will be just as popular at "track day" car-club events as its Elise sibling.
Though the Exige and Elise look nearly identical, only the door panels are common to both models. The Exige's hand-molded fiberglass body panels - roof, front splitter, engine hatch and rear wing - create substantial aerodynamic advantages over the Elise. The aerodynamic front splitter and rear wing increase the Exige's aerodynamic downforce by a factor of seven over the Elise, from 13 pounds to 90.5 pounds.
The Exige is intended to be driven hard with the roof in place because it directs airflow to the rear wing. But the top panel can be removed in about five minutes with a screwdriver. Just don't get caught in the rain.
While the attractiveness of the car's bug-like nose and upswept, stubby rear-end is debatable, there's no doubt the Exige and Elise stand out. Nothing else on the road looks even remotely like them.
Do not expect Lexus levels of luxury and refinement just because of the Exige's Lexus price. Everything about this car is in aid of lightness. Much of the aerospace-bonded, extruded-aluminum chassis remains clearly visible inside the car, as not an ounce was wasted on vinyl or leather to hide it, except where necessary for minimal comfort or durability.
There's no glove box or storage space in the cockpit, other than a small metal shelf in front of the passenger seat. Analog instrumentation is limited to a speedometer and tachometer plus a few digital readouts. Outside mirrors must be manually adjusted and the side windows have hand cranks, unless you order the $1,350 Touring package. The entire shifter-lever mechanism and its light plastic console between the seats clatter and shake like something from a homemade ultralight airplane.
Anyone taller than 6 feet with long legs might have a problem "wearing" an Exige, but a bigger problem could be weight: portly people won't even be able to squirm into the cockpit. The passenger seat isn't even adjustable, but there's adequate room for a tall person's knees.
Room in the driver's side foot well is also limited, but a friend with size 11 shoes was able to operate the diminutive pedals and drive the car, though he was already prepared with streamlined race-driver booties after piloting an '05 Elise, which has even less foot space.
The Lotus' tiny trunk is at the rear of the car, behind the engine. The trunk opening is too small to admit hard bags bigger than a briefcase, but there's room for two soft-sided weekender duffels.
To save weight, the simple seats are thinly padded, though a new-for-2006 material is sophisticated multidensity foam, standard on the Exige and optional on the Elise. Nonetheless, the Lotus is not intended to be a coddling interstate cruiser.
Once contorted and wedged in the snug driver's seat, you're in for one of the most unusual and rewarding driving experiences available.
Lots of luxury vehicles, sport sedans and expensive sports cars accelerate faster and can exceed the Exige's 147 mile per hour top speed, but not a one provides the purity of pleasurable, tactile feedback that this tiny English two-seater exudes. The steering is so light and precise - not nervous, not delicate, not too fast or intimidating - that you may find yourself doing little back-and-forth swerves on a highway straight just to feel the Exige dance.
Because the Exige is so light, the 190 hp and 138 pound-feet of torque generated by the four-cylinder engine sourced from a Toyota Celica is more than enough to make this a fast and responsive car. It sprints to 60 mph from a standstill in 4.9 seconds. The raspy engine and exhaust sound is just as pleasing as feedback from the steering wheel and the sharp, precise six-speed manual transmission (which also comes from a Celica).
The small and efficient four-cylinder is mounted sideways just behind the cockpit (a midengine setup) and revs with abandon. The 10,000 rpm tachometer has no red line to indicate maximum operable engine speeds in each gear, but a little red "shift before you break it" light comes on at 8,000 rpm. In fact, the engine can be taken to 8,500 rpm without damage for a couple of seconds while upshifting.
The bulletproof Toyota-sourced engine and transmission negate a key Lotus hallmark: finicky and unreliable mechanicals. Their upkeep and repair should be nearly as painless as a Celica's.
If you're intrigued by the world's most fuel-efficient (24 mpg city/29 mpg highway) high-performance two-seater and the only reasonably priced production car that is optimized for racetrack use, yet is road-legal and has a trunk big enough for long weekends, you might hurry to get in line for one of the 300 2006 Exiges