Its hard to think of two purer, better-handling cars than the Lotus Elise and Exige. If you have to find fault with them (and youre trying pretty hard here), its that, despite the cars extraordinarily light weight, their meager power (just 190 bhp) holds them back from absolute world-beater status.
Lotusti, your answer has arrived in the form of the Exige S. By adding 7.3 psi of supercharged boost to the Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter 4-cylinder (the 2ZZ-GE), the Exige S produces 220 bhp at 8000 rpm and 165 lb.-ft. of torque (up from 133) at 5500. Lotus retains the engines high compression ratio of 11.5:1, and, remarkably, leaves the internals completely bone stock. Lest you worry its not up to the task of forced induction, remember the Exige S has been on sale in the U.K. for more than a year -- its stout.
The one change Lotus did make -- aside from the Lotus T4e Engine Control System and its variable-rpm (between 4500 and 6200) camshaft profile switching -- is an intercooler. An Exige has never been an easy car to see out the rear of, and the intercooler mounted on top of the engine now makes it completely impossible.
An Elise (the normal Exige will no longer be sold in the U.S.) needs to be revved silly; real power doesnt start until about 6000 rpm. With the supercharged Exige S, an abundance of acceleration is available as soon as you tip into the throttle -- a full 80 percent of max torque is at your service at just over 2000 rpm. Yet the engine still loves (and rewards) being run up to its 8000-rpm redline, Lotus even allowing for an over-rev to 8500
for 2 seconds.
Despite the addition of the supercharger, the Exige S sounds very much like an Elise, just one with more induction noise and a hint of supercharger whine from behind your head. What youll notice more than anything, though, is the newfound driveability. Youre never waiting for the power as you would in an Elise, and you can be somewhat lazy in how much you use the 6-speed shifter, which is fine since its never had the best linkage anyway.
Out on the track, besides the ease with which the Exige S can haul in an Elise on a straightaway (Lotus claims 060 mph in 4.1 sec.), the car exhibits the same amazing, race-carlike handling weve come to love. The cars Lotus provided for our Las Vegas track session had the benefit of the $2495 Track Pack, which includes adjustable Bilstein dampers and a 5-way adjustable front anti-roll bar.
But all Exige Ss have non-power-assisted steering thats as direct as you could possibly imagine, coupled to a car that weighs just 2080 lb. The Exige S requires you to pay full attention when driving hard, but rewards with a right-now feedback unlike any other. Back off the throttle at the wrong time and things can go sideways in a hurry; do it correctly, and youll find the Exige S can alter lines at will.
Away from the track and out on the street, the Exige Ss knife-like handling is even more apparent; its quick steering and great grip let you turn in slightly later than you would with any other car. But at the same time, bumps can upset the stiff suspension.
And dont expect to be coddled: The seats are still uncomfortable, the ride is harsh and so much engine, road and wind noise make their way into the cockpit that you can forget about talking on your cellphone. Hey, thats a good thing! Getting into the diminutive machine isnt hard, but getting back out over the large sills can be downright comical.
The extra power of the Exige S comes at a price -- $56,990. That puts it squarely into the Porsche Cayman S/Boxster S and BMW M3 neighborhood. While those cars are more real-worldy, none of them comes close to matching the Exige Ss pure, unadulterated driving experience.