"What is it?" people will ask. They'll keep going. "It's fast, huh? How fast does it go?" The answer will disappoint them. Yes, it is fast, but when driving the Lotus Exige S240, its 150-mph top speed is not at the forefront of one's mind. Lotuses are more classically described as accurate weapons of destructed mass; light cars that handle as an extension of the driver's body. True to the roots laid down by the Europa, the Exige is a composite monocoque, carrying 1800cc of supercharged Toyota fury admidships.
Many have glommed on to the Elise and Exige as track-day toys, but we wanted to see how this most raucous of Lotuses would do as a desert island car. If all you could swing were the payments for a single car, and you got your kicks by surgically trimming apices, could the Lotus hack it? It's certainly one of the most accurate-handling street cars we've had the pleasure of driving, and it does come with such comforts as power windows, air conditioning, and an Alpine audio system with iPod interface. Sounds like the perfect everyday car for a hardcore enthusiast, doesn't it?
Photos copyright ©2008 Dan Roth/Weblogs, Inc.
You've got to be serious about driving to consider using an Exige as a commuter car. You've also got to be limber and only a little paunchy. Some body types simply will not be able to make the trip across the sill and down into the low shells of the leather trimmed seats. Those chairs, appearing very light on padding, are surprisingly comfortable. The passenger seat is fixed in place with no adjustment possible, and the driver is only allowed a fore-aft position adjustment. It's enough. The shape of the seat obviates any need for adjustable lumbar support, and there's comfort there for hours-long stints behind the Momo wheel.
You're low in the Exige; everything looms high above you, and you're either not noticed at all or too much. Two small pectoral mirrors attach via aero-caressed flying buttresses, which provide scant information about what you've just buzzed past. A rearview mirror shows only the supercharger's intake plumbing. Paranoids need not apply. It's healthy to assume that everybody else on the road does not see you. On more than one occasion, we also witnessed fellow drivers doing silly things in traffic just to throw us a thumbs up or snap a picture. Everyday commuting requires the hypervigilance of a track event, perfect for the four-wheeled adrenaline junkie. Naturally, we love it.
The cockpit is a proper office for the business of driving. Every control is perfectly placed; the chunky steering wheel delivers exquisitely detailed information from the tires without the filtering effects of power assist, the machined aluminum shift knob is but a twitch away and the pedals are impeccably arranged, though your footwear choice can interfere with the proceedings. Secondary controls are given secondary status. The HVAC system is controlled by a set of three knobs tucked under the radio and a slight reach away. The Exige even has a cupholder, though it's a hoop-and-strap arrangement.
Everything about the Exige has a sheen of handcrafted excellence. We saw more aluminum in the cockpit of the Exige, be it machined, extruded, or shaped with metal brakes, than we've probably seen in the last ten Autoblog Garage occupants. What isn't metal is swathed in leather if you equip your Exige with the $1,600 Touring Pack that also includes the iPod-capable stereo, a net for the storage cubby behind the driver's seat, and extra sound deadening under the full carpeting. While the interior isn't sumptuous, the assembly quality is high, and there are plenty of little cubbies for storing the detritus of everyday drivers.
Bend the Exige mildly into a sweeper, and as the chassis generates cornering forces, you'll get bombarded with flying cellphones and your pocket will drain itself of coins. Driving the Exige on the street is frustrating, mainly because of all the drones in your way. Such is the case when driving track-capable vehicles on the street; limits are sufficiently high that you'll never make it sweat, unless you practice seriously antisocial behavior. Every day we suffered through traffic circle confusion surrounded by addled automatons, wishing for our Fairy Godmother to show up and transport us to Lime Rock with a wave of the wand.
Highway ramps become favorite events. Come out of that decreasing-radius on ramp buzzing along in second gear, squeeze the skinny pedal down, and from behind your right shoulder the supercharger clears its throat. The blower provides instant amplification to the power curve, slicing and dicing atmosphere with a metallic clamor that's addictive, rocketing the Exige ahead – it's Corvette quick with 240 horsepower, 170 lb-ft of torque and just about 2,100 lbs to move. An uprated clutch is still delicate and there's no need to slam the shifter through the gates. Snap off the 2-3 upshift; the close-ratio six speed transaxle is perfectly matched to keep the engine in the meat of its power, and you've just had an automotive epiphany. All cars should drive this way. Cruise control and navigation systems are for the birds when getting there can be this entertaining.
Traveling light is a requirement, but we're operating on the premise that all you can afford is the payment for a $70,000 car, anyway. What other worldly possessions are you going to have but a well-beaten credit card? Actually, for its small size and mid-engine layout, the Exige has a decent rear cargo hold. A briefcase, laptop bag, or even a large duffel holding a week's worth of clothes will fit easily.
Long road trips are definitely only for the hardcore. The Exige rides surprisingly well on the highway, and admirably deals with choppy pavement. The low ride height encourages slowing for bad surfaces and the ride is stiff, but there's more compliance than you'd expect from a car so capable and low. The cabin is loud both at speed and around town, but it's a symphony of automotive bliss, every note played by a mechanized orchestra.
Climate permitting, the Exige is a fine commuter car for an owner who fully understands that it's more a road-capable racer than a raceable roadster. The late New England autumn conditions in which we tested the Exige made us consider that tire choice might depend on the weather, and you'd be a horrible person to drive one of these things in the snow. Rainy days saw us sticking to the right-hand lane, not wanting to discover just when the racy rubber would hydroplane. If you're a vehicular sadist, the Exige would certainly be a hoot with a set of Blizzaks in deepest January gales, though it's awfully low for any kind of snow-warrior duty.
While it might be nutty to use a car like the Exige all year in some climates, the car certainly wouldn't flinch. There's an elegance to the Lotus philosophy of "adding lightness." Paying careful attention to weight delivers a car that's brilliant without overkill. The controls reward a deft hand without requiring brutality, the feedback is sublime, and the performance is exhilarating with modest displacement and specific output, even in boosted form. The visceral nature of the Exige made it hard to turn over the keys at the end of its stay. We'd answered our question, and while there are a couple of provisos, such as the weather and that trick knee, the Exige S240 is a vehicle we'd consider eBaying a lung for. And when you have a Lotus, why would you want to drive anything else?
Photos copyright ©2008 Dan Roth/Weblogs, Inc.