The 2012 Lotus Exige S is the latest incarnation of the companys most focused road car.
As before, its essentially a heavily modified version of the Lotus Elise, with a hardcore nature that will appeal to buyers who are as likely to enjoy the cars potential on a racetrack as on the road.
This Exige is significantly different from the previous models, however, and to the Elise. In fact, it has almost as much in common with the company's flagship model, the Evora. Not least a version of its supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine. In the Exige it develops 345bhp and 295lb ft of torque, channelled through a six-speed manual gearbox to the rear wheels.
Although the Exige S uses the same aluminium tub as the Elise, it has a longer wheelbase and new rear subframe to accommodate the new engine and deal with its power.
The Exige S also gets upgraded suspension, brakes and steering, while the new bodywork gives a wider, more aggressive stance. It now looks every inch a compact supercar, and Lotus engineers say they have made this Exige more civilised than previous models and better suited to everyday use.
Prices start at 52,900 (excluding on-the-road costs), although Lotus expects around two-thirds of buyers to go for the 2000 race pack, which adds stiffer suspension and an upgraded stability control system.
Whats the 2012 Lotus Exige S like to drive?
We drove the Exige S on a soaked racetrack and on similarly wet, bumpy roads around Lotuss Norfolk headquarters. Whats so impressive is that its immense fun on both.
All that power and a kerbweight of just 1176kg makes the Exige S as quick as more exotic machinery. The official 0-60mph time is 3.8 seconds and getting 0-100mph takes just 8.5 seconds. The V6 engine doesnt sound as musical as a Ferrari 458 Italias and its a little slow to build revs, but once it gets into its stride its brutally effective.
If the Exige Ss straight-line speed is staggering, its ability to carry that pace through corners is just as mind-blowing. Despite being heavier than an Elise, the Exige S has the same agile character and its extra width and fat tyres help to give tremendous grip.
Traction is brilliant, thanks to a clever stability control system that stops things getting unruly, without being heavy-handed. Our test car had the optional race pack, which provides an extra race setting. This assesses the amount of grip available and decides how much power is sent to the wheels through corners. Throw the car into a corner, hit the apex and floor the throttle and the system does the rest, allowing you to concentrate on the next one. Lotuss claim that it can give faster lap times than even the most talented driver seems feasible.
The Exige Ss steering is heavy at parking speeds, but it comes alive on the move and you feel everything thats going on through the wheel. That means theres some kickback over bumps and poor surfaces, but thats a small price to pay for such a strong connection between the driver, car and road surface.
Even with its stiffer race pack settings, the Exige Ss ride quality is remarkably forgiving for such a performance-oriented car. Its certainly firm, but body movement is so well controlled that the car never becomes unsettled, however bad the road.
Despite its newfound sophistication, the Exige retains a raw edge. The gearshift, like the steering, needs a heavy hand, and has a mechanical, direct feel. Similarly, you hear everything that the mid-mounted engine is doing. Theres also enough wind- and road noise at speed to render the stereo all but redundant.
Whats the 2012 Lotus Exige S like inside?
The Exige S might have a striking new exterior, but the interior is pretty much standard Elise. The exposed construction, parts-bin switchgear, minimal high-tech and safety features and rough-and-ready materials are virtually identical to those of the car that was launched in 2002, with a price well below 30,000. Thats a bit of an issue for a car thats being launched in 2012, and that will cost most owners more than 55,000.
It wont overly concern buyers that choose the Exige S for its considerable track-day potential, maybe, but even they might be a bit miffed that it feels like its from a different era to rivals such as the Porsche Cayman R, and that theres so little adjustment for the seat (which slides fore and aft only) and steering wheel (which is fixed).
Getting in and out is as much of a faff as ever, too. The low roof and wide sill make it a fairly undignified process for those of average height, let alone anyone thats over six-foot tall. It is at least a bit easier when the roof panel of the roadster version is removed.
Should I buy one?
If driving thrills are your only priority, then the Exige S is easy to recommend. Its a brilliant example of what Lotus engineers can achieve.
The Exige S is devilishly fast and looks great, too, but its 50,000+ price is hard to stomach when you consider what else you could have for the money. Rivals such as the BMW M3 and Porsche Cayman S offer similarly thrilling performance and handling, but much more in the way of creature comforts, high-tech kit and everyday practicality.
What Car? says