by Samantha Stevens - 10/11/11
The top performance coupe from Lotus is the epitome of the ‘race car for the road’. But with such a broad scope of ability, there is always compromise.
The top performance spec Lotus has a pure thrill factor – fast, loud, and precise as a surgeon. Sitting low within the axles, and with the engine behind the driver’s head, it is a visceral, involving experience. As a road car… well, that’s where the compromise begins.
It’s hard to believe that powerful, buzzy engine behind your head actually comes from a Corolla. Formerly using Rover engines, the current batch of Lotus cars utilise the Toyota 2ZZ 1.8L four-cylinder petrol engine that used to power the Celica coupe, and now the company’s staple whitegood-on-wheels.
Putting power through a six-speed manual gearbox to the rear wheels, the engine pushes out 162kW at a high 7800rpm, with 215Nm of torque at 5500rpm thanks to the addition of a Roots-type supercharger. While those figures don’t exactly raise the eyebrows, the car only weighs 965kg; it has a power-to-weight ratio similar to a Porsche 911 Carrera.
An optional ‘Performance Pack’ gets a few more kW out of it, upping power to 179kW.
While it needs premium fuel (95 RON minimum), the car only sips around 8.5L/100km - a good thing, given the tiny 43L fuel tank.
Lotus creator Colin Chapman was a pioneer of this type of tub chassis, where the driver essentially sits encapsulated within the car’s platform. The bare aluminium all around the driver in the cabin is, in fact, the car’s chassis, offering a surreal, connected feel when behind the wheel; weight, as well as cost, are whittled down substantially, as almost half of the car inside and out is made up of it chassis.
It gives the interior a clean, if Spartan feel. The radio is notoriously nasty to use, and is the most complex thing in the entire car. One drink holder within the seats is offered (a Touring pack adds another holding arm off the centre console, along with leather seat trim and other ‘cushy’ features), and a little net on the passenger footwell and a small, open cubby for a glove box and recess between the seats are the only in-cabin storage. And don’t expect to fit more than hand-luggage sized bags in the minuscule boot.
The Probax seats are crammed in between the tub floor and engine firewall. There is no real underthigh or tilt adjustment, and lumbar support comes via a small hand pump attached to an air bladder within the seat (think of the manual blood pressure tester in the doctor’s office).
Entry and egress are not easy, particularly for the larger or taller adult, and women in skirts shouldn’t expect to get out of the car with their dignity intact.
And yet, it is brilliant in its simplicity, and for its purpose, the compromise is selectively overlooked by its following.
A standout example of aerodynamics, the Exige sits low, wide and hunkered-down like a bee about to stick the stinger in.
A big aero package of front splitter, rear skirts and a massive rear spoiler and diffuser give no doubt to its intentions, and the engine is covered in a honeycomb grill.
If it looks like the rear semi-slick road-legal tyres are fatter and wider, they are. The Lotus sits standard on 16-inch alloys on the front, and 17-inch on the rear; great for additional grip as well as styling, but a pain on a track day without the ability to rotate the tyres front to rear.
Somewhat a victim of its stunning styling, the mid-rear engined Exige has almost zero rearward visibility. In fact, the rear-view mirror is almost purely for homologation purposes, and is nigh on useless. Fitting an aftermarket reversing camera in its place is a must.
The metallic Burnt Orange, Candy Red and White paint, along with custom colour options of green and silver, are unfortunately an extra cost. Another option are the fabulous Split-Type 7 Spoke Forged Alloys; part of an optional sports pack.
Despite supercharging typically helping low-down revs, the Exige doesn’t really get going until the 5500rpm mark, when the camshafts come on full song via the valve timing (VVT) and everything steps up yet another notch. It is happiest near its 7800rpm peak, and revs well into the eights.
A purity in the handling cannot be mistaken; the small wheel is markedly heavy at low speed, but without annoying electronic interference and with the freedom of handling allowed by rear-wheel-drive, when the speed picks up, the car will go precisely where pointed.
For the more experienced driver, this is an absolute joy, and when you get it right, everything works in harmony. Get it wrong, however, and the Lotus will bite; its short wheelbase and light, mid-engined setup makes it easy to half-spin particularly in slippery road conditions.
It’s very unfortunate that the Lotus traction control is an option on a $100K car, particularly one that can be a little hairy in the wet for the less experienced driver. It also has only two airbags and ABS as standard – there isn’t much room for anything else.
A must-have option – which really should be standard – is the Limited Slip-Diff. While the car certainly has mumbo in the straights with the supercharger on board and no weight to haul, the corners are the Lotus specialty, and the extra grip ups mid-corner speed to breakneck levels.
Two words: build quality. Unfortunately, the rumours are true: the Lotus simply doesn’t last the distance it should in some areas, particularly in the interior fitment, hence its lower resale values. Its standard new car warranty is only two years long.
And with the new slew of reworked, feature-packed 2012 Lotus cars set to hit the market, and promising to address these issues, the resale cannot improve…
The other challenge is ergonomics. A brilliant car on the track, the Lotus can get a little tiring as a road car, what with the squeeze in and out of the low doors/high sills, the reduced visibility (not to mention buses, SUVs and 4WDs almost running you over, as the Lotus doesn’t even feature in their mirrors), and the inability to store much of anything – though the boot will take a weeks-worth of shopping for your average couple.
An awesome little package, but not without compromise. Great value in performance, looks and appeal, but costly when translated to a bare-bones road car with build quality and resale issues.
The Exige is in a league of its own, really, with only the Elfin MSR, a rear-drive V8 monster of a car, as real road/track competition. Its other competitors are pure track cars: the Aerial Atom, various Caterhams and the Elfins, the Hyabusa-powered Radical two-seat Le Mans style racer, and the various kit and turnkey cars using similar drivetrain combinations.
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