The Exige S is Lotus' track focussed car. Well, Lotus most track focussed car. The Exige started out in 2000 as a hardcore, track only version of the Elise and has transmogrified over the years into this, the Series 3.
The Series 3 was launched in 2012 and instead of sharing the Elise's engine it gets the Evora's 3.5 litre V6 - complete with a supercharger. It grew 25cm from the Series 2 in order to accommodate the V6, and put on a bit of weight as a result. It now stands as a completely different car, with its own chassis, from the Elise and Evora.
The car I tested is the 2013 Exige S Roadster in Ardent Red with Ivory White leather. It's a two seater and the engine sits right behind the occupants. The entire chassis is constructed from aluminium, although it has a steel subframe where the engine is mounted, and the various components and panels are bolted on to it.
The Exige S, like all Lotuses, is designed and manufactured on site in Norfolk. It weighs 1166kg and the engine produces 345 bhp and 295 lb ft of torque. The double wishbone, independent suspension uses Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs. The brakes are AP Racing four-pot callipers over ventilated and drilled discs.
The Exige S is set-up by the in-house development engineers at the Lotus test track, on the road and on other race tracks such as the Nurburgring. On top of this Lotus uses Bosch electronics for ABS, brake distribution and cornering brake control.
These systems are used to create Lotus DPM - Dynamic Performance Management. DPM is controlled via a dial in the cockpit from which you can select Tour, Sport and Race and off. In anything but Tour the exhaust by-pass valve is opened for a more meaty engine note.
0-60mph takes 3.8 seconds, 0-100mph in an astonishing 8.5 seconds and top speed is 145mph. The front tyre specs are 205/45 R17 and the rears are 265/35 R18. And it has no power steering. It is properly track focussed.
That's enough of that. Let's take a look at the car.
The composite bodywork of the Exige S allows for aggressive swoops and curves. The haunches are exaggerated and the bonnet low. Vents either side of the grille cool the brakes and improve airflow. The entire car is designed with downforce in mind. The underside is completely flat and the rear end features a Kamm tail (an upwards swoop incorporated into the bodywork to reduce drag) and a diffuser which actually does produce downforce, unlike in most cars with one.
The Exige is quite compact, and sits low. It's 1129mm tall, 4084mm long and 1802 mm wide. The width includes the mirrors, which are quite prominent.
The car might be low but the sills are big and beefy. It was designed as a roadster from the off so the chassis' strength is derived entirely through the floor and sills.
As such your entrance into the car will never be truly graceful. I wore a helmet and bonked the top of it gently each time I got in and out.
The interior is sumptuous, up to a point. The materials - leather, Alcantara, aluminium - are top drawer but Lotus is, and always has been, obsessive about weight saving. Bare, painted metal is evident on the doors and some of the aluminium chassis is left exposed.
The steering wheel is tiny, the gearstick sits tall on the barely clothed transmission tunnel and the handbrake protrudes just behind the 'stick.
There are two dials with revs and speed, the leather-topped dash looks and feels rather lovely and houses heating controls and a stereo.
The two occupants sit quite close to each other but won't bump shoulders. The seats are body hugging, ergonomically designed single piece units trimmed in quilted leather. Their only adjustment is backwards and forwards. Amazingly the seats are heated.
The pedals are deep set under the dash and are typically purposeful (and light) single, milled blocks of aluminium.
The key is a real key. Exige doesn't do fripperies.
The driving position is absolutely spot-on. Despite its lack of adjustment the seat is sculpted to fit almost all humans, although those over 18 stone might struggle to get in it in the first place, never mind fit in the seat.
The engine fires up and idles with a lovely noise that isn't intrusive in the cabin, despite sitting just aft of you. Even on the go it is no noisier than a Porsche Cayman.
The clutch bite is no more harsh or sharp than in any other road car. Despite its 296 bhp/tonne ratio you won't find yourself kangarooing down the road, or stalling.
The steering is quite light at low speeds despite having no assistance. The 6-speed gearbox requires a firm input that caught me out a few times. Practice would make perfect.
Acceleration is brutal (thank its 296 lb ft of torque for that) and you run out of revs quickly. After a short while you learn to change up via engine note alone but the dials are clear enough to occasionally check speed and rpm in an instant.
Whilst the acceleration is fierce the chassis copes well. With the engine sitting out back, and the wide section rear tyres wheelspin is minimal. It grips and goes with no fuss.
The first corner at the Hethel test track is called Graham Hill. It's actually a right, left, right, left series of curves that are taken at 3/4 throttle in 4th gear. The Exige S moves around under you but control of the car is easy.
As you approach the final curve in Graham Hill you dab the brake and turn left to enter a short straight before the Andretti hairpin with foot flat on the floor until the last minute when you brake hard and turn the nose towards the centre of the track and aim for the apex at the end of the kerbing. The Exige squirms but you have full control.
The steering at this point, as you hold it round the hairpin at as much speed as you dare and then ping off down the straight, is heavy. You need to grip the wheel firmly and change gear as quickly as possible in order to retain both hands on the wheel.
Through the barely-there Senna curves and enter Chapman/Windsock corner which is a super fast right hander that I never quite managed to get right. The car inspires confidence but the track is wide and I concentrated too hard on corner entry and fluffed the exit on the first few laps.
Next up is the track's longest straight, and its fastest point. From the apex of Windsock corner to the chicane at the end of the Mansell straight is half a mile yet the Exige S Roadster could reach its top speed of 145mph just before the chicane.
It's a testament to the car's power and low weight that this speed is achieved in such a short space and with so little fuss - although the driver's arms and left leg are a blur as you change up in furious bursts. The gearbox ratios are set for both road and track use so the ratios are spaced quite close together.
There's a line of tyres on the left just before the chicane. Darren Cockle, Lotus' Senior Engineer, Vehicle Dynamics took me round before my turn at the wheel and I spotted his braking point (remember, we're doing 140+mph here) so I thought I'd brake ten yards earlier.
The first time I hit the anchors, slamming down the 'box to 2nd gear, the rear of the car moved around as I changed down too early but we hit the required speed way for the chicane ten yards short of it. Every time we came to the chicane I got a little closer to the perfect point until after a few laps I could get it bang on.
140(ish) mph. Brake point. Slam brakes on hard. Down gears. Nose into the tight chicane. Perfect. It's so easy in the Exige S to get it right every time - after some practice.
Of course a better driver than I would find that little bit of extra speed but the Exige S flatters any half-competent driver. It's so compliant and malleable you can treat it harshly and it'll smooth out your cack-handed inputs and respond better than you imagine.
The back doesn't kick out suddenly, the nose doesn't lose grip and slide off into the Armco. You reach your limits far before it finds its limits.
Out of the chicane and a short burst before the Rindt hairpin. I could never get this corner right. Ride round the middle of the track, aim for the apex at the end of the curve and floor it. I didn't have confidence in myself (mainly due to the fact the Armco abuts the track here) but Darren was genuinely foot flat on the floor and skimming the edge of the track the moment he hit the apex.
Another straight, past the pit entrance, and into the right hand Clark before entering the Graham Hill curves again, and the lap is over.
The Exige S Roadster is an amazing car at the limit. You can feel it moving around underneath you, yet all the while it stays on the road and pointing the right way. A Porsche Cayman is less forgiving and has a tendency to snap oversteer earlier than the Exige does. The Exige is slightly more gentle on the inexperienced track enthusiast but is able to deliver as much as the Cayman.
What I'm trying to say is that zone where you feel some loss of control to actual loss of control is larger in the Exige S than a Cayman - if that makes any sense.
My initial laps were done in the DPM's Tour setting. The car was monitoring brake and throttle inputs and giving me a safety margin. If I had not known this already I would not have guessed the system was turned on.
Turn DPM to Sport and some of the nannying disappears. The Exige S is designed, tested and set-up without any electronics in place. It's this that gives it such a balanced chassis. The Bosch systems are specced by Lotus to merely add a degree of extra control for drivers such as me who are competent road drivers but not track experts, but also for track experts to wring a few extra mph out of the car.
I could feel the car more in Sport and could find grip levels and lean on the tyres quite easily. As we swept through the Clark and Graham Hill series of curves I enjoyed it more, and flowed better, with each lap.
After my half hour or so drive my biceps were aching from holding the wheel. The lack of power steering is felt when tracing the Exige S through high speed corners. My palms were also sweating. For true track use a pair of gloves is advised. In the hairpins I was using my thumbs to grip the wheel as my fingers couldn't grip enough.
Once I had finished in the driver's seat Darren took us for a few laps in Race mode. Of course he knows the track like the back of his hand but his high speed drifts were pretty awesome. The Exige S will misbehave plenty if you push it hard enough.
The Lotus Exige S Roadster costs £53,850 and you can easily pay more with various options. It is expensive but is truly hand built (there isn't a single robot in the factory) and has little competition. The chassis is sublime and there's just enough convenience (electric windows, climate control, heated seats, a beautifully milled upholder, USB socket) to make it a useable road car.
Price - £53,850
Engine - 3.5 litre, V6, supercharged, petrol
Transmission - 6-speed manual
0-60mph - 3.8 seconds
Top speed - 145 mph
Power - 345 bhp
Torque - 295 lb ft
Economy - 28.0 mpg
CO2 - 236 g/km
Kerb weight - 1166 kg