Lotus goes automatic, but not for any good reason
The Lotus Exige S is one of those sports cars that is faster, braver and more courageous than the majority of its drivers and for that reason it’s a car that is hard not to love. But now it has gone a bit soft, with the introduction of the first-ever automatic version.
Lotus makes cars for pure driving enthusiasts - that’s the unique selling point the Malaysian-owned British company has been built on for the last 63 years.
Nonetheless, since Lotus’ inception in 1952 the concept of a sports car has changed dramatically. These days the pinnacle of motorsports, Formula 1, uses hybrid V6 engines with more buttons and settings on the steering wheel than ever before, while the idea of a manual transmission seems to be a long forgotten concept.
But despite being in Formula 1 (if only by name), years have gone by and Lotus has stuck with its mantra of the driver and car being as connected as possible, regardless of the compromises required.
If you’d told company founder Colin Chapman in the 1950s that one day his company would be selling a car that can shift gears by itself, he would’ve most likely laughed you out of his North London office. Alas, that is exactly what we are driving here.
From the outside the Lotus Exige is – at least through the eyes of this reviewer – a tremendously gorgeous car. It looks like it’s worth its $132,990 (add $5000 for the automatic gearbox) price tag as it turns plenty of heads with its supercar-like design, and considering it can go from 0-100km/h in a claimed 3.9 seconds (a tenth of a second faster than the manual), its looks are justified.
In the back sits a 3.5-litre V6 from Toyota with a supercharger bolted on, now coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, also from a Toyota. Ignoring the supercharger, the engine and gearbox are basically the same as that of a Toyota Aurion (or a Toyota Tarago people mover if you want to be more dramatic).
But, that’s all irrelevant, because with 257kW of power and 400Nm of torque, the Exige automatic weighs just 1176 kilograms (add 6kg for the auto), which means its power to weight ratio is ridiculous and unlike anything Toyota would ever dare to make. Unlike a Toyota, it’s also difficult to get in to.
Entering a Lotus Exige requires some degree of grace. Left leg in first, swing the bum around and then pretend to be cool while you practise a trust exercise of hoping you land on the seat before your right leg gives out. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no getting out.
The interior is very much a Lotus, Spartan to the core. There’s even an aftermarket Alpine headunit that doesn’t have Bluetooth phone or audio streaming capability. There are – strangely – two USB ports (one more than the seven-seater family-focused new Volvo XC90) and four Alpine speakers.
In terms of cabin storage you can potentially fit your wallet in the netted compartment behind the seats and a small smartphone in a foam holder in the passenger side… and that’s kind of it. There’s a peculiar bottle holder that could only work in a Lotus and there’s also a small storage compartment in the back next to the engine, good enough for a relatively small carry-on size bag.
The interior quality itself has improved, somewhat, from the same current-generation Exige we drove when it launched two years ago. It doesn’t feel like a kit-car anymore and its closest competitor in terms purity, the Alfa Romeo 4C, is no better inside.
Now that the manual gearstick is gone, the little buttons for the automatic transmission allow significantly more leg space for taller passenger, which is ideal considering the steering wheel is hard mounted (so, no height or reach adjustment).
Turn the key and the Exige springs to life with a deep rough growl. Press D, release the handbrake and away you go.
It’s odd driving an automatic Lotus. All my memories of manual heel-toe downshifting are now replaced with a cold paddle.
Purist would at least be happy to know the paddles are mounted on the steering column, so they don’t move with the steering wheel, which is how it is in a racecar. They would, however, be disappointed by the fact that it’s not a dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
Lotus is not a company that would likely invest the R&D cost of coupling a DCT from one supplier to the engine of another, which is why we have a regular six-speed auto (though you do have to ask why it then costs $5000 more than the manual).
In Sport mode (there’s also touring and track) the auto box holds the gears that little bit longer and downshifts as you brake hard into a corner. But there’s no real finesse to the process. It lacks the rapidness and drama of a DCT and those moments of hesitation tend to ruin the experience.
It also absolutely refuses to let you back into first gear at low speeds, which means those potentially invigorating downshift whips as you come up to a red light are met by an annoying beep of denial.
The Lotus Exige S is not a car you can drive to even a quarter of its full potential on a public road. It’s one of those cars that has more potential than you (you being the well-above average enthusiast driver).
The car requires a pro racing driver – and a race track! – to extract the most from the package and as such, it becomes a game of belief, where you just have to trust that the Exige can indeed go around this hairpin corner, flat out, without doing a Maldonado in the process.
Having driven dozens of Lotus cars over the years and still being here to tell the tale, I can assure you they are much, much faster than most people think.
The ability to tackle a corner at speeds you wouldn’t contemplate in an AWD rally-bred sports car (like an Evo or STI) is inexplicably fun. Despite having a mid-mounted engine, and being rear-wheel drive, it just grips. It doesn’t seem to matter the corner or driving line.
There’s so much mechanical grip that you start to wonder if it will ever lose traction. Despite repeated efforts to upset the balance, the Exige S seems as neutral in its handling as the best supercars we’ve driven. It doesn’t understeer under pressure and it doesn’t oversteer out of a corner even if you get the acceleration point wrong.
Strangely, it's not an uncomfortable place to be, with the suspension more than capable of dealing with pothole infested roads. It's far more civilised than you'd expect for a car that is so focused on performance.
The lack of power steering is also a huge bonus at speed as every bit of road is communicated straight to your hands, and I emphasise the plural here as you can’t drive the Exige one handed, ever. That steering means it’s also quite difficult to park.
As good as it is, though, the question we kept asking was ‘why the automatic’? Sure, it’s easier in traffic (though it can sometimes jerk at low speeds), uses slightly less fuel (9.6L/100km compared to 10.1) and a tad faster from 0-100km/h, but if that’s what you’re after go buy a Porsche Cayman or Boxster. Both of those are far more refined in every imaginable way, and have an insanely good DCT transmission (PDK) as an option.
You buy a Lotus because even at its relatively high starting price of $132,990 (plus on-road costs), there’s nothing that will make you feel so alive conquering corner after corner at unimaginable speeds. If you ask me, you buy a Lotus to go racing or if you take frequent mountain drives. You don’t buy a Lotus to enjoy a more dignified day-to-day traffic experience.
The real solution here is obviously a better gearbox, which could provide the best of both worlds. Until then, stick with the manual and you can’t go wrong.
The 7/10 rating reflects the manual Exige, the automatic would be a 6.
Photography by Mitchell Oke.