The purest sports car money can buy, but can you live with it?
If you want the purest driver's car that’s legal to use on public roads, Lotus remains one of the few go-to badges. While the majority of sports car makers today keep half an eye on comfort and luxury features, the new Lotus Exige S is further proof the Proton-owned British company is content to appeal to the minority rather than the masses.
Reducing mass has been a Lotus mantra since the pioneering days of late company founder Colin Chapman, who famously said “adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”.
Lotus, however, has added power to the Exige S. The model has replaced its previous Toyota-sourced 1.8-litre four-cylinder with a 3.5-litre V6 also found in Toyotas (and Lexuses) such as the Aurion.
With a supercharger bolted on, the Lotus Exige S pumps out a healthy 258kW of power and 400Nm of torque – or 58kW and 64Nm more than the naturally aspirated Toyota version.
Put that in a car that weighs just 1157kg – nearly 400kg less than the Aurion – and couple it to an old-school six-speed manual transmission and you get yourself a seriously quick 0-100km/h time of four seconds flat.
But the Lotus Exige S, which continues the extension of the Elise family but with a hardtop and more aggressive looks, is about more than just numbers and statistics.
It's all about the drive, the feeling of being one with a machine, having no computers or bureaucrats interfering with the sensation of pure adrenaline pumping through your veins as you enter a corner at a speed you never thought possible.
But before you drive it, first you have to get in – and that’s a challenge in itself.
It’s one of those cars we'd recommend entering bum, rather than feet, first. The position of the steering wheel and the rather small cabin makes the whole facade a bit of a spectacle, and unless you're super fit and a Russian gymnast, you're never going to look cool getting in or out.
For the fast-food-loving bunch, the driver's seat needs to go all the way back before an exit can even be attempted. For a car that looks so mean and aggressive, it certainly does all it can to ridicule its owner at the most ego-sensitive times.
Once you get in, though, you realise the Lotus Exige S is not exactly a tour-de-force of modern technological feats. It's more like a kit car.
During our time behind the wheel, part of the rooflining fell out, and the Alpine stereo, which looks like something out of JB HiFi's clearance catalogue, doesn’t sound that great.
The interior plastics are cheap and hard, and you’ll struggle to find signs that suggest you’re sitting in a car that costs $119,990. Or nearly $140K in our test car’s case, which included an additional $17,430 worth of options.
This included contrast stitching that sets you back $670 and a suedetex trim pack is another $4050 (full details of the options are listed at bottom of the review). The seats are nice to touch but overall the Lotus is far better admired from the outside.
Getting the Lotus Exige S underway also takes familiarisation, because for the first few attempts you’ll keep forgetting an annoying procedure where you need to press the key fob’s ‘unlock’ button for a second time after inserting the key into the ignition – and then turn the key again.
Grab the spartan gearstick and select first, and the clutch balance feels just right. If you're in normal mode the accelerator response will be predictable but in Sport mode the difference in pedal sensitivity is huge.
Turning the steering wheel will also be a shock for the Lotus uninitiated. As one of the rare modern cars without power steering, manoeuvring the Exige S – especially around town – is hard, heavy work.
It’s on the open road where the steering and the Lotus Exige S overall make sense.
Not even Porsche – especially now its cars have moved to electrically assisted steering – can match Lotus for a wheel that communicates so brilliantly to the driver what is happening beneath the front wheels.
It means the wheel moves around a lot in your hand as the Exige S travels at speed over bumps and changing cambers, and forms part of a driving experience that can be best described as raw and wild.
The Lotus Exige S is not for the regular driver. This is a road-going race car, which has somehow been approved for road use. If you’re not an experienced driver and want to buy this car, take our recommendation to participate in as many advanced driving courses you can afford.
The suspension is ultra-stiff, and although it deals remarkably well with potholes the bumpier the road the hairier the experience becomes.
A smooth racetrack is the most ideal setting for this sports car, though on the average Australian country road the Lotus is still an exhilarating drive.
And as you sit so low to the ground, it’s easy to sense you’re going faster than what the speedo is actually reading.
The loud and manic supercharged V6 sitting behind your head and filling the cabin also contributes to this, though the Lotus Exige S is genuinely a mini supercar in terms of performance.
That combination of light weight and strong power sees your back muscles trying to keep you neck upwards as the little Lotus accelerates ferociously.
A key issue with the Lotus Exige S, though, is that it’s incredibly difficult not to put your driving licence in danger on every outing. It begs to be driven hard, all the time. Even the speedo laughs in the face of our draconian speed limits, with the 12 o’clock position reading 150km/h – making just a third of the dial useful in most circumstances.
It’s in these instances where you can easily forget complaints about the Lotus’s austere interior, lack of practicality and overly high price tag. And it’s an important feeling, because while the Lotus Exige S is a perfect car for track days and an endearingly mad car, as a car to live with on a daily basis it’s almost impossible to rationalise.
Lotus Exige S