Lotus seems unlikely to build an SUV to secure its future like a certain German brand, and the Lotus Exige S Roadster is another example of why driving enthusiasts should hope the British sports car maker continues to stick to its purist philosophy.
It’s an especially niche brand in Australasia, however, with just 105 models sold across Australia and New Zealand in 2013. The positive is that the company’s sales increased by 20 per cent in a segment that declined by the same figure.
Despite an exuberant display of six new concepts at the 2010 Paris motor show, Lotus’s line-up remains three: Elise, Exige and Evora. The Exige just edges the Elise (42 per cent v 40 per cent) in Australasia.
The Lotus Exige S Roadster has now joined its coupe twin that landed in April 2013, and heralds the brand’s fastest convertible yet, with a top speed of 233km/h.
Unlike most other coupe/convertible siblings, there’s no penalty opting for an Exige S with or without air. Both cost $126,990 – with the coupe rising from a more recent price of $119,990.
There’s no loss in performance by choosing the version with a removable cloth roof, either. Due to the ultra-stiff aluminium body of the Exige, Lotus didn’t need to do any additional strengthening that would pile on critical weight. The Lotus Exige S Roadster in fact weighs 10kg less than the coupe, at 1166kg.
Part of that comes from the deletion of the coupe’s rear wing and front splitter – a move dictated by the removable roof’s impact on aerodynamics and the need to avoid undesirable lift. We actually like the cleaner look this gives the Roadster.
Aero tweaks are also partly responsible for Lotus engineers modifying the Roadster’s rear suspension (and introducing reduced front and rear camber – the vertical angle of the wheels). This was also, however, done to soften the ride to tailor it more for the buyer who’s slightly different to the more hardcore coupe customer.
Our experience of the Roaster didn’t take us on to the most extreme of bumpy Australian country roads that made the stiffly suspended Exige S coupe a bit too manic at times, but there were signs that the open-air version would offer some additional compliance. More certain is that the Roadster loses little in the way of outrageously entertaining dynamics.
The Roadster turns in a fraction less keenly and makes a slightly gentler transition into oversteer when you decide to use the throttle to break the Lotus’s otherwise high levels of grip. But this is the equivalent of saying crunchy peanut butter is a bit more satisfying than the smooth version – both are delicious (with apologies to those with a nut allergy).
The Lotus Exige S Roadster is still one of the sharpest tools in the garage.
The unassisted steering is a highlight of the handling – requiring a bit more bicep work than a system with electric support but capable of the kind of feedback you’ll no longer find in a Porsche.
If your backside can’t register the amount of grip at your disposal, you’ll be able to precisely measure it through the small wheel. There’s also immense feel through the brake pedal (connecting to AP Racing four-piston calipers) to provide no excuses for misjudging your entry speed into corners.
You can also control how much you want the Exige S’s back end to slide out, or how much engine response you want, by turning a little dial to the right of the steering wheel.
The Dynamic Performance Mode has four settings, including Touring, Sport, an optional Race mode (fitted to our test car) and Off. You could also read these, in order, as: Want a good safety net; I’m pretty confident; I’m brave/good enough; You’d better know what you’re doing.
Touring restricts maximum revs of the supercharged Toyota V6 to 6800rpm and instructs the stability control system to intervene at an early point if a slide is detected.
Switching to Sport brings an even more responsive throttle pedal (which is still great in Touring), allows the V6 to stretch to 7200rpm, and increases the slip allowance.
Race does the same as Sport but allows even greater sideways movement and introduces a launch control function.
Off does what it says on the tin and turns off both traction control and stability control.
We kept to Race for the roads we were on, and it offers plenty of room to play with the Lotus’s tail and require plenty of entertaining wheel correction.
Breaking traction is easy despite the grippy Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres, too, courtesy of the Exige S’s V6 that goes and sounds nothing like it does in an Aurion. The supercharger provides terrific tractability from low revs from where the six pistons pump ferociously and unrelentingly towards that 7200rpm limit (in Race). At 4600rpm you’ll reach the engine’s maximum torque of 400Nm; get to 7000rpm and you’ll tap into peak power of 258kW.
From standstill, though, you can reach 100km/h in just four seconds flat, or 160km/h in 8.5 seconds. That kind of driving will soon exceed the official combined consumption of 10.1L/100km, but would you care?
Otherwise the only downside to the Lotus Exige S driving experience is a six-speed manual that makes consistent changes more challenging than ideal – especially when trying to drop from 3rd to a 2nd gear that is further down to the left than you’d expect.
As a pure sports car, it’s also easy to make allowances for the sparse cabin that mixes exposed parts of the aluminium tub – and you’ll have to pay to add touches of luxury such as padded leather door panels and a leather-trimmed centre console, and even extra noise insulation.
Rear parking sensors, metallic paint, cruise control and a cupholder are also part of the options list, but forget about modern car conveniences such as Bluetooth and sat-nav.
It makes the $126,990 starting price a bit more of a ‘gulp’ reaction, especially when you could slot into a Porsche Boxster or Audi TTS for much less money. We’d actually go $4K further and opt for the Lotus Evora manual that brings 2+2 seating, steering that’s better than Porsche’s, and a magical ride/handling balance that matches a Boxster/Cayman.
For hardcore Lotus fans or just hardcore drivers, however, the Exige S with fixed or removable roof will not disappoint.