AutoRoute: Melbourne to Sydney in Lotus Exige S
By - Ash Simmonds from AussieExotics.com
So one evening whilst enjoying a steak I get a text from Jamezilla at the Supercar Club saying he needs a car moved sometime in the next couple days, and given:
- It's a long weekend
- Everyone else has family stuff to do
- I'm inherently unlovable
- Nobody would care if I disappeared without warning
It seems I am the obvious choice for the task.
The best part of the news - the car which needed to be transported is one of my top five dream cars, way above Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Mach 5, probably almost on par with the Batmobile.
Allow me to present the Lotus Exige S.
I had 24 hours to get the car from Melbourne to Sydney, and considering I'd just spent nine hours in a Porsche 911 Carrera S to get to the city-of-self-importance-and-retarded-traffic-flows it was around 6pm when I first saw the car with somewhat tired eyes.
Upon getting my first visual it was like having a strange optometrist install toothpicks between my eyelids.
Knowing there was about 1200km in front of me and a deadline of about 8pm the next night I decided to knock out some of the boring freeway kilometres that evening. Obviously I would probably not remain on the main roads the whole way - I mean do those guys in Texas really leave the house with a weapon not intending to use it?
Now as much as I'm a complete geek and love statistics and stuff, when it comes to cars, I'm largely not interested. When I was a teeny-bopper reading magazines (yes there were primitive information mediums before the web "gasp") or in my early 20's playing Gran Turismo and Need For Speed I would spend all night poring over the specs and performance data and just ponder how well they stacked up to my '81 Sigma SE.
The obsession over specifications and performance statistics was deep-sixed when I started spending some time in exotics and realised the numbers didn't reflect the experience.
If you want to look at the stopwatch after you've had a drive to let you know how good a time you've had, get a Porsche.
Or if you'd like to feel as though you're crawling in traffic, eyes like Graham Kennedy, looking for greed cameras when you're doing 110km/h on the freeway (no cruise-control and 1mm of throttle equals ~50km/h) then get a Lamborghini.
If you'd like to drive flat-out everywhere you go and not get in trouble - get a Lotus Elise and don't change out of 2nd gear.
If you're in need of numbers and stuff to understand a car then let's just go with the bastion of integrity and scientific proof, Top Gear.
Here's where it stands on the Top Gear Power Lap board driven by The Stig in reference to a few other interesting cars available in Oz (I think).
- 1:19.5 - Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4
- 1:19.5 - Porsche 997 GT2
- 1:19.7 - Nissan GT-R
- 1:19.7 - Ferrari 430 Scuderia
- 1:19.8 - Lamborghini Murciélago LP640
- 1:21.2 - Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano
- 1:22.3 - Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale
- 1:22.3 - Porsche 911 GT3 RS (996 mk.II)
- 1:23.9 - Aston Martin DBS
- *1:25.1 - Lotus Exige S*
- 1:25.3 - BMW M3 E90 Sedan
- 1:25.7 - Audi RS4
- 1:25.7 - Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
- 1:26.0 - BMW Z4M
- 1:26.0 - Mercedes-Benz CLK 63 AMG Black series
- 1:26.0 - Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII MR FQ320
- 1:26.2 - BMW M5
- 1:26.2 - Porsche 911 Carrera S (997)
- 1:26.7 - Porsche Cayman S
- 1:26.9 - Mercedes-Benz CLS55 AMG
- 1:27.1 - Aston Martin DB9
- 1:27.2 - Tesla Roadster (mildly moist)
- 1:28.2 - Lotus Elise Sport 190
- 1:28.7 - Porsche Boxster S
- 1:30.1 - Subaru Impreza WRX STi
- 1:30.1 - Vauxhall Monaro VXR
- 1:30.9 - Audi S4 quattro 4.2
- 1:31.8 - BMW M3 E46
- 1:31.8 - Nissan 350Z
- 1:31.8 - Mazda RX-8
- 1:32.8 - Honda Civic Type-R
- 1:33.3 - Volkswagen Golf Mk.IV R32
- 1:34.2 - MINI Cooper S Works
If you need some moving visuals to make this a verified Web 2.0 post, here's Jeremy Clarkson's review - if I had the time I would have made a far more entertaining video, you'll just have to trust me on that one:
So I'd driven a couple hundred kilometres out of Melbourne, I had no GPS except for my iPhone, which I soon realised is about as useful as an on-road tool as licking your finger and sticking it out the window, so with no real idea where I was going, my theory was I just kept the car pointed toward towns I'd never heard of, I pressed on assuming that I was probably going in the right direction.
It's getting toward midnight and I'm around Bairnsdale about 300km east of Melbourne, having been up since 4:30am and spent more 1000km on the road in sports cars, I'm kind of spent.
I do a couple laps of the town looking for late night accommodation with my mate's words from earlier ringing in my ears when I mentioned I might do some driving and look for somewhere to crash late that night.
"Yeah of course - there's heaps of people like you who try to drive late at night and need somewhere to stay at the last minute."
Ok, one caveat that we didn't contemplate was that this was a long weekend, and the areas I was driving through are mega tourist areas, hence everything was fully booked -" doh".
After Bairnsdale I try Lakes Entrance about 40km down the road (not to mention pulling into the half dozen caravan parks along the way), no luck there so I just keep driving - it's now after 1am and I am really really tired, not to mention the high-beams are either ineffective or inoperable.
Still the Exige feeds you confidence on the road like a morphine drip, so even when the tarmac turns to dirt and my instincts are that I'm now entering Deliverance country and I'm just two awkward conversations away from being told to squeal like a pig, I'm impelled to press on.
Thankfully the Exige over-ruling my instincts turned into a way of finding new towns without a time-costly trip back to the freeway - you'll find that in driving the Exige there are so many times it beckons you to do things that are distinctly against your instincts, let me just say it's very rewarding when you do so. (note: this does not constitute legal or spiritual advice)
So the Exige S, why?
This is the stupidest production car I've spent time with.
To get in or out you need to open the door to it's full extent - yes it's a tiny car - but it means you can't safely park within one metre of any other car/wall/bollard/obstacle. Also being extremely low, be careful when near seaside suburbs or towns, they tend to have higher kerbs.
Into the bargain, entering a car park means you have to get out of the car to get your ticket, which means driving a few feet forward of the ticket machine, at which point you realise the car will actually fit under the gate and you ponder just driving through.
Another thing, the central rear-view mirror is there only for ADR compliance and so you can admire the engine bits or see the reflections of the dash and radio at night.
There is no chance of being able to check your "blind spot" - which includes 90 per cent of the planet that happens to be behind you. Reversing out of parking spots is largely a faith experience.
On the highway and open roads it's not a problem, people are somewhat more predictable over the longer distances you have to overtake them and change lanes, but for inner city multi-lane driving it's just way more stressful as you try to figure out whether the muppet you just passed has remained at constant speed or decided, because they've just seen a sports car overtake them, that they should speed up too.
Oddly enough bus and tram drivers notice you, but beware the Mum's taxis, which places a relentless stake on any piece of real estate within 50 metres of their vehicle.
But God dammmmm - this car is fun!
I'm not talking about a day of skirmish with the guys at the office where you get to shoot that annoying bland guy from finance in the nuts or when you sticky tape your girlfriend's shoes to the floor so she does a comedy stack when she puts them on.
This car induces pure dopamine - you feed it fuel, it feeds you smiles - this is the simplest equation since the good old one - beer equals good looking women.
So I eventually make my way to a town called Orbost in Snowy River country and it's 2am, freakin' cold and I need sleep after driving what is basically a race-car on the road for 400km.
In the mean time I've noticed how people react to the car when I pull up somewhere - I've spent a fair bit of time in Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, etc - but this car is somehow different.
I don't know what the exact ingredient is, and much may be skewed given I've mostly been a passenger in the others, but in the high-end cars you tend to only really get the young boys and mid-life-crisis geezers come and talk to you about the car.
Most others give a sideways look because they want to see it but want to appear uninterested, I mean they're pretty big imposing and impressive cars.
In the Lotus though nobody seems to have any qualms, it's so little that people aren't intimidated, but they're definitely impressed.
Perhaps I should clarify for fellow guys, by people I mean everyone including chicks, in 24 hours with this car I had more chats, smiles, waves, photos, indecent offers, etc than I've had in the last several years around all the other exotica I've been in.
Who knows, maybe I'm just hotter now that I'm older and I would have got that attention in a Commodore.
So fast-forward past the indecent proposals of the evening around Orbost, where I couldn't find accommodation but had a few random offers. It's now 2:30am so I find an out of the way location behind some shed, park on a mild incline and proceed to attempt to get some sleep - in the Exige.
For those who haven't sat in one let me paint a picture, I don't think Colin Chapman's mates were considering this idea when they designed it, the seats are small, you have only a few inches of legroom either side of where you put your feet, and the sports seats they installed have a headrest which is forward of the neck.
This headrest thing, not so much an issue when you're driving, but when you want to relax, hmm, imagine a carbon-fibre pillow, 40 millimetres wide, covered with a slim leather outing that forces your chin into your cleavage.
No, you can't just lean to the side, the seats hold you in place, it's not like a normal car where you can just put your head up against the window, your only choice is to sit upright with your head resting on your shoulder.
I won't bore you with the details, but it wasn't a particularly rewarding sleep, at 6:30am I decided I'd had enough and I decided to get back on the road.
Ok, first thing, I was camped in Snowy River country, second thing, it's winter. I woke up not only stiff from four hours of attempted sleep in a race-seat preceded by several hours of driving in one, but shaking like break dancer. Just getting out of the passenger seat to go to the driver's seat I'm sure I could have won numerous dance awards.
I let the car and myself warm up a while, thankfully the Exige has exceptional heating qualities for it's little cabin. Within minutes I'd gone from considering just snapping off a few of my frozen fingers as they seemed to just be in the way, to considering a striptease for all the native fauna I could hear in the background just waiting to laugh at me.
Fog was heavy in the air, like the last chick at the bar, and every exhalation almost obscured my view with the mist produced but the roads around Orbost, weaving through farming areas and the Snowy River foothills are fantastic.
Apart from "Megan Fox" and "morning glory" being in the same sentence I find it hard to imagine a better way to wake up.
It took me three attempts to leave Orbost, the first two times I took the "wrong" road, which did all the right things, however somehow lead back to Orbost. Eventually I managed to find a road out that delivered me to other roads that were the perfect combination of forest and seaside boulevards, I can only hope the folks in the cars I passed got half the joy I got out of passing through.
I found a few random places along the way in the early morning mists, one was an interesting little inlet where people were launching boats and walking dogs. Here, right on the edge of one of Victoria's pine forests (or something) the combination of freshness, the smell of sea and pine at dawn, was simply amazing.
This area was just so serene and beautiful that it gave me a somewhat callous pleasure to hit the starter button of the Exige and break the silence with a bark of exhaust.
I feel I've already over-written this silly little road-trip on the point of dawn, especially when I still have 800km of adventure ahead. People do the Melbourne-Sydney run every day and don't make a big deal, I guess the thing to ask is how many people thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
One of the things that need to be pointed out is just how great it is to drive such a machine, there are so many clichés regarding "wearing the car" and "handles like a go-kart" etc, but the next night in the pub telling a Lotus enthusiast mate about the trip I was trying to convey how it absorbs a corner.
Trying to avoid the clichés I still had to evoke the go-kart experience, that point where you are at full-tilt through a corner and the kart slips a little bit and you just instinctively correct, that's the feeling you get in the Exige, only at (slightly) higher speeds, and those corrections are more likely the result of our poor roads.
I was really quite put-off prior to driving the Lotus as to whether a regular schmuck like me could handle it. I've driven Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, etc before, but mostly modern stuff, which in comparison are soft GT tourers, but surprisingly this car is so difficult to put a foot wrong.
I didn't baby the car, James did say "use it", there were segments of 20+ minutes where it rarely went below 7000rpm, but even at full-tilt round a bouncy bend you just know you could drive this thing up the cleavage of Kate Moss.
Getting into (non-legal) trouble in the Exige S would require such a dulled sense of excitement that in order to wake up you need to inject Tabasco into your eyeballs.
I won't bother comparing the car to most others, except to say if you're driving around for a few minutes and have time to think, you start to realise the complete lunacy of what you are in, wondering how the hell they made this legal.
As for comparisons to the Elise, I've only been in a few and only as a passenger, but these times have been let's say "spirited".
On each occasion I came away rather impressed with the lateral-G's (that is to say I had to keep buying new underpants) and launch from zero, but underwhelmed by the acceleration over 60km/h or up hills, always feeling they were just not meant to go much above the speed limit.
In the Exige S, firstly it has six gears, yes six, so let's just tackle highway driving.
Leave it in sixth all you want,but say you are in a 110km/h zone and a HiAce is doing 87km/h flat out and there's a bend 300m away? No problem, this thing has enough torque to simply launch you around the mobile chicane without changing gears.
I was truly astonished by how much this car was capable of without dropping cogs, it's just really strange to drive a car that thrives at 8000rpm yet has such a strong response at 3000rpm , and I found myself dipping back to second simply for the noise!
For the spirited roads (generally indicated by a sign showing logging trucks), second gear is all you need. Most of them at rated at 80km/h but some are 100km/h, either way just leave it in second and if you need to change into third you are breaking the law. According to the handbook third redlines at about 180kph.
Fourth and fifth are wasted gears for road driving, third is nice, in fact the Exige S may as well just have first, second, third and sixth.
I have to mention I found almost no difficulties in other areas where you find hardship in Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc; there is such little overhang that the lowness of the car doesn't particularly matter, sure, you have to be mindful of spoon drains, speed-humps and the like, but there were very few times when an extra reverse move was required to get the right angle of approach to enter or exit a street.
Is this car something you can live with? Definitely.
Every day I hear people bitching about jobs they hate and relationships they tolerate, for the compromises you need to endure to experience the greatness of this vehicle I think it far outweighs the everyday comfort, especially when considering the frustrations mentioned at the start of this sentence.
One of the major shortcomings that can be overcome is the rearward visibility, I don't know why a rear-camera with screen isn't an option in this day and age, at least it's an easy aftermarket fix, the other option is to rip off the roof and install a periscope.
The bruises I have on my arms and legs because of 24 hours straight in this car would surely only cause my body to adapt and toughen up.
Either way - road-going sublime has a benchmark.