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Owner Review

2006 Lotus Exige Review

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I guess the first question to answer, dear reader, is how did I come about ownership of a Lotus Exige? Because let’s face it, very few people ever wake up one day with a Eureka moment and declare, “I’ve got it! I need a Lotus in my life!”

Let’s rewind… So I was at a stage in my life (single, AKA desperate and dateless) where I had time and money. A dodgy mate and I were discussing cars to build next and somehow we ended up building, road registering and racing GT40 replicas - as you do. Idle hands, devil’s playthings etc. That was all well and good, but then reality came along in the form of wife/kids/mortgage/I’m-an-adult-now. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Without the time and money to develop the GT40 monster further it sort of became shed-bound even more. Let’s just say it wasn’t a family friendly machine, as in kids would run crying if I so much as looked at starting it up. No really…

One day my same dodgy mate spotted a Lotus Exige S for sale, which was local to me and had a few suitable tweaks made to it already. Anyways, a month later and it’s, “Goodbye King” and, ”Hello Pretender.” I mean, where do you go for a competition-focused weekend car once you’ve had a GT40? You could go up in expense (Hello, early Gallardo), but I was trying to save money. You could go newer and more ‘normal’ (like a Mustang with a few tweaks), but I don’t do depreciation if I can help it. The criteria for the Pretender were:
1) Nearing or at the bottom of depreciation curve,
2) Light weight (less is more, like a bikini),
3) Minimal electronic interference and complication,
4) Far cheaper to purchase,
5) Affordable (I didn’t say cheap!) to run and track, plus something I could modify myself as needed without breaking the bank,
6) Sound good (which rules out turbos pretty well straight away). Though I knew nearly anything wasn’t going to sound like 8 throttle bodies behind your ears and a crossover exhaust on an angry V8.
7) Inherently fast for track/hill climb/rally sprint use. That is, I didn’t want to buy a cheap car that needed bulk $$$ spent to make it remotely quick. Why? See point 1.
8) Manual. RWD. Mid-engine would be a bonus, but of course very unlikely.

So, taking into account the above entirely reasonable list of requirements, you can now see why an Exige made sense! I like to think of it as my pathway to normality. I had a list of a few other likely contenders, but never got past the Exige to try any of them. See if you can guess a few. No prizes, sorry.

Fast forward to a bit over a year ago and the GT40 had gone and I had money in my pocket that needed burning up real quick before the wife/kids/mortgage monster ate it up whole and didn’t so much as burp. Plus it was a couple of days before Christmas and this was more my idea of Christmas shopping! Sorry kids, no Christmas this year, Daddy’s got himself a present. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve all thought it.

Exige test drive time. Well, car looked the part and the owner seemed genuine, so I was interested indeed. The thing that struck me the most about first inspection was the interior. Everything is sort of scale size, as in three-quarter scale; think Gulliver’s Travels. In photos the dash and steering wheel look compact yet normal, yet in real life they are just so small! No matter, the rest of the interior was a fantastic blend of aluminium, leather, and alcantara, trimmed in such a way that I was smitten. For instance, the tachometer compresses the 0-3000 rpm range and expands from there until 10000 rpm, race car or motorbike style. And this car had the sport pack option ticked, meaning harness bar fitted, higher strength roll hoop and harness holes in the seats, already for you to fit a proper racing harness. How thoughtful and far more use than, say, comfort access, AEB, endless cup holders and mood lighting. And, if you ever get bored, pretty much every plastic trim piece can be removed and replaced with carbon fiber should you wish to burn some cash to save negligible weight. Colin would approve, no doubt.

Now, I’m 6-foot, 1 inch (185 cm) and the Lotus is not generous internally as we have just discovered. Yet the driving position was great, and a later experience on a 1000km road trip showed the thinly padded fixed-back seats to support my back just perfectly, if not so much my trim and taut buttocks. All controls are fixed, however the driver’s seat, and only the driver’s seat, slides forward and backwards. No added weight fitting a passenger seat slider mechanism, although they do get a cool perforated aluminum footrest which is ‘secured’ via Velcro. And headroom, well there was plenty, although this is me speaking relative to previously trying to fit into one of the lowest rooflines ever made.

So we went for a drive around the 50 km/h suburban streets. Now, this is not the ideal environment in which to test drive a Lotus that was their factory built track car. First issue – backing out of the driveway. An Exige S has no internal rear-view mirror. No, another not weight saving measure, it’s just that there is an intercooler and ducting right behind the rear window. So use your side mirrors and pre-inspect behind you before jumping in. Ah, jumping in… There is no nice way to say this so I won’t try. It is by far the most painful thing to get in/out of that I have come across, including some cars with full roll cages and side intrusion bars. I understand your pain, Alborz! Quite a few people would ask to try getting into the GT40, and I would generally let them have a go and have a laugh at how it all went: awkwardly. But the Lotus is completely next level for pain and degree of difficulty, so oddly enough I don’t get so many requests for a try. Perhaps if you were, say, a 14 year old champion gymnast it would be all in a day’s work. For the rest of us, it is a day’s work! Of course, if you take the roof off, it becomes pretty well straightforward, if not normal.

Back to the test drive. So the engine was droning away disinterestedly behind my ears like the shopping trolley motor it was based on, the ride thumped and bumped and the steering wheel twitched away in my hands. A few pokes of the accelerator and it seemed to go alright, but without any take-my-breath-away shove I tend to appreciate - as I’m sure you do as well. Most intriguingly however, any flexure of the right ankle resulted in the left ear being assaulted by a banshee howl transforming to a high pitched scream as the revs rose. It fairly dominates the soundscape both inside and out. That, plus an exhaust note which step-changed from wannabe ricer racer to feral snarl at high RPM as the high lift cams came into play. Hmm, perhaps there was something behind the hype after all. A couple of flicks around a corner confirmed that the steering was something special.

I wasn’t blown away I must confess. We haggled over price, the universe and everything and went our separate ways, with me having an uneasy night wondering if I should/should not. The next day the owner rang and said that I could have it at the price I offered (his original asking price – so I guess I did want it bad!) and that was that. Driving it home in peak-hour Friday traffic across town and in the pre-Christmas heat, I was unconvinced still. But I did discover that Humphry B Bear (air) was onboard and most welcome it was. Unfortunately the little Lotus did not ascribe to the ‘seen and not heard’ style of said Humphry and drowned out the otherwise great sounding 4-speaker stereo at anything above walking pace.

After much patience testing traffic, I got to the hills on the outskirts of the city near home and took a slightly circuitous route to get there. Then the penny dropped and I knew I would sleep easy that night. It was immediately apparent that the steering was indeed pure bliss and the lightweight mid-engine nature of the car meant you just think about turning, look into the corner and it naturally just dives right in. It’s hard to describe, but I can’t see me ever finding another car with steering anything like it. There is no power steer and nor does there need to be. The brakes felt completely natural and pulled it up at road speeds with barely any effort. Unusually the brakes even worked well when cold, and the car was fitted with race brake pads (not road/race pads like I’d normally run). The gear change was a quick as could be and the engine started to become interesting. Very interesting in fact.

The engine/trans in an S2 Exige (2004 – 2010) is sourced from Toyota. Like nearly all worthy Toyota engines it’s a Yamaha developed version of a normal Toyota donk, the 1ZZ-FE, found in many a Corolla of the era. The 2ZZ-GE engine is the same capacity, however it dispenses with the normal alloy block with cast in iron cylinder liners and instead has a MMC (metal matrix composite) hard layer applied to the aluminium block. This was done by Yamaha to allow them to increase the bore and decrease the stroke. The reason this was done was to let it rev hard and free, to 8500 RPM in fact! The head is all Yamaha and basically mimics the Honda VTEC principle of separate camshaft lobes for low rpm and high rpm, along with variable cam timing on the inlet cam. Just like a Honda, when you hit the cam lobe change over point the engine note turns into pure race car and off it screams. I should note at this point the car is fitted with an aftermarket variable path muffler. The quiet setting is indeed quiet (relatively), and the loud setting allows straight-through flow and is extremely anti-social. Perfect then!

The only issue with the motor is that is lacks torque anywhere below, oh, say 6000rpm. What Yamaha/Toyota were thinking when they developed this motor, who can say? But I’m glad they did! In Australia it is found in all the last generation Celica and the rarer Corolla Sportivo. I’ve driven both and it’s underwhelming in those cars, particularly as it is rev-limited to 8000rpm, giving you about 2000 rpm to play with if you want to blow away the grandma in her plebian Corolla. In the substantially lighter 2004-2005 Exige (sub 900kg) I imagine it feels a bit more lively. In any case, Lotus decided it needed more torque still and so they developed the 2006 Exige S by fitting a roots supercharger and air/air intercooler.

Unfortunately, this is where Lotus apparently have met their time-proven conflict of great ideas vs zero money. Yamaha developed the motor as a high-rpm naturally-aspirated jobbie, with 11.5:1 compression ratio (not direct-injected mind you). So while it craved some boost (“torque fill” in the modern parlance), it was rather ill-suited to said boost. Still, nothing wrong with wanting something you know is bad for you, right? In any case, the standard Toyota-supplied fuel injectors were too small to cope with the extra fuel demands created by the modest 0.5 bar boost generated by the supercharger. So rather than changing out the fuel injectors, Lotus instead limited the amount the electronic actuated throttle would open. This resulted in a somewhat mild increase in peak power from 190 to 220 HP - not much for all the effort. But the torque increase at low and mid-range of course was the payoff.

The transmission is a 6-speed manual and has quite close ratios, if not race-car close. The other issue is that LSD was available, but only as an option. Unfortunately my car did not have that option box ticked and it is instead fitted with the then-new Lotus traction control system. This just causes the engine to misfire when exiting tight (second gear) corners under full throttle and denies you any chance of a glorious power oversteer exit. You can of course switch it off and instead get VN Commodore single wheel style burnouts on corner exit, again without the oversteer fun factor. Fitting good R compound semi-slick tyres fixes most of this issue in third gear and up at least. Indeed, Exiges came factory-fitted with such tyres.

Given the above, let’s be kind here, character foibles, and the intended purpose of the car, it’s quite rare to find an Exige that has not been ‘fettled’ (modified is far too crass a word for good Lotus folk) to enable the car to be all it can be, or again in the current vernacular, live its best life. Hence my car had been previously fitted with bigger fuel injectors, upgraded fuel pump, aforementioned free flow muffler and a tuned ECU to take advantage of it all. Thus equipped, it’s good for around 270 HP, up from 220 HP. Oh, and to let it make that power for more than a brief period, additional airflow to the above engine mounted intercooler is a must. You look at the size of the little intercooler air inlet scoop on the roof, then at the size of the intercooler it needs to feed and quickly realise that temperatures in England are not the same as here in the Antipodes. Extra air ducting from one or both of the side pods behind the doors sorts that out to a large extent, luckily done for me by previous owner.

The suspension of the Exige is pure race-car in concept and sort-of in execution. Lightweight welded tubular steel double A-arms front and rear combined with coil-over dampers is a classic club-racer level suspension layout. Apparently the standard Bilstein dampers and springs give quite a harsh ride. Mine came fitted with the very common aftermarket upgrade to Nitron adjustable dampers and some substantially higher rate springs. So I can’t comment on the ride with standard suspension, however I can advise that it is quite reasonable with the dampers adjusted to the softer end of their range. Conversely, things get a little, shall we say terse, when you adjust them the other way, on the road at least. You do have to lie down and reach under the car to adjust the dampers, so it’s a decision you should make before you go the opera on a wet night wearing your best tuxedo. Oh, you wouldn’t take the Lotus to such an occasion? I see…not a real Lotus owner then.

Which leads us to the point of, what is an Exige good for and who in their right mind would buy one? Clearly, I’m not in my right mind and congratulations/commiserations if you’ve made it thus far, dear reader. But so far as fitting the criteria above for my rather, um, special set of circumstances, I cannot think of a better tool for the job. As to what an Exige is good for? Well, it does a lot of things far worse than pretty much any modern car will do. But it does things that almost no other car can match. It’s exotic yet prosaic, marrying a light and stiff-bonded aluminium chassis with a Toyota supplied driveline. It has mini Le Mans racer looks, yet has a fiberglass body that can be removed and repaired/replaced if needed. It’s relatively economical to buy and run, yet very, very quick and easy to fettle for even more speed in competition use. It’s easy to drive (even my wife doesn’t mind driving it), yet it drives like no other. It is analogue in a digital world. That does not mean old-fashioned by the way, as we humans are analogue, so it means there is less to lose in translation from machine to us. Everyone should drive one at least once, and not die wondering what a car could feel like if it were unshackled. To sum it up in a single word (hooray you say), I will steal a number plate I saw fitted to a S3 Exige. LOTSAFUN.