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Edmunds: European First Drive: 2006 Lotus Exige S

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Driving the quickest factory Lotus ever, on road and track

By Alistair Weaver

Date posted: 03-20-2006

A motoring journalist is nothing if not cynical. Every day we are peppered with press releases explaining that the latest sedan is the "greatest," "fastest," "safest" or "most beautiful" car that this "legendary" manufacturer has ever produced. If you think real estate agents tell the best fibs, you've never read an automotive press release.

Lotus might be a tiny player on the world stage, but its PR department is far from reticent. The new-for-2006 Exige S, we are reliably informed, is "the fastest accelerating Lotus ever to come off the production line" and delivers "breathtaking performance." For a company whose fortunes bounce up and down like a Baywatch babe, these are bold claims indeed.

Thankfully, we've been given an opportunity to test their validity. The Silverstone circuit hosts the British Grand Prix each year and is situated in some of England's most green and pleasant lands. We'll be spending a day driving the car, first on the road and then on the track. If there is truth in Lotus' claims, we'll find it here.

Subtle it ain't

Lotus' marketing types self-consciously describe the Exige as the company's most focused road car. This is the chariot for those who like their curries hot — if the standard Exige is a fiery vindaloo, the supercharged "S" is a phaal — the hottest there is — with extra chili.

The aesthetics declare the S's intent in brutal fashion. The cutesy, cartoonlike curves of the Elise roadster have been given a sharper edge by the addition of a roof and a dramatic 11.5-degree rear wing. The S differs only slightly from the normal Exige. An "S" moniker adorns the front fenders, while the scoops and spoilers are finished in body color instead of black. Our test car was also differentiated by forged black alloy wheels, which reduce the unsprung mass by 12 pounds at the front and 5.6 pounds at the rear. They form part of a Super Sports pack, which also includes an adjustable front antiroll bar and adjustable Bilstein shock absorbers…more of that later.

If you think the Exige looks like a GT racer, then the impression is deliberate — this car has already spawned a 285-horsepower racer and Lotus plans to enter the FIA European GT3 category next year. Don't be surprised to see an Exige competing at Le Mans sometime soon.

Compromised, it is

If you want an everyday Lotus, hold fire for the forthcoming Europa S or, better still, the replacement for the Esprit. The Exige boasts comfortable seats and can be supplied with carpet, a stereo, air conditioning and even (God forbid) a cupholder, but don't think for a moment that it's a sensible proposition.

Getting in and out requires the kind of dexterity for which gymnasts are renowned. It's tricky for a guy and can be downright indecent for a girl. Those who perfect the art are greeted by a cozy cabin that feels well screwed together, but the emphasis is still on weight-saving simplicity. The introduction of a supercharger has also completely obliterated the rear view. Backing up is a leap of faith, and the rearview mirror does nothing more than mask the windshield.

Trunk space is also best described as minimalist — there's just about room for an overnight bag, but only if you pack briefs instead of boxers.

The important bit

The familiar Toyota-sourced 1,796cc four-cylinder VVTL-I engine used in the standard Elise and Exige has been fitted with a Roots-type supercharger and an air-to-air intercooler, which is fed through a roof scoop. According to figures released in Europe, power has risen from 189 hp to 218 hp at 7,800 rpm, while torque rises by 26 pound-feet to 159 lb-ft at 5,500 rpm. The rev limit is set at 8,000 rpm, although for maximum acceleration, this is increased to 8,500 rpm for a 2-second burst.

The true significance of these figures is revealed only when they are related to the car's mass. The Exige is a flyweight 2,061 pounds, so the all-important power-to-weight ratio is a mere 9.5 pounds/hp.

That makes the Exige S, by any reckoning, a ferociously rapid car. Helped by the excellent traction, Lotus claims 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds and 0-100 mph in 9.8 seconds, which puts it in the upper echelons of the supercar league. Top speed — which is more dependent on brute horsepower — is 148 mph.

No less impressive than the raw speed is the nature of the power delivery. Lotus has developed its own engine-management system which all but eliminates the 1.8's historic peakiness. It pulls easily from 2,000 rpm — when 80 percent of the torque is available — all the way to the lofty rev limiter. This engine really brings the Exige alive; it genuinely feels much quicker than the standard car.

The twisty bit

The basic Exige S shares its suspension settings with the standard Exige, but our test car was fitted with the Super Sport option package, which includes Bilstein shocks, adjustable for road or track.

Lotus' chassis guru and ace test driver Matthew Becker reckons that the Super Sport package will appeal to hard-core enthusiasts: "It's allowed us to combine a slightly softer, more comfortable tune for the road with a more focused, track-biased solution."

Any concerns that the Exige chassis can't handle the extra thrust can quickly be allayed. A 38/62-percent (front/rear) weight distribution and ultrafocused Yokohama Advan tires — 195/50 R16 at the front and 225/45 R17 at the rear— provide plentiful traction. In the dry, at least, there's so much grip that the optional traction control system feels superfluous.

In the best Lotus tradition, the ride quality is superb. The Exige simply absorbs and dispatches surface imperfections that would trouble some so-called luxury cars. It rarely feels nervous and inspires huge confidence, even at speeds that some might describe as silly.

This is surely one of the most tactile cars on the road. The unassisted steering communicates the finest details of the road surface and grip levels. The six-speed, Toyota-sourced manual gearbox snicks merrily from cog to cog, and the ratios are well spaced. The twin-piston front brake calipers are by AP Racing, while the single-piston units at the back are by Brembo. Both grip the 11.1-inch cross-drilled discs with reassuring alacrity.

Driving the car in both road and track settings highlighted the benefit of the adjustable dampers. It's not unduly soft in road mode, nor is it exceptionally stiff in track mode, but its responses are noticeably sharper. This is a car that will flatter the experienced — there's plenty of throttle adjustability and it will drift on demand if you know what you're doing — but will not frighten the amateur. The original Elise was tricky to handle at the limit, but this car is much more predictable. And it's ultimately better for it.

The depressing bit

Here's the bad news: There are no immediate plans to bring this car to the U.S. Lotus reckons that the re-engineering needed to meet U.S. emissions regulations and cope with the poor-quality fuel would be prohibitively expensive. The company only expects to sell 300-350 standard Exiges each year on American shores, so it can't make a business case for the S.

In the rest of the world, by contrast, Lotus expects the S to outsell the standard car. "The Exige is already an extreme car," says Becker, "so enthusiasts will naturally be drawn to the more extreme version." In the U.K., the S costs £33,995 (about $60,171). For £29,995 ($53,091), the Exige is certainly a car for hard-core nutter enthusiasts, but those who can stomach its compromises will love the Exige S.

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Link: http://www.edmunds.com/insideline/do/Featu...rticleId=109667

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