Recently, we headed East over to Lotus in Norfolk, for a factory tour and a go in their Exige line up.
The small English sports car maker builds around 2,000 cars a year, pretty much all by hand!
On a tour of the factory we saw the cars take shape, starting from a box of parts and a bare aluminium chassis to the fully formed vehicle.
Body panels are made in France and shipped in, engines are specially built by Toyota and they all come together in the English built Elise, Exige and Evora.
It’s fascinating to hear the stories of the workers, most are Lotus men for life and have been working for the company since the age of 16 as apprentices. One man has even put in a 40 year stint!
After the factory tour we had the opportunity to take out an Exige S on road and track.
The first car we took out was the Exige S Roadster, a topless variant of the Exige S Coupe. In fact the Exige S coupe can also become topless, but due to the added aerodynamic touches it isn’t recommended!
Stepping over the large sill and slinking into the seat the Exige S just fits you, everything is close to hand and you feel enveloped – like a cog in a machine.
Quilted stitched leather gives it a premium luxury feel, the simple dash is a pure driver’s delight, back to basics but no more than you need.
The throttle is precise and the clutch heavy, more race car than road car. Steering has no assistance, so gives it a superbly connected sensation.
You really can feel every dip, crest and stone beneath those front wheels – in a day and age where every vehicle has varying degrees of power steering, it makes you wonder if the future is truly better.
Ride is surprisingly supple, whilst being firm it’s not crashy nor harsh. Well damped with little rebound, it follows the contours of the road perfectly.
Acceleration is blisteringly fast, gear changes are short and accurate with a wonderful roar coming from that 3.5 litre supercharged engine right behind your back.
Nail the throttle at any speed and you are shoved forward into the horizon. 0-60 takes just 3.8 seconds.
Braking is slightly assisted but gives a really nice progressive feel, you do have the luxury of ABS and a very trick ESP system…more on that later.
On the road the Exige S Roadster is superb, a real drivers car with immense power and awesome looks to match…but what about the Exige S? And what about a race track?
Pulling back into Lotus we parked up next to our second vehicle of the day, the Exige S Coupe. This was fitted with a Race Pack giving it stickier Pirelli Trofeo tyres and firmer suspension.
The external aero differences are very noticeable, a deep front and rear splitter pull the Exige S into the ground even more ferociously than on the Roadster.
Lotus have their own test track at Hethel, we had it to ourselves for a whole hour in this 350 HP beast.
After a few sighting laps I pulled my belt tighter and went for it.
The speed once again is excellent, as the engine revs to 7,000 the aural delight grows, along with your smile. The concentration builds along with your speed, along with your confidence.
Now, the co developed Bosch Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) system is amazing. In our Exige S we had the choice of three modes, Tour, Sport and Race.
Starting off in Tour mode you can push into a corner, and unlike most ESP systems that just kill the power straight away this setting just reigns you in a little, you still get power, but maybe 70% of what you are normally allowed. This means that you can still accelerate out, and you still have throttle control to get the car back into shape. Engine speed is also limited to 6800 RPM.
Stepping up to Sport mode and you feel the system let go somewhat, now you can fully get the rear end out into a corner. It lets you slide and be a hooligan, but if you get it too wrong, and slide just a bit too much it cuts in and saves your arse! You also get the full 7200 RPM rev range to play with.
To enter Race mode (unique to the Race Pack) you have to hold the dial over toward the chequered flag until it engages. This is by far THE most astonishing setting. In Race mode your torque and wheel slip are managed for you, and understeer is ignored.
Simply put, you nail the throttle wherever possible and just steer. Through a set of chicanes on the Lotus test track I was dabbing the brakes between them to set me up for the next corner…in Race mode you pin the throttle and steer. The system takes care of any tyre scrubbing and plants all of its available power to the wheel that has best grip.
It allows you to do mind boggling things, things I wouldn’t have the confidence to do normally…in fact I had to be egged on by Darren the Lotus ride and handling guru.
On tests over numerous European racing circuits, with professional drivers they have found that by having the system on lap time’s drop by half a second. I can vouch for that!
Over the hour long session the brakes were superb, no fade and plenty of bite right to the end.
The only thing that I would gripe about were the seats, although they are fine for the road they need to be far deeper and hugging for track action.
It would be good for Lotus to offer the seats used in their stripped out Cup cars as an option, just to give you more lateral support rather than bracing yourself against the interior.
The Exige S is a great platform, whether it’s the open topped Roadster, or the more race bred Coupe they both give phenomenal handling with plenty of power.
At £54,900 (with the £2k Race Pack) it is a pricey track car. However it will be equally happy getting you to and from the track, and whilst there it will most likely be able to lap it quicker than any other road car!
It’s in the same league as the Caterham Superlight and Aerial Atom, but for an everyday useable perspective the Exige S makes far more all-round sense.
Lotus Exige S – Rapid, ace track car, needs better seats, stunning DPM system!
Owner / Editor of Carwitter – French car fiend, hot hatch lover. Follow @car_witter