It looks like a slightly more colourful Exige - what's the story?
This is the Exige 265E - the fastest ever Exige and the first bio-ethanol Lotus. The digits 265 denote the 265PS power output, or 261bhp in old money – up 46bhp over the standard car. The 'E' informs people that this car runs on ethanol, alcohol made from the fermentation of crops, mixed with petrol. Using this greener fuel results in a claimed 70 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The Exige 265E is a development prototype created by Lotus Engineering, the Norfolk firm's fiendishly clever consultancy arm. In only five weeks between July and August 2006, its engineers completely re-engineered the Toyota engine powering the standard Exige S to run on the wheat-derived fuel. The result is the fastest road-legal bio-ethanol car (and the fastest Exige) ever built. Performance is sensational - 0-60mph flashes up in only 3.88 seconds before running out of puff at a mind bending 158mph. Who says being green is boring?
Slow down future boy! Surely this is the stuff of 2060 - not 2006...
Far from it. The technology to make all this possible is remarkably low-tech. The basic aluminium block (built for Toyota by Yamaha) is exactly the same as that fitted to the Exige S. The supercharger and intercooler combination is tweaked slightly to cope with the increase in power and the ECU has been remapped for the new fuel mix. These tweaks do nothing to make the Exige faster, the extra power is entirely down to the fuel. Ethanol burns more efficiently than conventional petrol thanks to the extra oxygen atom attached to the ethanol alcohol molecule in its makeup. In English this means the combustion process is more effective and more power can be produced.
Brilliant! So why aren't we all driving them?
You and I are the main hurdle. Buyers are only going to opt for the new fuel, sold as E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent petrol), if it's both readily available and substantially cheaper than conventional petrol or diesel. For this to happen the government needs to truly commit to the fuel and encourage the creation of a bio-ethanol fuel station network. Currently the Morrisons Group is the only major supplier of the fuel with pumps dotted around Norfolk and Somerset. The technology needs to be proven too. For Lotus this means a substantial investment in testing and productionising the new, higher-output ethanol-powered engine. For now, Lotus claims it won't take the project further, but its manufacturer clients surely will. And surely a green Lotus would then follow...
So what’s it like to drive?
As you'd expect it's utterly insane but - like the standard car - very useable. The Exige weighs only 930kg. There's no build up, no gradual gathering of speed - the performance is instant and borderline vicious. Your neck snaps back as the supercharger kicks in to take the engine right up to the 8200rpm redline. Combined with a slick, precise six-speed gearbox and limpet-like grip, the Exige is a devastating point to point machine. The performance is incredibly easy to exploit thanks to an extra dollop of torque supplied by the ethanol fuel - much more so than the standard car. Floor the accelerator in any gear and the Exige punches hard and simply never lets up. As with any other Exige the 265E is easy to drive - the steering's heavy but precise, the brakes possess serious bite and the damping is near perfectly judged to offer both comfort and control. It might be noisy and difficult to get into but there are few cars - at any price - that offer a better driving experience down a twisty road.
What's the flipside of ethanol?
Apart from the obvious lack of ethanol stations in the UK there are more fundamental problems. Ethanol has less stored energy per unit volume than traditional gasoline. This means economy suffers and you need to stop more often for fuel. And that reduced inefficicency means more CO2 emissions. The reason Lotus claims a 70 percent reduction is because the crops extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before they are turned into fuel, creating a net saving in overall emissions. Lotus hopes to convert the Exige 265E test car to be able to run on conventional petrol, bio-methanol or bio-butanol depending on availability.
The Exige 265E is quicker than a Ferrari F430 yet produces less CO2 than a Ford Focus. With it, Lotus has injected some glamour and excitement into the alternative fuels debate, but what enthusiasts need is a production car that's an alternative to the worthy Toyota Prius. Hopefully the government and fuel suppliers will totally embrace biofuels, kick-starting demand and making thrilling green cars like the Exige 265E a commercial reality.