Lotus stopped building the four-cylinder Exige a little while back, but the name returns with this, the new 2012 Exige S. It uses the old Exige’s basic tub and centre section, but combines it with new front bodywork and – the big news – a supercharged V6 from the Evora S that’s shrouded in all-new rear bodywork.
What does the V6 do to the Exige’s less-is-more ethos?
Well, the stats are significantly altered: the old Exige’s length/width/height in mm was 3797/1727/1159mm, where the new car measures 4052/1802/1153mm. There’s also an extra 70mm in the wheelbase. Naturally, these increases all help pile on the pounds, so the kerbweight hikes from 928kg to 1176kg.
Despite all this, the power-to-weight ratio is very similar, the old Exige S2 mustering 288bhp-per-tonne, this new Exige S countering with 294bhp. However, the real gains come with the torque-to-weight figures, thanks to that muscular supercharged V6: 192lb ft-per-tonne becomes 251lb ft-per-tonne.
What are the key changes under the skin of the 2012 Exige S?
There’s a faster steering rack, dropping the ratio from 18.5:1 to 17.25:1. The rack isn’t new, the ratio change instead coming from a shorter effective lever ratio. Combined with a wider front track, this has also created more steering lock, making it easier to hold powerslides. Now, this sounds childish, but it’s actually very important, because the old car ran out of steering angle perilously close to the point at which you naturally balanced the car during a slide, namely 32 degrees. This now rises to 35 degrees, reducing the potential of hitting the lockstops and thereby reducing the risk of the car spinning. You can genuinely feel the flexibility this brings when you play around on a racetrack.
There’s also a wider rear track, an entirely new rear subframe, plus revised springs and dampers all round. Meanwhile, Lotus has built an anti-squat angle into the suspension wishbone, helping to prevent, yes, squat under acceleration, and the lateral stiffness of the rear of the Exige increases by 100%, ensuring the car rolls along its centre-line through corners, where the old Exige could roll diagonally as the structure flexed. All this creates a virtuous circle. ‘Previously all the roll control was done by the springs and dampers,’ says chassis guru Matt Becker, ‘so they were stiffer than we’d have liked. And the extra lateral stiffness has allowed us to introduce an anti-roll bar. The old car wouldn’t have coped with the faster steering and the anti-roll bar – the rear axle would have always given up first.’
What’s the new Lotus Exige S like to drive on the road?
It’s fantastic. The unassisted steering is very heavy at parking speeds, but it lightens up on the go, at which point you really come to appreciate it: the small rim tingles and jiggles in the palms of your hand, delicately feeding back the light buzz of the tyres interacting with the road surface. The Exige darts eagerly left and right, with no slop whatsoever in the steering. As you’d expect from the most hardcore car Lotus currently makes, it’s a very connected, very visceral drive.
The 3.5-litre V6 is incredibly strong, serving up huge performance right across the rev range. Our car got the optional sports suspension (£2k) and extra-sticky Pirelli Trofeo tyres (£800 for 205/45 R17 front and 265/30 R18 rear rubber), which could explain why – despite all of the V6’s wallop – traction was never an issue on the road. Whether there’ll be more Evora-like playfulness with the standard set-up remains to be seen.
The ride and handling are superb. The Exige always feels like it’s in intimate contact with the road surface, but it’s never nervous, never locks onto cambers and pulls you around like, for instance, the last-gen 911 could. It’s also impressively compliant for such a sporting car, the suspension always keeping the body in check but never feeling spiky.
And how about on the track?
This is where you need to be to really feel the Exige’s chassis working, and it’s a very sweetly balanced thing. Be too ambitious on entry to a corner and its natural default is to push the nose wide and scrub off speed. Have a half-hearted attempt at going sideways and you’ll feel the unloaded rear wheel spinning up – Becker admits this car is right on the limit of needing a limited slip diff, but dislikes the steering corruption inherent with them – and the car sometimes clumsily straightening up as the tyre regains traction. No, it’s better to either stay neat and tidy, or to give the Exige a very aggressive flick into the corner to get the car really sliding. Either way, it’s great fun.
The brakes felt very strong, the pedals nicely spaced, but you need a good solid pull on the lever to bring home a gear change – a slicker shift would be welcome.
Anything else to report about the Exige S?
The Exige S is the first Lotus to use a Ferrari-style manettino, a small dial to the right of the steering that adjusts throttle response, engine sound, rev limit and, most importantly, chassis nuances. There are four settings: Tour, Sport, Race and Off. It works brilliantly. Tour subtly and steadfastly kills the Exige’s tendency to understeer through slower corners, without the sense of power-cutting frustration that traction-control intervention often engenders. Sport is what Lotus calls ‘the fun mode’: it allows you to play around with the chassis much more, while still having a safety net. The real brilliance is saved for Race. This mode constantly calculates and adapts itself to the maximum available traction, giving you the perfect balance between grip and slip for a mega laptime. It’s probably the least intrusive system I’ve ever tried – Ferrari 599 GTO included – and works with incredible subtly. Even Lotus gurus such as Becker are faster with the software switched on. Finally there’s off, at which point you’re on your own.
The new 2012 Lotus Exige S might be something of a parts-bin special, but it’s also the best car that Lotus currently makes: far faster than the Elise, far more connected than the Evora, it’s a breathtakingly special thing to drive. The chassis is exceptionally satisfying, the performance endlessly strong and its price slots it right into that sweet spot once occupied by the Noble M400. If an Evora’s price and abilities still have you craving something from Stuttgart, and if you want something hardcore but can’t bring yourself to daily-drive a Caterham, try the Exige S before you sign on the dotted line. You will, I guarantee, be smitten.