Lotus Exige 1.8i 2dr
Test Date 22 June 2004
Price when new £29,995
The original Elise, the car that saved Lotus, appeared nine years ago, but the story of the Exige really begins in 1999 with the launch of the Sport Elise, a one-make racecar featuring aggressive aero bodywork and a centrally-mounted driver’s seat. Lotus claimed a roadgoing version would never be made but within the year, the Exige had been born.
And this was no pale imitation of the race car; the functional roof scoop directed cool air to the alternator, and the numerous aerodynamic aids added 80kg of downforce at 100mph. Series one Exige production finished in 2001.
Raw and uncompromising on road and track, the original Exige was closer in spirit to the Sport Elise competition car that sired it than the contemporary roadgoing Elise. Hard, noisy and capable of providing an unparalleled adrenalin rush, it was more at home on a circuit than the daily commute.
Now, after a two-year absence, the Exige has returned, but it’s very different to the original. A new face fronts more subdued bodywork, and there’s a new engine and ’box shared with the Elise 111R. And that’s not all that’s shared with the Elise. Refinement has obviously been a buzzword during Exige development, and the appearance of air-con, carpets and anti-lock brakes makes it clear that Lotus is keen to expand the car’s appeal.
Gone are the muscular flared arches and radical rear wing of the group-C lookalike original. Instead, the latest car makes do with a narrow rear clamshell and flimsy-looking tail spoiler. Still, Lotus claims the combination of front splitter, rear wing, flat undertray and rear diffuser is enough to generate 41.2kg of downforce at over 100mph, which should help separate the Exige from the Elise on the track, if not on the road.
Roof now set, restricting access to the cabin
The bespoke Yokohama A048 tyres and Lotus Sport springs and dampers scream track day, but the now servo-assisted and anti-lock-equipped brakes are a welcome addition for road use.
Beneath the mesh-covered rear lid lies not the old car’s K-series lump, but the same Toyota twin-cam found in the Elise 111R. Where Exige Mk1 used lumpy cams to generate its 177bhp (or 190bhp if you opted for the VHPD version), the new unit is all sophistication: variable for both valve timing and lift, and fitted with a bespoke Lotus engine management system, it produces 189bhp at 7800rpm from just 1796cc, but only 133lb ft at a stratospheric 6800rpm. Such characteristics, and a kerbweight that has climbed 90kg over the original to 875kg, make the need for closer gear ratios essential.
The Exige’s performance figures were never going to throw up any surprises. The Exige just squeezes ahead of the 111R, scorching to 60mph in 4.9sec (Elise 5.1sec) and to the ton in an identical 13.0sec.
Like the original, it needs revs to really perform, only truly coming alive after the change in cam phasing at 6200rpm. At a sane pace on the road, there’s sufficient torque to make accessing this extra top-end urge an option rather than a necessity, but around a circuit it’s hard to stop the rev-counter needle occasionally falling out of the action zone.
Thankfully, the gearshift itself is now slick, positive and a delight to use. The only thing marring matters is the brake pedal action. Like the 111R’s, it feels too soft and travels too far, making heel and toe downchanges difficult.
Beyond the limits of the old Exige’s tyres lay a dangerous place. The great news for drivers who don’t line up behind Schumacher on a Sunday is just how much more friendly the Exige has become. Spring and damper tuning can take a great deal of credit, but some of the success must lie with the new A048 Yokohama tyres. They offer a far more progressive breakaway than the old car’s A039s, allowing the driver to take liberties without fear of reproach.
The steering remains utterly magical, and with some heat in the boots and its aerodynamic mods, the Exige is capable of carrying so much speed through corners you’ll soon be begging for extra power.
On the road, the tighter body control and greater front-end bite work wonderfully on smooth or flowing surfaces, making it near uncatchable on most A- or B-roads, but on particularly rough stretches you can find yourself longing for the extra compliance of the 111R. For road use and the occasional track day an Elise offers all the precision, grip and poise you could ask for while still remaining civil; track day addicts will appreciate the Exige’s extra ability, but must be prepared to make some compromises.
Regardless of the changes wrought on the new Exige, you simply don’t buy one with comfort and refinement in mind. Without the option of removing the roof, accessing the cabin is always going to be tricky, but at least the furniture inside is a bit more inviting this time around. The Elise Mk2-derived dash is a world away from the cheap-looking original, and the optional Touring pack (£1795) adds electric windows (difficult to operate due to awkward switch positioning), full carpeting and a Blaupunkt stereo to make the cabin feel as civilised as any Elise’s. There’s even a trimmed luggage compartment behind the engine.
You can actually hear the radio this time, too, but that’s not to suggest the Exige is a particularly pleasant long distance companion. The short gearing and minimal sound insulation see to that. And though it might sound like heresy, such is the build up of heat in warm weather that, unless you can’t stand the thought of the extra weight it will add, the optional and highly-effective air conditioning becomes a very good idea.
At £29,995, the Exige isn’t cheap, but then its nearest rival is probably a £48k Noble M12. There’s a £2000 premium over the mechanically similar 111R, and air conditioning adds £1295 and forged wheels £1175. Lotus claims the same 32.1mpg as for the 111R on the combined cycle (we managed 23.8mpg overall), and an identical group 20 insurance rating will mean stiff premiums for many drivers.
It would be easy to criticise this new, more civilised Exige for sending out mixed messages. Without the visual and aural drama of its predecessor, it lacks appeal. But the cabin is still too noisy, and the ride too uncompromising, for us to recommend it over the far more habitable 111R to those who will spend little time on track. Yet it is entirely feasible to imagine using the Exige day-to-day if you were prepared to make some sacrifices, and the return for those who take their track days seriously is enormous. If you still want something more in the character of the original Exige, we say watch this space. A more hardcore version may be on the way.