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648 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
April 04, 2004

Jeremy Clarkson

If you see one, get out of its way ... this is anarchy in the UK
Lotus Exige

I am growing bored with the Mitsubishi Evo. It may be the fastest road car money can buy, the cream of all things automotive in the Milky Way, and the great and wonderful grandson of the formidable Audi quattro, but we’ve had enough now, thanks.
Pretty well every day a new version comes along which is claimed by those of a downloading disposition to be better than the one before. But do you know what? It’s just more of the same. Brilliant, but you tire eventually of lobster thermidor, especially if you’re given it for breakfast.

I don’t doubt that each tweak of the dampers and each fettle of the differentials makes life a shade faster on the world’s rally stages, but shaving half a second off a 20-mile flat-out run through the Corsican hinterland is simply not noticeable when you’re popping out to buy some Rawlplugs.

I tried the Evo VIII FQ300 last week and, as expected, it offered up scramjet performance within the world of internal combustion. But then I could have said pretty much the same of the normal VIII which in turn felt about the same as the VII, the VI and even the V.

I could say the same of the Subaru Impreza. Every month we read in the car magazines of another new version. We’ve had the RB5, the PPP and the STi, and now we have the WRX STi Type RA Spec C Ltd. Why would anyone buy a car like that? To impress girls? I think not. So it must be to impress other men. I suppose this is logical: because as the car’s power goes backwards and forwards, you end up that way inclined too.

What’s happened here is what happened to the world of rock’n’roll in the mid-1970s. Bands like Genesis and Yes started fiddling with simple concepts until they ended up with songs that lasted two weeks, presented in Roger Dean album covers with 42 gatefolds.

I liked Seconds Out and Fragile. But you need to take a deep breath before admitting to this kind of thing in public. And it’s the same story with the Evo VIII and a specced-up Subaru. They have become “progressive rock” cars. Lots of smoke and light and noise and an auditorium full of really, really ugly men who have told their wives and friends they’re working late.

What’s needed is a dose of punk, a retaliation to the clever-clogs synthesizer and the technically amazing half-hour drum solo. What’s needed is something small, tight and angry. What’s needed is the Lotus Exige.

This is a car that has no active yaw control and no active diff. It has no turbocharger and does not need to be told what sort of road it’s on before setting off. If the Evo VIII, with its spray-jet intercooler, is Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, then the Exige is a spitting, strutting Sex Pistol.

It costs £30,000, which — give or take — means it’s about the same as the Japanese toys, although you do get rather less for your money. For a start, there are no back doors, no back seats and, while there’s a boot, it’s really only big enough for an overnight bag.

Other things you don’t get are air-conditioning, electric windows, carpets, airbags, traction control, satellite navigation . . . even sun visors. Yes, just about everything is an extra-cost option.

To understand this car, we need a bit of history. Lotus has enjoyed many years of success with its little Elise, but in the past 18 months or so sales have fallen sharply. This is partly due to the Vauxhall VX220, which is the same car built in the same factory but is faster and better value. And partly it’s because the Elise had become a bit yellow around the teeth.

Lotus decided that to keep the factory busy it would start to sell cars in America, but sadly the Rover K-series engine doesn’t meet US legislation: apparently it smokes too much and likes a drink at lunchtime.

So Lotus decided to fit Toyota’s 1.8. This is a teetotaller that lives in a gated community, stands up for the national anthem and cries in public. It’s also a bloody good engine, with two camshafts — one for economy and then, after a little step at 5000rpm, another for power. Nice.

For some extraordinary reason, Lotus decided to keep going with the old Rover-engined cars here in Britain, and to make them more appealing lopped £2,000 off the price. This went down well with my wife, who bought a 111S at the old price last year. “The ******* ********,” she said. Anyway, the Toyota engine worked so well in the Elise they decided to do a hard-top, hardcore version, and thus the Exige was born. If you see one, here’s a tip: get out of its way.

Yes, the Toyota engine may produce only 189bhp, which is about the same as you get from your Aga, but because it has no sun visors and no active yaw control it weighs less than a microwave oven. Put it like this: when Genesis went on tour they needed 16 pantechnicons and a football stadium. With an Exige, you simply rock up and play.

Getting to the playground, however, can be unnerving. Because it’s so tiny you feel dwarfed, even by people in Peugeots. After a day in London I developed small-man syndrome, squealing away from the lights and cutting people up just to assert myself.

There are other problems with the size, too. Getting in, for instance, is not something that can be achieved with any dignity. Nor should it be attempted in a skirt. But once you’re there, and you have your breath back, it’s more spacious than you might imagine.

Better still, it’s quite comfy. I was expecting a completely solid suspension setup, but actually it’s fairly soft, bumping over potholes with a jar that’s noticeable rather than back-breaking. Don’t be fooled, though. Don’t think it’s all pose and no go, because — trust me on this — you can bring whatever you like to the party, a Ferrari, a Lambo, an Evo . . . anything, and the Exige will leave you gasping and bewildered in its wake. You simply will not believe how fast this car goes.

Part of the secret is downforce. Pretty well all cars rise up on their suspension as the speed increases, but the Exige, with its low, bumper-snapping front, its flat floor and that big spoiler on the back, generates F1-style downforce. In other words, the faster you go, the heavier it becomes. By the time you’re up to 100mph it’s like you have a baby elephant sitting on the roof, pressing the tyres into the road.

Ah yes, those tyres. These are the real jewels in the armoury. Specially made for Lotus, they’re as slick as the law allows. I’m told they can be used when it’s raining, but I would advise extreme caution. Hold back, wait till it dries up and then you will absolutely not believe the treat they have in store.

It’s not so much the grip, which is prodigious, but the feel they provide when that grip is exceeded. You can sense the precise moment when they’re about to let go, and you know exactly what to do about it. I have never driven a car which goes through corners as well as this one. Never.

At a stroke it makes the Elise feel like Bambi on that frozen lake, and any Italian supercar like a heffalump. It’s as if you’re driving a housefly: the agility and sheer ability to get out of harm’s way beggar belief.

It’s no slouch in a straight line either, getting from 0-60mph in 4.9sec and hammering along till it’s gone past 140mph. By which time, I should imagine, it weighs more than the Flying Scotsman.

I want to give it five stars. As a driving experience it warrants about 47. I’m only held back by the price, which is steep, the looks, which are odd, and the noise, which is just that.

It can have four stars, though, and it can be content in the knowledge that it has swept away a tidal wave of excess weight and over-complication. It has brought a bit of anarchy to the UK.


Model: Lotus Exige S2
Engine type: Four-cylinder, 1796cc
Power: 189bhp @ 7800rpm
Torque: 133 lb ft @ 6800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: Independent double wishbone with coil springs over monotube dampers
Tyres: (front) 195/50 R16 (rear) 225/45 R 17
Fuel: 32.1mpg (combined)
Top speed: 147mph
Acceleration: 0-60mph: 4.9sec
Weight: 875kg
Price: £29,995
Insurance: Group 20
Verdict: A breath of fresh air

1,579 Posts
Cool review! Thanks for posting it.

I know that this was discussed in a previous thread, but I'm not sure if there was a clear answer: How does the Exige suspension compares to an Elise with LSS?

25,205 Posts
thanks 4 the post, tony!


340 Posts
I have never driven a car which goes through corners as well as this one. Never.

Ahhh...The Reason.

If anyone asks you any kind of question about reasoning (why so small, why so expensive, why can't I get into the passenger seat...), that's The Reason.

5,607 Posts

He speaks of the Elise as if its low powered, rather boring and a shame that the Rover motor wasnt US legal ( unless hes putting tongue in cheek) and handles like "bambi on ice" comparatively...but when he's reviewed the Elise he talks about it like its the greatest thing since sliced bread.

2,566 Posts
Wow, that's a great article. I wonder if Clarkson actually writes these himself.

One of the better car write-ups I've seen. :)

2,344 Posts
Anyone have a baby elephant I can borrow for a few days to add a little downforce to my current ride? It really sounds like that baby elephant makes all the difference!


4,253 Posts
James A said:
I will have a bordeaux red Elise for sale when the Exige comes in!
Keep em both! One for the track and the other... well for when you can't sleep at night and want to go up some random mountain like a bat out of hell! :D

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