There is a corner at the infamous Nürburgring that sets the Lotus Exige apart from just about every other car on the road, the Lotus Elise included. It's toward the beginning of the 13-mile lap and as you approach it, you cannot help but wrap your fingers ever tighter around the thick black steering wheel. For you know that not only is the approach to the ultrafast double-apex right-hander completely blind but also that, for a sizable chunk of the time you'd usually be thinking about slowing a normal car and positioning it on the track, you're going to be in the air.
With a 190-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine pushing barely 2,000 pounds of Lotus, by the time the car reaches the take-off point your speed is well into three figures, stick wedged in fourth gear, revs right in the thick of the shrieking 16-valve Toyota engine's power band. In almost any other car, what would happen next is you'd fly for bit, land, hit the brakes, pray you've shed enough speed, and turn the wheel. But in the Exige you don't even move your right foot — not even for a second. And for some reason the car doesn't leave the ground. It simply continues to gather speed as the turn-in point approaches. But you don't bother to brake or even lift your foot. Flat out, you turn the suede-rimmed wheel and instead of slithering, sliding and inducing heart failure, it simply flicks instantly onto your new line like a cruise missile with a fresh set of coordinates. And then the word comes into your head: Downforce.
When road car manufacturers boast that their machines are aerodynamically configured to provide downforce, what almost all actually mean is that their various wings and spoilers merely reduce lift. Actual, proper, positive downforce — where the car effectively becomes heavier the faster it goes — is all but unheard of outside the world of racecar engineering. But the Exige has it, enough to add the weight of a person sitting on the roof at 100 mph. And now, at last, the Lotus Exige is coming to the U.S. to join its soft-top sister, the Elise, launched in July last year.
America, says Lotus, has taken the Elise to its heart. In the first year after its introduction, over 2,500 of the lightweight British sports cars were delivered, against a sales forecast of around 2,000. Early in the New Year, it will be the no-bigger-but-definitely-badder Exige's turn to take up the running.
As you might expect, the Exige is based heavily on the Elise's innovative bonded-aluminium monocoque, but if the Elise can be described as a road car that feels at home on the track, the Exige is a road-legal track car — just about civilized enough to make the journey to the track bearable, quick and agile enough to make time spent on the circuit simply unforgettable.
So don't think of it merely as a hardtop Elise: Doors aside, every panel on the car is different. Everything in its design — from the unique front splitter past the carefully crafted hardtop to the bold rear wing — is there not to make you look good in front of the neighbors (quite the reverse: you'll look a damn fool struggling to get in and out of the thing), but to exploit the airflow over the car, coercing it into pressing the Exige ever harder onto the road as speeds increase. To reflect its harder edge, the forged wheels, sticky Yokohama A048 tires, stiffer suspension and twin oil coolers found in the Elise sport pack are included as standard on the Exige. And in this standard form, the Exige is fully 2 seconds a lap quicker around Lotus' test track, despite weighing a little over 30 pounds more.
But this is just the start, and there will be those happy to sacrifice what few creature comforts the Exige does offer for even more pace and response. For an extra $1,790 over the already steep $50,990 asked for the standard Exige, you can have both traction control and a torque-sensing limited-slip differential fitted while, if you can face the insult of having to pay $250 not to have air conditioning, this can be removed for a weight saving of 22 pounds. Conversely, those interested in the frankly futile pursuit of a slightly more civilized Exige can spec full carpeting, leather seats and door panels, added sound insulation and a slightly ritzier stereo, all for $1,350.
Whether you'll be able to hear any stereo above the racket of the engine is, of course, an entirely different issue, and whether you'll want to is one more besides. Though the driving position is inherently good — and by the time Exiges find their way Stateside in January, the awkward pedal box which makes heel-and-toe downchanges almost impossible will have been fixed — this is not the kind of car that's going to attract cruisers. Indeed if you're not at least on your way to or from somewhere where you'll be able to drive it as fast as it can possibly go, there seems very little point in having one at all. Its focus is sharp and narrow, its purpose is to provide an ultimate on-road (or, preferably, track) thrill and if you're not prepared to make some fairly serious sacrifices in exchange, you should go and buy something softer and slower like a Porsche Cayman S instead.
But if you like your driving fix raw and undiluted, the Exige has a lot to say for itself. Like all great Lotuses, it's not about how fast it goes — zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and 150 mph is quick but hardly otherworldly these days — but about how it goes fast. The engineers at the factory in the county of Norfolk still understand how to do steering better than perhaps any other organization on Earth, and until you've felt a car talk to you like this Exige can, your automotive education will remain incomplete.
Yet, for me, the biggest test of all such cars is how their behavior changes as the environment around them becomes more hostile. Almost all cars have a comfort zone, and it doesn't take much to stray beyond the fence, at which stage they become nervous, sloppy or just plain unresponsive. But in all the miles I have completed in various Exiges, it never felt more at home than in the most foreboding environment of all: on the fearsome old Nürburgring. Through the twisting section before the long straight at the end of the lap, I'm not sure I've ever driven a faster road car: Encounter a well-driven modern Porsche 911 on this stretch and you'll get bored waiting for it to get out of your way. You even have to be a little careful when flying through the quicker corners because your closing speed on slower machinery can be genuinely unnerving for you and, particularly, them.
It also tends to go to your head. You can get so wrapped up in screaming engine, lightning gearshifts, flickering dials, cheek-rippling G-forces and brakes strong enough to make you feel like you're crashing, that you end up thinking you're better than you actually are. And if you do overstep it in the Exige, you had better know that the combination of huge grip, a short wheelbase and a midmounted engine was never likely to make it drift like a 'Vette: Trouble awaits the unwary.
This, then, is adult entertainment for lovers of hard-core sports cars. There is nothing cuddly about an Exige, nothing easy. Own one and at times you will hate its cramped confines, zero refinement and lack of equipment. But let it loose on a track and, in those few moments, it will let you live more intensely than you could possibly have imagined was in the gift of a mere automobile. The Exige is unique, infuriating and irresistible — a true Lotus, in every sense of the word.
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