BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Finding a hard top car more uncompromising than a Lotus Exige is a pretty thankless task. Designed from the outset as a road legal track car, the Exige takes what's best about the Exige and ramps up the attitude a good few notches. From its mini Group C sportscar profile to its stripped out interior, the Exige never feels anything less than utterly bonkers. Wearing on anything but a fast, twisty road or track, it's a specialised tool. Despite being a darling of the motoring press, used examples are notably thin on the ground. If you can find a decent example, you'll have netted yourself a guaranteed future classic.
Models Covered: (2 DR COUPE 1.8 PETROL)
Although pre-release designs had long been doing the rounds and the Sport Elise racing car gave heavy clues as to how it would turn out, the first time you clapped eyes on a Lotus Exige was, for most hardcore petrolheads, a seminal moment. Launched in summer 2000, the Exige was always going to be a minority interest vehicle. Retailing at a heady £32,995 upon launch, this was a car that was designed for the wealthy track day enthusiast. Unfortunately, many of these customers already had their eyes fixed on the beautiful 2001 model year Elise and wrongly regarded the Exige as old technology. The price eventually came down to £29,995, but still sales were poor. Production was never rampant and by the tail end of 2001 had slowed to a trickle. Lotus started encountering more serious financial problems in 2002 and the Exige was quietly withdrawn, an inauspicious tale ill befitting such a magnificent car.
What You Get
After climbing from, say, an equivalently priced Mercedes SLK or a Porsche Boxster into an Exige, it would be easy to surmise that you don't get a whole lot. Your rear view is interrupted by the uninspiring sight of a Rover 1.8 K-series cylinder head and cabin fittings are noticeable by their absence. Many customers opt for a £1,500 engine upgrade that bumps power up to 190bhp through revisions to the engine management software, a different inlet pulley, thermostat and catalyst replacement pipe. Whichever option is chosen, there's little doubt that the Lotus Exige is one of the most magnificent pure driver's cars anywhere at any price. The 1.8-litre K-series engine naturally can't match a Latin exotic for sheer charisma, but the look on a Ferrari driver's face as you come zizzing by him on a track day is ample recompense. Right from the off you're aware that this is going to be no ordinary ride. Fold yourself over the high, broad sill and down into the thinly padded drivers seat and you'll be faced with a forward view that will be familiar to many early Elise owners, the Stack instruments a model of clarity, the rest of the cabin a minimalist vision. Four point race harnesses are standard equipment but before you even move away, the car's lightness is palpable. It almost feels as if you're strapping the Exige to yourself and not vice versa. Twist the key and that 1.8-litre engine found in such mundane fare as the Rover 25 barks into life, hunting and crackling rudely at idle as if laying down a challenge.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Basically, everything. Exige buyers are a singular bunch, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but they also have lead in their right boots and a take-no-prisoners style of driving. It's not possible to drive an Exige with anything approaching restraint and even cars with encouragingly modest mileages on the clock may well have led a hard life. If the car seems to be blowing a lot of oil out the back, the valve seals may well be on their way out. Exiges tend to have an appetite for oil and many owners have accidentally overfilled the car and then leathered it round a track with expensive results. The Exige is also temperamental when starting the engine when hot, e.g. after a fuel stop. This is attributable to two known problems. The first is vapour lock, where fuel evaporates in the lines causing fuel starvation. The best remedy for this is to go for the 190bhp kit which seems to rectify this problem. A more common cause is the low quality ignition leads fitted as standard. A favourite aftermarket swap amongst Exige owners are Magnecor leads which usually clear up the stutter around 5,000rpm. Throttle pedal linkages can be problematic and idle speeds often go haywire. The paintwork requires a chapter all to itself. The paint adheres relatively poorly to the composite body and is prone to crazing, cracking and damage by bird lime and other corrosive agents. The usual advice to steer clear of a car that looks as if it has spent significant amounts of time on a track doesn'treally apply here. In fact, you should be deeply suspicious if an Exige owner claims not to have taken it racing.
(approx based on a 2000 Exige 1.8) Those spares that are interchangeable with the Elise are generally agreeably cheap, as are servicing costs. The key complaint amongst Exige owners regarding replacement parts is the long wait for replacement body panels. Given the length of the British summer, an eight to ten week wait for a body panel can become a massive inconvenience. Other spares are far more readily available. Front discs cost £90, a headlamp unit around £95 and a new windscreen is £240. A door mirror is £85.
On the Road
A sure test of a car's enjoyment factor is its capacity to reduce the first-time pilot to peals of astonished laughter. The Exige passes this test with flying colours, the crazed bark of the engine, the hollow reverberation of the exhausts and the sound of grit peppering the underside of the car being massively infectious. It feels hugely more urgent than an Elise, although you still need to work hard at the gas pedal and gearbox to extract maximum benefit, most of the engine's best work coming above 5000rpm. Ignore this rule and you'll feel you are travelling at a ridiculous velocity, such are the aural cues, only to be overtaken by a skip lorry. No other car makes 40mph seem quite so exciting. Keep the Exige travelling at a good pace and you'll be battered by the sonic barrage, the only discordant note coming when you're caught in too high a gear ascending an incline. For all its punch, the Exige needs to be kept on the boil - sheer lugging torque isn't the car's forte. The suspension isn't as stiff as you'd first expect. You'll recoil in preparation at the sight of an oncoming expansion joint only to find the Exige's ride is more supple than you'd at first given it credit for. It's no Lexus, let's be clear about that, but nor is it going to keep your orthodontist in clover in quite the same way an MGF Trophy would. That said, those taking delivery of an Exige and not treating the car to regular run outs on a racetrack would be catastrophically missing the point. That's when the whole package gels beautifully. The sculpted coke-bottle flanks and high-level rear wing will make you the centre of pit lane attention, so it's best to look like you know what you're doing. That means not stalling when pulling away, belting yourself in and realising your gloves are out of reach or any other such cred-blowers. Although the Exige looks dramatic with its mini Group-C styling cues, the spoilers aren't there for effect, adding 35kg and 45kg of front and rear downforce respectively at 100mph. As you up the pace the feeling that the Exige is being sucked to the floor grows. Your first instinct may be to think that anything with no traction or stability control electronics and with this sort of prodigious power-to-weight would be something of a handful, but it takes monster lateral g-forces to unstick the back end in the dry. The massive Yokohama tyres generate huge grip although when the going gets wet the roadholding becomes that bit more lively. You'll only be detained for 4.6 seconds in the quest to breach 60mph, although the top speed of 135mph will require a lot of road to reach, the Exige noticeably running out of gusto at around 110mph. Although modestly skilled drivers will enjoy the Exige, those who truly understand the subtleties of a car's handling will appreciate the way the car's cornering attitude can be minutely adjusted with mere nuances of accelerator pedal travel. The steering is similarly informative, with more heft than an Elise and a correspondingly more reassuring level of tactility at high speed. The gearchange still has that slightly flabby feel of the Elise and should you get into the car with wet feet the all-metal pedal box can be a slippery old place of work. Getting in and out is best left to the slim and supple.
If you're looking for a car that will destroy all comers at track days and get there and back without recourse to a crash helmet and small children laughing at you, the Lotus Exige is your weapon of choice. Fast, charismatic and huge fun, it's one of the least successful Lotuses ever. It's also one of the best. Here's to perversity.