Lotus Exige S (2012)

Driving a car like the Lotus Exige isn't the sort of thing that translates well into the written word. We can explain how well connected you feel to it and the road, and how taut and controlled it feels, but honestly, the only way to understand is by sitting behind the wheel.

For newcomers to the idea of the Exige, a few pointers. This isn't a car you can realistically use for pretty much anything other than enjoying driving. It is road legal, has a hi-fi and air conditioning, but don't expect a trip to the shops to be particularly easy. Lotus has succeeded with the new Exige, however, in curbing the insanity of previous models thanks to its incredibly clever traction control system, while retaining what makes its cars so special.

Unlike the Evora, this is less of a daily driver and more something you roll out of the garage and go mad in on the weekends, either on the track, or on country roads. But it's much more refined than you might think and has a liveability that is easy to deal with.

So to the numbers, which while not quite up there with current supercars in scale, make sense when you learn how light the Exige is. Here we have a 345bhp car that weighs just 1116 Kg. That means 0-60 in 3.8 seconds and 0-100 in 8.5 seconds. The Exige S feels so stripped back and so raw, when you put your foot down, it's difficult not to smile. 

German brain

The chassis is what really makes the Exige S so special. Lotus is renowned for its handling finesse and this car is no exception, in fact, it takes everything Lotus has done previously and puts it to shame. The primary way it does this is with the sophisticated traction control system, or Dynamic Performance Management, designed with Bosch. The system is split into three modes: race, tour and sport.

Leave things on "tour" and the Exige will hold your hand through every corner, but with such subtly that even the most novice of drivers will feel like a driving god. Hit "sport" and the system lets you play about a bit with the car's rear end, but at no point does it allow you to lose control, unless you really push things to the limit. Throttle response is increased and maximum rpm lifted to 7200. Understeer recognition is also switched off in sport mode, which means being naughty around tighter bends is a touch easier.

For the track or the road

Race is where the Exige becomes truly special. The traction control system "learns" the road around the car on every quarter turn of the wheel. It knows what tyres you have and what road surface you are on and works with the driver to get around the track or road as quick as possible. It is done with such finesse that rather than feeling a loss in power, or skittish handling, the Exige just sticks itself to the ground and makes you feel good about yourself.

On a track, the Exige becomes quite a drift car, rewarding you mid-turn with plenty of tyre smoke and an enjoyable grunt from the supercharged 3.5-litre Toyota engine. This is the same engine as used in the Evora, and it's an absolute corker. The Exige S doesn't have any unpleasant supercharger whine in the cabin either, instead you get an exhaust note worthy of cars costing twice as much.

We spent about an hour on the track in the Exige S as well as a good while driving on the motorway, country roads and everything in between. It really would be a shame to own a car like this and not take it on to the track. Once you learn what you are doing, you will be rewarded with as close a driving experience as you can get to a track car, but at the end you can simply put it back in "tour" and drive home. 

The clutch is forgiving, and the shift easy enough to negotiate that missing a gear is difficult. In fact, learning to drive track in the Exige strikes us as an ideal combination, despite all its power. Each lap you will find yourself getting quicker and dialling back the traction control, until eventually you hit race and the whole car comes alive.

On the road, the wheel does like to skip about in your hands, due in part to the direct steering which has great feel. It isn't jarring, it just makes sure you feel as connected to the road as that set of included Pirelli Zero Corsa's will allow.

The ride in the Exige isn't hugely bumpy, especially when you think how low down and track-ready the suspension set-up is. It really is a testament to Lotus's engineers that they have even made the Exige remotely tolerable on the road, let alone comfy. 

It is quiet enough, the air conditioning good enough and the hi-fi loud enough that you really could spend a good few hours on the motorway in the Exige and not find it an issue. In the city, the amount of power available and the lack of power steering will present problems, but out in the countryside, the Exige is as simple as any standard car.

Verdict

As you can probably tell, we really like the new Exige. As performance cars go, it can't be bettered for the money. Lotus has put together its best-value package yet, with the handling and speed of cars that far exceed this price bracket.

Sure, you lose a lot of creature comforts in order to get the performance and some might prefer a Porsche for longer journeys, but really, nothing comes close to what the Exige can do if driven correctly. It isn't so stripped back as something like a Caterham, giving just enough for it not to become unpleasant should you be forced into a long motorway journey. 

On the B roads, the Exige is stellar. That Bosch electronic brain works effortlessly to guide you through every corner, keeping you connected to the vehicle at all times while never letting its raw power become intimidating.

This is a driver's car through and through. It is about the smile you can get from hitting the right gear, clipping the apex and powering through each corner perfectly.

For those after a driving thrill and considering the likes of a Cayman or perhaps even Lotus's own Evora, we say give the Exige a test drive. It will have you hooked from the first corner onwards and that slightly lacking stereo and bare-bones aluminium tub will fade intro the background. You will learn something new about driving every day in this car and for that, we think it deserves the biggest accolade we can give it: a five-star rating.