Back in 2002 my wife and I were into our fourth year of Elise ownership. I’m really not at all a fan of convertibles and the Elise was bought in spite of it being open-top, rather than because of. The roof probably hadn’t come off more than half a dozen times in our ownership. So an Exige was the logical move.
We had been treated to a test drive of the Exige shortly after it was launched, at Donington Park. British Touring Car series driver Hyla Breeze showed us what it was truly capable of and I was hooked. But at £35k for a decent spec, the choice was whether to trade in the Elise for the Exige or to keep the Elise and get an Impreza as well. It was good, but not THAT much better than our Elise, (which was fitted with PTP’s excellent 140 upgrade). The Exige would have to wait.
Fortunately not for very long though. Bizarrely enough, the Exige had not been a huge sales success. Maybe because the track day scene had yet to gain significant popularity and its image as a track day hero was yet to be established. Maybe potential buyers had, like us, baulked at the price premium over the Elise. For whatever reason second hand Exige prices had dropped like a stone and Lotus were having to give unwanted new ones to directors to run.
It didn’t take long to find our ideal car. Privately owned examples had been far more cherished than the directors’ cars and armed with valuable knowledge from the excellent www.exiges.com we quickly found a low mileage, silver, stone chip-free example with the alcantara smurf-blue interior including the all-important and expensive option: sports seats with harnesses. More pleasing still, for me, was the lack of air-con. I figured such niceties had no place in a car where lightness was key.
Similarly, the stereo had to go, not that there was a hope of hearing anything from it anyway. It’s not the rasping (optional) Janspeed Supersports exhaust that drowns it out, but the huge carbon air box a few inches behind the driver’s head. The sound the Exige makes is mainly glorious, popping and banging on the overrun and screaming as it closes in on 8,000rpm, but with a downside of coughing and spluttering as it jerks along below 2,500rpm.
Perhaps its recalcitrant idling and low rev running was another reason it hadn’t become a sales success. If it was, then I for one don’t really understand why. Let’s face it, no-one ever bought an Elise derivative for its refinement and complaining of slightly jerky low speed behaviour seems like petty complaining given the context of the car.
Soon after buying the car we had the 190 upgrade fitted. This gives a better spread of torque than the standard 177bhp setup and an extra 500rpm at the top. This immediately made it nicer to drive all-round (especially with the second phase mapping from the Elise S2 190, fitted for free as a recall job) as it pulls strongly from 3,000rpm all the way up to 8,000rpm. From 5,000rpm upwards acceleration is very strong and the instant throttle response makes quick overtaking decisions effortless.
While the later mapping cured a common stutter in the rev-range, it also limits revs to 5,500rpm if it detects a misfire. Unfortunately this limp-home mode also cuts in if there is a problem with the rear wheel speed sensor and this is what occurred during a track day at Silverstone. (Oh the humiliation of being overtaken by a Clio…)
Speed sensor problems notwithstanding, track days have been this car’s forte. Very few production cars can live with a well driven Exige on a track. I’ve found Donington Park to be particularly well suited to it
Other than the 190 upgrade, the Lotus quick-shift gear change was added and the Yokohama 039s have made way for the semi-slick 048s. While the 048s are noticeably superior on track, I am not convinced that they match up to the 039s on the road. I don’t fancy having two sets of wheels and tyres though so I’ll stick with the 048s for now.
Despite the stories of the VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) version of the K-series engine being made of chocolate, no-one told ours and it has not missed a beat throughout its life.
Track days have exposed a slight weakness in the car’s standard equipment though. The standard brake pads and discs didn’t cope too well with a long session of fast lapping. They would begin to fade and grumble. Switching to Pagid RS14s solved that problem, but I found them heart-stoppingly bad when cold for road use. Switching to the more extreme RS15s improved the road performance, and gave an instant bite on track that I liked.
However they are not very popular with other Exige/Elise owners because these pads are too much for the discs to cope with. The higher temperatures had the drilled discs reacting in a horrible way, vibrating as if badly warped. Easing off for a couple of laps would make them okay again, but immediately I started pushing them again, the vibration felt like the car was shaking itself apart. If that wasn’t enough, close examination showed that all four discs had developed multiple cracks spreading across the whole diameter.
Time to replace them with something a little better. AP’s slightly larger diameter aluminium-belled grooved discs are not the cheapest option to say the least. But the next track day was a revelation. Stopping power was on a new level altogether and remained smooth and consistent all day. Unfortunately the master cylinder then started to fail, typically just when they were supposed to be impressing for a magazine group test. Back at full health now though, throwing unsuspecting passengers against their harnesses is once again an enjoyable pastime.
But handling is what a Lotus is all about. The Exige is in a different class to the Elise. On the road I immediately found it more confidence inspiring. Initial steering inputs require less effort and give more feedback on the levels of front end grip, encouraging you to push further when the Elise was a more nervous test of faith.
Perhaps this is due to the extreme camber the Exige runs? That could also be responsible for the Exige’s tendency to follow road cambers. Changing lanes on motorways can sometimes result in a strange unwillingness to leave the current lane and a sudden tug one way and then the other as it finds the invisible ruts in the new lane. Not ideal, but not as alarming as it sounds. For me the information fed through to your finger tips is reassuring, telling you everything about the surface underneath you and giving you warning of when it is about to reach its limits.
And when those limits are breached it is much easier to control. The back end of the Elise stepping out would invariably come as a sudden surprise and sometimes result in overcorrection and heart-in-mouth, or for many owners, car-in-hedge. With the Exige a small loss of grip from the rear seems less likely to become a crisis and catching it becomes a natural instinct with barely a rise in heart rate at all.
At speed the Elise felt almost too light, becoming less and less stable as the speed increased. In contrast the Exige feels far more planted. Lift is countered not only by the splitter and rear wing but also by the extended rising tail section.
However, I have never felt comfortable in either Elise or Exige in the wet. The semi-slick 048s actually give a relatively decent amount of grip when the roads are damp, but are dreadful for aquaplaning when the rain gets heavy. Whatever the tyre though I find the steering becomes vague and communication generally breaks down as the tyres fail to warm up. The light weight does it no favours in this situation either and I don’t mind admitting that I’d sooner be driving an Impreza when things get too wet.
lt;p>Given the Exige’s mini group-C looks it’s easily forgotten that this is not a car that costs a fortune to run. The light weight means that even with heavy track use the brake pads and discs last longer than expected and since it’s just a 1.8 K-series sitting behind you, fuel economy is pretty spectacular given the performance.
All the servicing so far has been performed by Kelvedon in Spalding where Pat Thomas and the guys have always been very helpful for very reasonable cost. The only problem that has occurred with the car, other than the master cylinder and wheel speed sensor, has been the engine cover catch, which has failed twice.
Looking back it’s hard to think of a suitable alternative for the Exige. Whilst a more serious CaterField could perhaps match it as a track toy, they really are just toys in my mind and not so suited to enjoying the public road. Nobles and 911s are in a different price league both to buy and run, and perhaps don’t share such an undiluted driving experience either.
I can’t see myself swapping the Exige for any currently available Lotus either. I hate the power delivery of the standard S2’s Toyota engine and am not too keen on the 240R’s current price. For now I’m happy to let time (and the Exige) continue to fly.