This week will be all about Colin Chapman’s lovely, lightweight cars from Hethel and his motto “adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”. We are of course talking about Lotus and more precisely about a nice selection of one Elise and two Exiges. You see, writing interesting pieces on this blog every week isn’t always easy, and finding time for great test drives even less. The blessing then comes in the form of other petrol head friends who are kind enough to share their experiences!
This week I’d therefore like to thank my friend Erik, a fellow Swede and car enthusiast who currently studies here in Zurich, and who over the previous two weekends had the pleasure of driving two different Exiges and an Elise. Before going into his very interesting experience though, a few words on the two models for those less familiar with the Lotus line-up.
The Lotus Elise saw the light of day in 1995 and has since been built in three series: the S1 until 2000, the S2 until 2010 and the S3 ever since. An untrained eye would be forgiven for not immediately seeing the difference between them, although the S1 is a bit more frog-like than the others. The Elise has always been about a maximum of driving pleasure for a minimum of weight, and things normal in other cars like carpets, A/C etc. are not standard in the Elise world. It’s notably famous for its aluminium chassis, weighing only around 65 kgs! With engines delivering between 136-220 hp (Cup and other special versions being more powerful) and a total car weight of only 800-1000 kgs depending on version, power output has never been an issue, although the engine character can still be, as we’ll see further below.
The Lotus Exige was developed with the Elise as basis, originally as a race car but unlike the Elise as a hatchback. It was intended to be a more mature car than the Elise and other differences include a sportier body with wider fenders and track, allowing for larger wheels, and larger front and rear spoilers. Launched in 2000, the S1 was only built during two years and the story of the Exige really starts with the S2 in 2004, built with the same 192 hp Toyota engine as the Elise as basis. The S3, where deliveries were delayed a couple of years and only started in 2013 after Lotus had survived yet another financial crisis, was a heavily modified car with a new chassis and importantly, a 3.5 litre, V6 compressor engine developing 350 hp. As with the Elise, the Exige was also built as Lotus’s own “Cup” and other more powerful versions.
Coming back to my friend Erik’s experience, the first car he got to test was an Exige S2 from 2005 with the 192 hp, 1.8 litre Toyota engine. Being young and agile he got into the car without too much difficulty, something that shouldn’t be underestimated for the somewhat elder among us. Once inside though, there is enough room for both young and old. The unassisted steering is surprisingly light at low speed and the radio is better left turned off, given the sound is nowhere near where it should be – it’s far better to listen to the engine instead! With the soft roof off, my friend took off towards some nice alpine roads, earning some sympathetic looks from cyclists on the way (which I can tell you isn’t always the case!), a good testament to the friendly design of the little car.
This is of course the kind of roads the car is made for, and the description of it as a go-cart on steroids nails it pretty well. The chassis is extremely well balanced, the steering, gradually heavier as the speed increases, is among the most precise in the industry, and the grip, even without any form of electronical helps, is tremendous. The gearbox is less precise than it could be, something that has often been commented on, and although 192 hp for a ton of car sounds plentiful on paper, the engine does require a lot of revs to come into its full right around the 6.000 mark, which is of course a bit limiting in daily usage.
In terms of quality, the Toyota-built engine is however the least of your worries. The fact that the car is quite loud and that you hear squeaks an scrambling from various parts is so to say part of the package, as is the limited comfort. The passenger seat can’t be moved at all, the driver seat to a limited extent. The cabin is obviously reduced to a minimum, true to the lightweight philosophy, so if you’re looking for anything but a driver-focused experience, look elsewhere.
Second in line in my friend’s Lotus weekend was the car he would later describe as hands down the most fun car he’s ever driven – an Exige 350 Sport (S3) from 2016. The difference to the 11 years older S2 Exige was in his words striking. As noted above, the S3 was heavily re-worked and is a much more refined car, the scrambling parts are gone, thereby leaving more room for the wonderful engine sound. There is a constant mix of gurgling, pops and bangs going on from the rear part of the car, enough to put a big smile on any petrol head’s face.
The S3 Exige is around 200 kgs heavier than the S2 and also rides on wider tires, both contributing to the (still unassisted) steering being very heavy at low speeds. It’s also very communicative, as motor journalists love to put it. “Feeling” the road is obviously an important feature of any true sports car, but one should be aware that this also means feeling every single imperfection of the road every time you take it out, and also experiencing the occasional sideways jump, as a tire catches a track in the road (I should probably add here that roads are pretty good in Switzerland…).
The 350 hp the compressor engine puts out gives the S3 a phenomenal acceleration. This is combined with very confidence-inspiring breaks, much more so than on the older car. The gearbox is still not the best on the market but it does excel in the way it looks – very similar to a Pagani Huayra or Spyker c8!
Finally a week later when his adrenaline had returned to normal levels, Erik also drove an Elise SC RGB from 2011. RGB stands for Roger Becker, a phenomenal chassis engineer that spent 44 years of his life working for Lotus before retiring in 2010. When he did, Lotus developed special editions of both the Elise and Exige with Roger’s choice of options as a tribute. The RGB Elise has the 1.8 litre engine, however with the S3 front. The car in question had additionally been worked on a bit such as to put out an extra 20 hp, bringing it to a total of 240 hp.
As you may suspect, Erik’s experience of the Elise falls between the two Exiges. The car is much more responsive than the older Exige without compressor, although not as manoeuvreable at lower speeds. The driving experience is very similar to the later Exige, however with a fair amount of squeaks and scrambling, so quality-wise more on the level of the older Exige.
If I allow myself to summarize Erik’s experiences with my own an those of other friends, it’s clear that any Lotus (and I would include the Evora in that, although Lotus fans tend to see it as a GT car) is among the purest and best driving experiences you will find, and a great proof that from a driving perspective, low weight is more important than high power. At the same time, the lightweight concept makes it quite a raw experience that only comes fully into its own right on a race track and country or mountain roads, provided you know there are no cameras around. The Exige is more mature than the Elise and arguably the better car, although an Elise with the right engine is of course highly enjoyable and the difference shouldn’t be overstated (again, if you’re looking for comfort, look elsewhere). The 192 hp of the base engine may be enough on paper, but the high revs it requires means the compressor engines are a much better proposition. Finally, quality: it is what it is, and as Lotus owners know, its mostly not a problem free experience. That being said, the list of things that can break is shorter than in most other cars, the engine is usually not one of them, and servicing costs as well as tax treatment in most countries are quite low.
If an Elise or an Exige sounds like the thing for you, as you would suspect the price points of the above cars differ quite a lot. A 10-year old basic, 192 hp S2 Exige is yours for around EUR 30-35.000, whereas the a 10 years younger, S3 350 hp version will set you back from EUR 50.000 and upwards. There are few RGB Elises around, but otherwise a 10-year old basic S2 192 hp one will cost you around EUR 20.000 and you’ll need to add around 10.000 for the more powerful ones. In other words these cars hold their value really well, which combined with low ownership costs make them a more attractive proposition than most other great “driver’s” cars.
For a company that has had more lives than a cat, it’s nice to see that Lotus’s future now looks to be somewhat secured. Next to the bonkers, GBP 1.7m, 2.000 hp electrical Evija, Lotus has an ambitious agenda of new cars in different segments over the coming years, with notably an all new model for 2021. Fingers crossed that they get there, because from a pure driving experience perspective, the world would be a much poorer place without Lotus!
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