Vintage road tripping, Canadian style, in a brand new Lotus Exige S 260 Sport

Ferraris and Lamborghinis seem common when you consider the 2009 Lotus Exige S 260 Sport, of which only fifty are bound for North America. And since Canada is too-often ignored when it comes to exotic cars for the North American market, I decided to cross the border into Ontario and take part in the fourth-annual Canadian British Classic Charity Run (CBCCR), a fundraising, 500-mile road rally that would skirt north of Toronto and weave through some lovely Ontario landscapes.

As my colleagues eloquently pointed out in our Editors’ Notebook about the most expensive, most powerful Exige to reach our shores, the $76,120 S 260 is one wild automobile---both in looks and in performance. That might explain why it was a bit tricky for me to cross the Michigan/Ontario border at 9 p.m. on a Friday evening in late September. Long story short: after an hour and a half chatting with nearly a dozen customs agents and brokers, I managed to obtain the go-ahead to enter Canada in the Lotus-owned vehicle, thankfully circumventing the nearly $10,000 CAD (!!) importation tax that officials initially quoted me (5 percent of the car’s value to import it from the United States and another 5 percent because of the car’s U.K. origins).

The Exige’s top speed is more than 150 mph, but there was no way I was going to go faster than 65 mph (the speed limit on Ontario highways is 100 kph---or 62 mph) after the complications at the border. After all, if the police catch you going 50 kph (31 mph) over the speed limit in Ontario, it can cost you a whopping $10,000 … oh, and the O.P.P. will take your car. So by the time I finally arrived at my hotel in Guelph about 135 miles down the road, it was 1 a.m. After more than six hours of traveling in the frenetic, noisy, minuscule, yet thrilling Lotus, a frosty beer would have been nice, but unfortunately there were none to be found.

The next morning, I met the rest of the adventurous crew that would participate in CBCCR 2009. Our group consisted of five cars (a few others having dropped out at the last minute): a 1961 MGA, a ’76 MGB, a ’73 Jensen-Healey, a highly modified ’76 Triumph Spitfire (owned by event coordinator John Kearsley), and the 2009 Exige. To perpetuate the stereotype about British cars, each was some shade of red, and all but the Exige were roadsters.

Such a train of cool cars always attracts much attention, but Canadians seemed especially observant of our quintet. The Exige, predictably, elicited countless comments. I worried that a busload of teenage boys bound for a soccer game might carry off the Exige while co-driver Ron Cribbs and I grabbed a quick bite at a Tim Horton’s. Ron and I were decidedly more intrigued by the numerous women that the little Lotus attracted, however. Cell-phone cameras were wielded frequently, and at gas stations, the Lotus got the close attention of a wide range of people, from a middle-aged lady in a 250,000-mile, rusted-to-hell Honda Civic to some high-schoolers in a 1977 Ford LTD. Canada has only three Lotus dealerships in the entire country, so it goes without saying that most Canadian citizens have never seen a Lotus on the road.

On the first day of the CBCCR, we drove some 270 miles and ended up in Napanee, Ontario (where there was plenty of beer, by the way). Particularly notable scenery included Prince Edward County, which is a beautiful island that has a number of wineries. Day Two pointed us back west, and we traveled through the towns of Tweed, Peterborough, and Uxbridge on our way to the finish line 225 miles away in Fergus. I dropped off Ron in Kitchener, Ontario, and graciously received an exquisite, well-balanced boxed dinner that his wife, Val, had packed for my long, 220-mile final leg back to metro Detroit.

It’s truly invigorating to pilot any Elise/Exige, but during the course of the CBCCR weekend, it became clear that the Exige S 260 Sport is the hard-core captain of the team. Every corner is a thrill ride, every chance to bang through the gears a revelation in minimalistic thrust. But the Exige is exciting even on the highway, where you’re filled with a remarkable sense of speed even at velocities less than 80 mph. The carbon-fiber chariot’s perfect steering and high-strung, whiney, 1.8-liter supercharged Toyota powerplant more than makes up for the car’s squeaks and rattles, long-throw shifter, and difficult ingress and egress. Well, perhaps “difficult” is too nice a word. In the October 2009 newsletter for the Waterloo British Car Club, my co-driver Ron described it thus:

“Climbing in and out of the Exige requires a well-thought-out plan. You need to literally fold yourself in half, while sliding your derriere across a foot-wide sill, dropping your posterior into a narrow racing seat all while ducking low and keeping your head from hitting the fixed roof. Oh, and your legs are still outside the vehicle. I found that drawing my left leg up to my chin and guiding my foot into the footwell worked best. Repeat the process with the right leg. Once in, though, the interior was very comfortable and almost roomy.”

Indeed. I drove the Exige a total of 1015 miles in three days, and it proved to be impressively comfortable--- probably equally as comfortable as my 1967 MGB/GT Special, which I drove in the 2008 America’s British Reliability Run (ABRR) but reluctantly left at home due to its significantly inferior headlamps and sporadic brake lights. Still, like the Lotus Elise that I drove on the 2006 edition of the ABRR, the Exige behaved a bit like an idiosyncratic old British car. Sympathy pains included the digital odometer/info display that went blank at one point, as well as a rough idle that even caused the car to stall on more than one occasion. A couple of the designed-in nuances also reared their heads during my weekend with the Exige, namely windshield wipers with only two speeds and an iPod hookup that refused to work, not to mention a tiny trunk that’s further encroached upon by the 260-specific trunk-mounted battery and oil accumulator. But truthfully, the Exige’s jubilant spirit more than makes up for these weaknesses.

Plus, I have no right to complain, because my MGB has single-speed wipers and no radio at all. I’m definitely looking forward to CBCCR 2010: Guelph to Watkins Glen, New York. And if Santa brings some better headlights for my MG, I’ll ride my own vintage iron.

CARE TO CONTRIBUTE?

The CBCCR has raised more than $20,000 for children's charities since 2006. This year’s admirable beneficiary was National Service Dogs (www.nsd.on.ca), a Canadian charity dedicated to assisting autistic children by training and supplying companion dogs. If you feel compelled, donating is as easy as CLICKING HERE, selecting "Donate Now," and following the instructions. Please be sure to note that the donation is in conjunction with the Canadian British Classic Charity Run. (Donations unfortunately will not be recognized by the U.S.A.'s IRS.)

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