This is a story about two cars that have so little-yet so much-in common. It’s the latest chapter in a long-running tale that dates to the premiere issue of this magazine in April 1986, when we audaciously compared the then-new Toyota MR2 coupe with the contemporary mid-engine Ferrari, the 308. In April 1990, when we took a good, long look at the second-generation MR2, we did so through the lens of the Ferrari berlinetta of that period, the 348. Unfortunately, the MR2 is long gone, leaving the world’s most successful automaker without a single sports car in its stable, but the new Lotus Exige coupe and its roadster sibling, the Elise, carry on the MR2’s spirit as nominally affordable mid-engine sports cars. The F430, for its part, follows the 360 Modena as the latest and greatest mid-engine Ferrari, which is never a bad thing for a car to be. It might be affordable only to hedge-fund managers and NBA superstars, but it is immensely desirable and the obvious foil for the new Lotus coupe.
And that is how we found ourselves crisscrossing the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, jumping into and out of an F430 and an Exige. Our goal was not to pick a winner, because if price were no object, we’d have the Ferrari-wouldn’t you? But if you want to decide whether or not a $54,000 Lotus can provide anywhere near the entertainment value of a $208,000 Italian exotic, you have to drive them back-to-back.From an onlooker’s perspective, the Lotus is as exotic as any Ferrari. With a base price of $51,915, some eight grand more than the Elise roadster, the Exige coupe is not cheap, yet both Lotuses attract far more attention than any other cars in their price range. That was obvious when technical editor Don Sherman gunned the F430’s engine under the portico of our Charlotte hotel and the front desk clerk ran outside. I pulled up behind the F430 in the Exige, and she excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, my God. It’s another Ferrari!” Not quite, but similar street cred for one-fourth the price. The valet at Charlotte’s Palm steak house, where a 360 Modena Spider already sat at the curb, was also ecstatic to see his first Exige: “I didn’t know they were already importing them,” he enthused.
As our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., said in our 1986 MR2/308 matchup, “Low mass is its own reward.” And when the mass you do have is ideally distributed, like it is in a mid-engine car, then the rewards are even greater to the driver, as West Coast bureau chief Michael Jordan elaborated in our 1990 MR2/348 story: “The mid-engine sports car has the capacity for special performance because it applies some important lessons from Father Physics: minimal weight load, excellent traction, and a low moment of inertia. The traditional automobile has always been packaged like a horse and buggy, with the powerplant in front and the driver in back, each separated into its own compartment. The packaging of a mid-engine sports car integrates the powerplant and driver so that, in a strange way, you are the horse.”
Sixteen years ago, mid-engine cars seemed exotic and unattainable, and they still do today, really. Now that the Acura NSX-which upstaged Ferrari when it was introduced in 1990-is gone, Porsche’s Boxster and Cayman are the only other mid-engine cars available for less than $100,000. That’s partly why the Exige and the Elise are so special to enthusiasts. And whether you have a four-cylinder Japanese econocar engine rasping away behind you or aFormula 1-inspired, thoroughbred V-8 vibrating, cycling, and snorting, what matters is that the engine is behind you, the transmission is behind the engine, and Father Physics is happy.
The Exige is little more than an Elise with a hard top and more aerodynamic bodywork, although only the doors and rocker panels are shared between the two cars. Both Lotuses use Toyota’s high-revving, DOHC four-cylinder 2ZZ-GE engine. Basically, if you’ve driven an Elise, you’ve driven an Exige, which sounds and feels very similar. Its cabin is virtually identical, except ingress and egress are even more difficult in the Exige. The doors open only about 30 degrees, and the high, wide doorsills tighten the aperture. If you’ve removed the Elise’s fabric roof, you can point your body upward as you emerge, but in the Exige, you just have to crawl out as best you can, leading online editor Mike Dushane to observe that “it’s like extracting yourself from a wreck.” The Exige’s fiberglass roof is removable, but not quickly or easily.
Those sorts of compromises are, we suspect, acceptable to the Exige’s target customers, who are even more hard-core than Elise buyers, who themselves are not exactly coming out of Coupe de Villes. The Exige was created for Lotus enthusiasts who want the ultimate track-day car, with the additional handling stability and aerodynamic downforce provided by the revised bodywork, the rear wing, and a lip spoiler. As with the Elise, Lotus equips the Exige with what it needs to get around a track or slice through the countryside with the greatest efficiency, and little more. These vehicles are half street car, half go-kart.
Both the Ferrari and the Exige are built on extruded-aluminum spaceframes. Lotus says the Exige chassis weighs only 150 pounds. Stick your head under one of the front fenders, and you can see the extrusions and the orange-colored industrial adhesive that holds them together. Actually, if you haven’t opted for the $1350 touring package and its “full carpeting,” the orange glue is visible in the passenger’s footwell, too. Other options include traction control ($495); the track pack ($2495), which allows owners to adjust the Bilstein dampers, the front antiroll bar, and the ride height; and a limited-slip differential (packaged with traction control for $1790), developed by Lotus expressly for American autocrossers. Owners also can pay $250 to delete air-conditioning and save twenty-two pounds in curb weight, but perhaps it would just be easier to go on a diet.
Once you’ve folded yourself into the Exige, you’ll settle into a comfortable and supportive, if thinly padded, driver’s seat. Your right leg bangs against the center shift-linkage shroud, which seems to be fastened in place with a couple of paper clips, and you’re likely to brush against your passenger’s kneecap when you grab the shifter. You sit low to the ground, but forward visibility is good. The view to the rear, though, is severely compromised, because it’s blocked by the engine lid’s black mesh panels. You’re almost better off at night, when at least you’re aware of headlights behind you. We hope Lotus takes another stab at the packaging of the engine lid and its integrated rear wing.
The Exige’s cable-operated six-speed manual, also from Toyota, is engineered for low friction and quick action, but the shift lever makes clunking noises as it moves through its gate. “If I owned an Exige,” offered Sherman, “I would experiment with a shorter gear lever, because the effort is low enough to encourage true toggle-switch movements.” Clutch engagement is fluid, and the pedals are ideally placed for heel-and-toe shifting, as long as you’re wearing driving shoes. The gearshifting ergonomics are crucial, because you have to keep the revs up to make the most of the engine’s modest 138 lb-ft of torque. The inexplicable lack of a visible redline on the tachometer is annoying, but a light illuminates at the 8000-rpm (sustained) and 8500-rpm (momentary) limits.
With 190 hp on hand to propel a car that weighs only 2015 pounds-31 pounds more than the Elise-the Exige’s engine is plenty powerful and, as Sherman points out, “tuned to please a demanding driver who is inclined to hold the right pedal flat whenever possible.” It is not tuned, naturally, for a Ferrari-style, mid-engine mechanical symphony. On the freeway, the Exige’s cabin becomes a four-cylinder echo chamber, with huge booming resonances formed by a mixture of axle whine, wind and tire noise, and the engine’s variable-valve-timing labors.
As soon as we turned onto a two-lane snaking its way through the Carolina forest, any auditory annoyances fell behind us like the wet leaves in our wake. Even though it was raining for much of our drive, the Exige was completely composed on both paved and gravel roads, with fantastic directional stability, predictable and well-modulated braking, and the most direct and communicative steering of any road car on sale in the United States.
At Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina, we recorded an average speed of 70.7 mph in the Lotus around the 2.2-mile road course, compared with 74.1 mph in the Ferrari. One could argue that it takes more skill to extract the maximum from the Lotus than from the Ferrari, since the F430 provides such awesome acceleration forces-some 0.85 g-from launch. The Italian car gets you out of corners with remarkable speed, too, as Sherman describes: “The tail steps out a bit on exit, but nailing the throttle sticks it down, holds it in place, and thrusts you onto the straight with rocket assist.” Yet the Exige is so communicative and predictable, it strikes us as an ideal platform for a novice driver to learn the ins and outs of vehicle dynamics.
If you do a few laps in the Exige, crawl out of it, and get into the F430, you’re struck by the size, weight, and power of the Ferrari. “The Exige makes the F430 seem indulgently plump by comparison,” observed Sherman. The Ferrari has a lot more performance to offer, of course, with nearly 300 additional horses to corral. The Ferrari was shod with Pirelli P Zero Rosso street tires, whereas the Lotus had Yokohama Advan A048s, which essentially are street-legal racing tires. On the track, the barely 50-degree ambient temperature didn’t do much to help either set of rubber dig into the tarmac.
As for the Exige’s purported track advantages over the Elise, we couldn’t tell much difference, and track conditions were not as favorable as they were when we last tested the Elise (June 2004). But during the recent media launch of the Exige at Virginia International Raceway, road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos could discern a very slight increase in high-speed stability. We suppose that a skilled Elise owner might also appreciate the difference if he or she evaluates the success of weekend track outings in tenths of seconds gained.
Compare the specifications of the Exige and the F430, and you might conclude that the Ferrari is a case of technological overkill, that its electronic and mechanical systems are just too much, and that the simplicity of the Lotus makes it more of a “pure” sports car. This is definitely not the case. The price and complexity increases of the Ferrari over the Lotus are exponentially reflected in the thrills provided by the Italian car.
Where the Exige’s cabin has the materials composition and lack of adornment of an Oxo Good Grips kitchen utensil-all raw metal and rough plastics-the F430’s spare but elegant interior is lined with enough leather to bring a dominatrix to whip-snapping attention. Put your fingertips against virtually any cabin surface-the A-pillars, the headliner, the center console, the underside of the instrument panel-and you caress buttery hides. Aside from the carpet, practically anything not covered in leather wears carbon fiber. Our test car was upholstered in the same golden peach hide as the attach case of the Ferrari PR man who delivered it. One would expect no less from a car that starts at $170,045 and has $38,277 in options.
The Ferrari’s heavily bolstered seats initially can feel too restraining, but they get more comfortable over time, and the seat bottoms are especially supportive. The instruments are laid out logically, and the bright yellow face of the centrally located tachometer is overlaid by an elegantly simple typeface. Centered in the tach of our F1 gearbox-equipped test car was a digital display of the selected gear. The bright red start button is located on the lower left arm of the steering wheel. On the opposite side, you’ll find the manettino switch, which selects one of five operational modes for the gearbox, the dampers, the stability and traction control (CST), and the “E-Diff” electronic limited-slip differential: Ice mode limits engine revs to 3500 rpm; low-grip mode provides maximum stability intervention; sport mode reduces traction and stability control by about twenty percent; race mode quickens gearshifts, stiffens the dampers, and reduces traction and stability by about 80 percent; and CST-off mode leaves control of the car to the skill of the driver, with ABS as the only active electronic assist.
Summon all your skills before you switch off CST entirely, because the redheaded 4.3-liter DOHC V-8 residing under glass behind your head mercilessly sends 483 hp to the rear axle as you rip through the six forward gears, and an inexperienced driver easily could lose control of the F430 without the electronic helpers. On the track, normal and sport modes are too intrusive, but race mode is simply fantastic, allowing you to slide around corners progressively, predictably, and quickly, while keeping the yaw and wheel-speed sensors on alert to step in and save your bacon if you underestimate your exit speed out of a corner or overshoot an apex.
Sixteen years ago, the Ferrari 348 was a bit of a sad case, the product of a company that had relied on its racing heritage for too long, and just ten years ago, Lotus was barely functioning as an independent automobile manufacturer. Both firms now have their respective acts together and deliver cars that brilliantly meet the needs and desires of a new generation of enthusiasts. Everyone wants to own a Ferrari, and the F430 is the one that we really, really want to own. But since that’s not possible for most of us, the Lotus might be just the thing to fill the spot in your garage reserved for a sports car.