BRASELTON, GEORGIA Six people. That's how many employees Lotus Cars USA had on its payroll in 2003. Six. Lotus sold seventy-five cars in America that year, and all of them were Esprits.
Things have changed a little since then. The 1970s-born Esprit was finally given the ax in 2004, when the long-awaited Elise arrived on our shores. And what an arrival it was. The 1975-pound Elise was a revelation: It could lap a racetrack faster than some supercars, it was light enough to see through, and it cost only $41,000. Strapping on an Elise was like giving your right foot a direct line to God--and then finding out that the Man Himself had flameproof coveralls and a full-face helmet stuck in the corner closet.
Lotus Cars USA now employs eighteen people. Thanks almost solely to the Elise's success (and that of its hard-core sister, the Exige), Lotus finally has developed enough confidence to bring its cottage-size Lotus Sport division across the Atlantic.
A separate entity from Lotus Cars, Lotus Sport operates from a dedicated nine-man shop next to the factory test track in Hethel, England. Speed parts and racing cars are their specialty, but they also can do anything in between. If you want it (V-6-powered Exige for British GT3 racing? Lotus soapbox-derby car?) and can write the check, Lotus Sport will build it. Lotus Cars USA ordered up a couple of track-oriented specials for limited production; the cars you see here are what they got. Both are available in showrooms. Both can reduce grown men to giggles.
LOTUS SPORT ELISE You'd think those girly titters would come from giant, asphalt-shredding power, but you'd be wrong: the Lotus Sport Elise shares the standard Elise's 190-hp Toyota four. Here, the snorts and hoots come from the fact that the car is just so mind-warpingly, track-star good. Few things you can buy and register in all fifty states are this hellaciously talented. Fewer still talk to you as much at the limit.
Higher spring rates, more refined damping, and greater adjustability (see sidebar) usually make better track cars from street cars, and the Elise is no exception. As you'd expect, grip goes through the roof--it's even better here than it is on the Track Pack-equipped Elise, which rides on the same Yokohama A048s. And although the window for error--and easy recovery--is now smaller, it's also a great deal friendlier.
What does this mean? Essentially, it means that while you have to be more careful with your control inputs at higher speeds--a certain amount of idiot-proof-ness has been removed--the chassis feel and sheer balance have been improved. Because the car is telling you more, you're more conscious of your mistakes, so you don't make them as often. At-the-limit handling is highly dependent on suspension setup (the dampers alone have twenty-two compression and sixty rebound settings), but when it's dialed in, the Sport Elise is sublimely forgiving. There's less of the ordinary Elise's turn-in understeer, and limit oversteer is slightly more progressive.
Only fifty Sport Elises will be brought stateside initially, all in the signature saffron yellow/storm gray paint scheme. Even given the garish cosmetics and a $55,920 base price, they're likely to sell out. Don't worry, though; the Sport Elise's best ingredient--its suspension--is already available separately through Lotus dealers. As cool as the whole package is, we'd probably just bolt the important bits onto an ordinary Elise or Exige. Same laughs but a smaller price tag.
LOTUS SPORT EXIGE CUP This is it. This is the big deal: Exige turned up to eleven. It's not street-legal. Those forged-aluminum wheels wear full-bore Yokohama slicks. A roll cage is standard equipment. The twin pipes at the back pump out a sound--oh, that sound--that . . . well, it makes your skin tingle. You half expect nearby squirrels and small dogs to burst into flames when you twist the key. This, kids, is an angry little car.
At a base price of $79,915, the stripped-out Exige Cup isn't for everyone. It has a six-point Schroth harness, a Recaro race seat, a full fire-extinguisher system, and an external kill switch. It's not really set up for any specific race series, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a racing car.
The most significant change on the Exige Cup, however, is in the engine bay. Hanging off the back of its Yamaha-built Toyota four-cylinder is an intercooled Eaton M62 supercharger. Thanks to the blower (the engine remains unmodified internally), power rises to 243 hp and torque climbs to 174 lb-ft. According to factory claims, 60 mph arrives in 4.1 seconds--a full 0.8 second quicker than in the $28,000-cheaper standard Exige--but what you really notice is the extra grunt.
The standard Elise and Exige aren't slow, but they are peaky. In contrast, the Exige Cup simply steamrolls its way toward the redline, regardless of engine speed. Although you don't spend much time in the tach's bottom half on the track, the improved midrange works wonders for corner exit speeds.
Built off a left-hand-drive European Exige platform (the supercharger comes from the British-spec Exige 240R), the Exige Cup is intended to be a turnkey track-day special. As on the Sport Elise, chassis balance is directly connected to setup, but the overall feel is that of a safe, easily rotated giant killer. Like all slick-shod cars, the Exige Cup rewards precision and low slip angles; get things right, and it's diabolically fast.
Fifteen Exige Cups will be produced this year for the U.S. market, and they're all presold. But don't go crying into your Nomex: if there's enough demand, Lotus is prepared to build another batch. Excuse me while I go pawn a kidney.