Hethel, England- The essence of the new Lotus Exige is that of a racing car. Even compared with the Elise, this bewinged coupe is a hard-core driving experience-and we mean that in a good way.What's curious is that from the same set of basic components-190-hp, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder Toyota engine; click-clack-shifting six-speed manual gearbox; extruded aluminum chassis; plastic body-Lotus has created a pair of cars sufficiently different in character that the coupe version can be regarded as a genuinely separate model. A quicker, more extreme, yet separate model.
In many ways, Lotus's recently announced decision to bring the Exige to the States is a brave one. As a convertible, the Elise can count on the residual glow of the golden years of British roadsters, with the added edge of being fantastic to drive. The Exige has only the latter. So, while Lotus moves 2000-plus Elises per year in America, it expects to sell only 200 to 300 Exiges.
Those 200 to 300 enthusiasts will be getting an out-and-out driver's car. Where the Elise evokes delicacy, intimacy, and fluid motion, the Exige is a much more physical machine. It's not brutish or raw or clumsy but more alert and instantly responsive, more aggressive in its steering and ride.
The way the Exige turns into corners seems shockingly brisk for the first few miles, but then you learn to appreciate how its precision can almost laser-guide you to an apex, how its immediacy can teach you to be a more conscientious helmsman. On crumbly-edged roads, you start off thinking that the little Lotus coupe is being guided by road irregularities, and then you realize that you're not actually fighting with the plump-rimmed wheel; its wriggling and writhing is merely letting you know what's going on.
You can test your nerves on a few challenging corners. The Exige's custom bodywork-lengthened nose, front splitter, covered roof, new rear wing (only the door panels are shared with the Elise)-was engineered to increase downforce for better cornering. Additionally, the Exige runs on Yokohama A048 rubber-pretty much racing slicks with a few grooves-and their grip even on public roads is immense. On dry roads, at least. The Exige's chassis tuning mirrors that of the Elise with the Sport package. Despite the suspension's firmness, it refuses to let the Lotus get knocked off-line by mid-bend bumps. Once adhesion limits are eventually reached, mild understeer takes over-unless you're on the track, where lifting off and booting the throttle will encourage the tail out, although you'll need a bit of practice to keep it sliding without a spin.
Because the coupe's back end traps the sound inside the car more than in the Elise, the Exige makes you further aware of the Toyota engine. There remains a degree of frustration that you have to wait until 6200 rpm before it unleashes its full complement of horses, but, as with old-school turbos, there's also a sense of involvement in having to keep the revs in the zone; either you can cope with that, or you can't. And once the engine is spinning to its giddy upper reaches, you'll have no complaints about the performance.
The brakes are somewhat abrupt at low speeds thanks to their servo assistance, but once you're on a charge, they're easier to modulate, and the ABS cuts in satisfyingly late for aggressive drivers.
On a track or an extended stretch of winding road, even a Porsche 911 would have to work hard to keep pace with the Exige; there are few more enthralling or dynamically capable cars for any price. But before you buy, make sure you can live with such a small, specialized car with only four cylinders. If you can, you'll have a wild time.
Price: $54,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.8L DOHC I-4, 190 hp, 138 lb-ft