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.