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.