Objectively, the Lotus Exige is a very silly car. It looks like someone took an Elise - itself a silly car - and attacked it with carbon fiber. It's so tiny and impractical that even I, a short 24 year old, had a difficult time climbing in and out of it.
Of course, after driving the Exige, just about every other car on the road seems silly, especially other "performance" vehicles. Most of the fast cars we drive these days come loaded with complicated - and expensive - technology, all in a vain effort to approximate the experience this car provides with virtually no electronics to speak of. No variable power steering - no power assist at all, actually - no dual-clutch transmission, no active dampers. It's just a light, fast car with a powerful engine.
Once you succeed in climbing/falling into the Exige's contoured seat, you're greeted by a world of Alcantara, exposed aluminum, and carbon fiber. The latter two are not the superfluous, shiny sort we're accustomed to finding on more poseurish performance vehicles but rather, are purely structural and are left with a purposeful, dull finish. Nevertheless, everything looks - and smells - suitably high end.
At the push of a button, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder awakens with a decidedly non-Toyota-like menace. Idle is low and lopey, so much so in fact, that I stalled out once while moving off from a light. Even with a supercharger, this is still a motor that lives for high-revving Kamikaze runs. The cams and blower positively scream as the tach swoops past 7000 rpm. We like to think of Lotuses as delicate handling machines, but with 257 hp on tap, this Exige is a straight-line rocket, too. I nailed it coming out of one tight right turn and by the time my better instincts had moved my foot to the brake pedal, I was doing, well, I won't even say.
Still, the real revelation is the way this car maneuvers through turns. So direct, so devoid of body roll. It can be a bit sobering at first. The Exige is not a car that makes you feel like you're a spectacular driver, as does, say, a Mitsubishi Evolution. Even so, it's exhilarating to be on public roads in something that reacts to your commands like a purpose-built race car.
One disappointment: The six-speed manual shifter has longish, vague throws totally out of synch with the preciseness that defines the rest of the car's inputs. More than once, I found myself longing for the sort of bolt-action shifts one finds in a Honda S2000 or even a Ford Mustang GT.
So there - the Exige isn't perfect. But for the driving purist on anything less than a Ferrari budget, it's pretty damn close.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor