2010 Lotus Exige 260 S
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
David Zenlea has pretty much nailed the Exige with his impressions, however, he forgot to mention the looks you get on the road. I couldn't go anywhere without turning heads over the weekend. People would pull up next to the Lotus on the highway and stare for miles. Sometimes I couldn't even tell if there was a car full of gawkers next to me since visibility is rather dismal. In situations like that, it's good to have 257 hp on tap to motivate the svelte 2020 lb car. Forward visibility is pretty good and the thrust is excellent. Just mash the gas and you're able to move to a clear section of road in no time.
The only vehicle that I could even begin to compare the Exige to is the Caterham Superlight R400 we sampled around this time last year. The Caterham is even smaller, much lighter, and only needs 210 hp. Both cars are about as minimal as you'll find, though the Lotus has some advanced features like airbags and a radio, and really belongs on a track.
Any vehicle from Lotus or Caterham will get you tons of attention and almost nobody will understand why you tolerate the sometimes painful ingress/egress, lack of anything resembling luxury, and inherent rawness of either car. Until you've driven one, you can't really understand what the big deal is.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
I've long been told that engineers designed the Elise family to be as close to the company's original ethos as possible. Indeed, as Phil notes, the only thing that comes close to being so barebones, so direct, so raw is the original Seven itself - and that vehicle is only available in the U.S. thanks to loopholes surrounding the whole kit-car market. I'm thankful the Exige offers dual airbags and side impact beams - in the 7, the latter is simply your ribcage.
The hardcore Exige S 260 adheres to the company's "add lightness" policy, but engineers have also added a glut of power. The supercharged 1.8-liter now pumps out an impressive 257 hp, and it's only saddled with 2020 lbs of car. As Zenlea noted, the car is nothing short of a rocket - I never verified the company's 0-60 mph time of 4.0 seconds, but I've no reason to doubt the word of the PR folks in Hethel.
In order to appreciate rocket-ship speeds, however, you'll have to live with a rocket-sized interior. I'm fairly certain Alan Shepard had more shoulder room within the Freedom 7 space capsule, and thanks to high sills, entering and exiting the car gracefully is an impossibility if you measure over 5-feet tall or 180 pounds (I'm both). The rattling of body panels is something I'd expect from such a stiffly sprung car on Michigan's frost-heaved roads, but the odd placement of controls - many of them unlabeled - seems rather odd, especially in a car whose price tag pushes close to $80,000 (hint: the lock button is on the forward side of the shift console, and the dome lamp is squeezed between the seats).
This isn't exactly an everyday car, but then again, it's not meant to be. $80,000 will buy you either this or a GT-R, and while both will provide amazing sprints to high speeds and pull incredible g figures in corners, only the Lotus makes the driver feel as if he or she is actually involved. Never mind the interior bits - in my opinion, that's worth the price.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
I'm a firm believer this car is safer on a racetrack than on a public road. As others have mentioned, visibility is terrible no matter which direction you look and cars that seem so miniscule before now feel huge when stopped next to one. I had to look up at a driver in a MINI Cooper -- when's the last time you had to do that? It's kind of like a motorcycle in that you have to pay more attention to the people around you rather than yourself.
The Exige is essentially a street legal race car. It's got raw power, bare bones interior, and makes for an awesome driving experience. I love the subtle features that make it a track car at heart. As small as the cabin is, it has a ton of headroom to make room for the driver's helmet; the turn signal and wiper switches are farther from the wheel than most cars to make room for white knuckling with gloves on; and the support cross bar behind the seats is in perfect position to tie up a five-point harness.
The steering wheel is so small it feels like it was pulled off an arcade game, and the gauges look like they belong on Xbox. But neither perform like a video game. The lack of power steering allows you to feel every inch of the road. Although tiny, the gauges offer clear readouts of engine vitals. I'm real surprised it had a radio, which is optional.
The Exige 260 S is a fantastic enthusiast car, but personally I'd have to live next door to a racetrack to take full advantage of what it offers. A public road doesn't do it justice.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
It's hard for me to fathom why you'd need something more extreme than an Elise or Elise SC, and with a $30,000 premium, this Exige seems even more outrageous. But the phenomenal thrust of the S 260 proves that this car can easily justify its price tag to the hardcore few that might want it.
While Phil is right that a Caterham may be the only true competitor to this Lotus, there are a lot of very appealing cars you can purchase for around $80,000 including the Nissan GT-R, Porsche 911, and Chevrolet Corvette Z06. I have to say that I would take any of those three cars for their greater usability over the Exige S 260. Even if you can register it, insure it, and drive it on the streets, it's just too out of place anywhere but the track.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
2010 Lotus Exige 260 S
Base price (with destination): $74,995
Size: 1.8L Supercharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 257 hp @ 8,000 rpm
Torque: 174 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm
Weight: 2020 lbs.
Lightweight Forged Alloy 7x16 in. front; 8x17 rear.
Yokohama Advan A048 LTS 195/50R16 front; 225/45R17 rear.