It’s a Maserati and it’s got a diesel engine. One hundred years old and one of automotive history’s most noble names has turned to the dark side.
It’s a Maserati and it’s got a diesel engine. One hundred years old and one of automotive history’s most noble names has turned to the dark side.
‘Discrete’ is one word rarely applied to the Lotus Exige. It becomes a laughable notion when you gather three of them – plus a brand-new Bentley Continental GT and photographer Martyn’s lurid green ‘Elige’ – in one of the less salubrious corners of Leeds for a photo shoot. The results seemed to be worth the jeopardy though as an apparently unremarkable underpass became the stage for what we understand is the first purposeful photo shoot of all three generations of this iconic car in the UK – and probably the world.
The catalyst for this gathering of bewinged racers was the arrival of local dealership JCT600’s new Exige S demonstrator; in glistening pearlescent white. Being blessed with a laser blue S1 Exige myself, all we needed was a red S2 and we had the set – in patriotic livery. Skipton resident and enthusiastic owner Andy Gates generously brought over his stunning ardent red 2005 S2 Exige and so the stage was set for a freezing cold evening of standing around hoping none of the locals decided to relieve us of our precious metal.
The original Exige, now known as the S1, was derived directly from Lotus’s own race car. The Sport Elise had its own domestic racing championship in the early part of the last decade. The racer donated its dramatic Kamm-tailed bodywork and lumpy K-series engine (which had previously seen service in the manic 340R) to a limited run of road cars produced between 2000 and 2001. With UK road registered numbers now dwindling, it seems hard to believe that Lotus actually struggled to shift the Exige in period.
According to its own figures, Lotus produced 604 S1 Exiges and they’re now considered something of a commodity. Rising values are not dissuading owners from using their cars, though, and the Exige is a regular sight at track days and events across the country. It’s a compelling car, which seems only to become more beguiling with time. As mainstream cars seem ever to remove the driver from the driving process, the Exige hardwires you in – it’s like intravenous motoring.
The S1 is not an easy car to live with and it would take a masochistic temperament to use one on a daily basis. The drive train is race car raw with hacking, lumpy low-rev hostility and shrieking violence higher up the rev range. It gets mighty hot in the cabin and on a committed drive you emerge drenched in sweat from the physicality of it all. Subsequent Exiges have been faster, but none has been more intense.
By comparison, Andy Gates’ gorgeous S2 Exige seems civility personified – though compared to just about anything else on the road it’s still as raw as an open wound. The S2 Exige entered production only three years after S1 Production ceased, yet the car seems from a different age. Though now motivated by a serial production Toyota engine, rather than the VHPD Rover unit in the S1, any thoughts that the Exige might have calmed down prove unfounded.
The Toyota 2ZZ-GE may only displace 1.8l but it revs to a giddy 8,500rpm, higher even than the VHPD. With a distinct cam change ‘kick’ at 6,200rpm it creates a usefully schizophrenic character which thrives on hard driving. The moment the engine hits the high-lift cam the induction note hardens and acceleration changes from brisk to rapid. It’s seriously addictive.
Andy has owned his car for three years. Finished in ardent red, he added longitudinal stripes to break up the colour. With black wheels, splitter and diffuser it carries itself with the usual Exige swagger. Andy has been remarkably restrained with the modifications to his car, though a sports exhaust should add to the drama plenty when installed.
The S2 became an instant hit for Lotus. Combining plenty of the visual drama of the S1 but asking for far less commitment from owners, it has gone on to sales success. Successive models have added superchargers offering greater power, bigger brakes and bodywork revisions. The original, naturally aspirated version still hits the spot perfectly though. This model helped opened the door to new generations of Lotus owners with game-changing performance on and off track, combined with remarkable build and reliability. Oh, and beating a helicopter gunship on TV’s Top Gear did it no harm either.
By comparison, the latest V6 Exige S looks an entirely different car. It’s longer and broader with a thicker-set stance which offers greater presence than its forbears. If ever there is a topic to arouse widespread debate in Lotus circles, it is weight – mostly the accusation of too much of it. The new Exige S breaks the sacred 1,000kg barrier for the first time. Perhaps even worse for Exige die-hards, the new car now dispenses with that crowning bastion of Exige-ness – the roof scoop. While the S1 needed all the cool air it could get to prevent untimely detonation and later S2s needed it to feed to hungry intercoolers, the latest S3 Exige didn’t require one so none was fitted. The horror…
Putting aside these preconceptions, take the new Exige S in isolation and it is an amazing achievement from a small company. The drive train is suddenly more characterful than it ever was in the Evora S, with agitated pops and gurgles on the over-run. That engine is simply mighty, with phenomenal acceleration in any gear at any speed. It delivers you deep into licence-losing territory with terrifying ease. That the chassis is the equal of the engine is nothing short of miraculous. It smoothes out bumps, ridges and crests in a way which must have Rolls Royce engineers scratching their heads. As a driving experience it’s hard to think of anything else short of a Ferrari 458 which could touch it.
Delivery issues have been well publicised online and probably don’t warrant discussion here. Suffice it to say that the works are selling cars as fast as they can produce them; the problem is they’re struggling to produce them fast enough. Still, if the testimonials from owners are as positive as the road tests then this promises to be a massive success for Lotus – and it deserves to be.
Back at our photo shoot, photographer Martyn displays endless patience in placing the cars millimetre-perfectly. He seems to spend as much time lying on the floor as he does standing up. He uses a technique called ‘light painting’ which seems to involve long exposures and an LED torch. It’s all deeply impressive stuff, though the female members of our party rather prudently take up residence in the Bentley; replete as it is with heated massage seats. I wish I’d thought of that. My toes are stinging from the cold.
The results of the shoot are spectacular and worth braving the freezing temperatures and jeopardy for. Whatever your sporting automotive preference, there is now an Exige for you, and you can guarantee nothing else will match it for dramatic, head-turning looks and ultimate dynamic potency.
My thanks to JCT600 Lotus, martynlewisphotography.com and Andy Gates for their time and effort in making the shoot happen.
The stream of profanity stretches ever longer, my knuckles are white and my girlfriend is giggling like a school girl at a One Direction concert. You don’t forget your first lunge deep into third gear in the new Exige S; nor your second, nor even your third. Bloody hell, this thing is fast. I have 24 hours in the Exige S. It has just received its first service and I’m told to enjoy it properly. I don’t need telling twice, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it quite this much.
I’m determined to see how this new Exige S performs being used as a car. Not a track toy or a silly indulgence like my own S1 Exige; just a car doing its thing, delivering its occupants where they need to go. So the first activity involved taking a lady for dinner. I realise for most Lotus owners this apparently simple act usually involves bribery and coercion as reluctant ‘Lotus wives’ complain about the smell or the noise or the discomfort. The new car passes with flying colours. My date is immediately impressed by the Probax seats but it’s the acceleration which really hooks her – she loves it.
Arriving at a good pub near Wetherby for dinner I’m not sweating quite so profusely as usual in an Exige. Clearly cabin temperature has been a development priority. In fact other than the minor work-out turning the wheel at low speed to park I feel quite fresh. Barely before we’ve sat down to eat the waiter has complimented me on my amazing car. I debate whether to fool him into believing I’m some kind of rock star supercar-driving demi-god. Instead I mutter something about how I’m merely borrowing it while trying to contain my slight smugness at all the attention.
With dinner dispensed with, it’s back on the road and time to find some good driving roads to test the new car’s dynamic capabilities. If it can handle the North Yorkshire Dales without forcing my good lady and me to revisit our meals then we’ll consider that a great start.
We head from Wetherby over to Harewood, passing the entrance to the famous hillclimb at a speed which many of the course’s competitors would be proud of. On that fine, fast, undulating section from Collingham to Harewood the Exige is mighty. It devours straights whole in huge bites; one benign flex of the right foot sends you from one corner to the next with startling force. It’s been my privilege to drive a few quick cars in recent years but nothing which so readily combines such wells of torque with such broad-shouldered stability and amazing traction.
From Harewood it’s north towards Harrogate as we nose nearer towards the Dales. Stopping for petrol, the attendant takes a keen interest in the shiny white projectile on his forecourt. He’s kind enough to suggest that it would traverse the local roads faster even than Jenson could manage in his McLaren grand prix car. I was left genuinely ruminating on how a contemporary F1 car would handle the A59 at speed.
Harrogate entailed a rather tiresome diversion due to roadworks, but it did offer further opportunity to savour the ride. The greater mass and broader track compared to the S1 and S2 variants have created a lovely platform which really soaks up potholes and uneven surfaces. Combined with better sound proofing to the cabin, there are significantly fewer of those wince-inducing moments as you crash over poor surfaces.
After an eternity we are free of Harrogate and out on the A59 towards Skipton. This is a big, fast, open road with good visibility and a useful combination of corners and crests to test your observation and road craft. I am dismayed to find we are able to conduct a conversation at more than 20mph with ease. The car certainly has long legs and makes easy work of the first few miles. There’s a particularly nice balance and feel from the rear as you gently feed in the power on corner exit – it has ‘flow’.
We head out onto moorland territory as the sun sets and the headlights start to guide the way. I struggled to detect much improvement over previous Lotus generations here and as darkness fell our pace became largely dictated by the availability of light more than anything else. Out here there are no telegraph poles or trees to guide you ahead. On smaller roads and switchbacks, the car’s increase in mass over previous generations makes itself felt. Where an S1, or even S2, would dispense with a series of slow corners telepathically, the new car needs a bit more help and you start to consider the mass behind you. It’s still agile by the standards of most cars, but then the Exige has never been ‘most cars’.
We arrive home under cover of darkness and leave the car street parked outside the house – in the true spirit using it as a car. It’s left a big impression and I’m understandably delighted when I awake to find it still parked there and apparently untouched. What a relief.
I have a meeting in the morning – at the headquarters of West Yorkshire Police. When I consider what the car and I got up to the previous evening this feels akin to doing business with your mistress’s husband; I actually feel a bit naughty. Still, my client loves the car and finds its total stupidity rather endearing. I’m not sure I’d ever feel sufficiently cocksure to use it for business if it were my own, but I’ve proven the Exige capable of doing it.
I proceed onwards to our offices. Feeling slightly ostentatious I leave it at the far end of the works car park but I’m slightly jittery. I’ve been exploring the car’s overtaking potential – purely in the interests of journalistic research, you understand – and it transpires it’s really rather potent. I’m slowly recalibrating my brain to the performance now, though I’m not ready to start chucking it around the roundabouts with abandon – that would take a little more time to build up to.
Come lunchtime there’s a small queue of colleagues eager to experience what the Exige S is all about. I confess to slight pride in making them giggle – much as my girlfriend had the previous evening. One existing Lotus fan immediately logs onto eBay and prepares to sell a kidney; another chap becomes a Lotus fan and logs onto the classifieds with a sudden interest in track days. It seems the best possible marketing for Lotus is just to get folk out in the car – everyone loves it.
I also wonder whether I have the bizarre distinction of being the first person ever to take an Exige S to Asda. It handled the speed humps, fitted neatly in a single parking space and carried my lunch with aplomb. If there is a problem in the supermarket environment it is that the Exige S drastically increases the likelihood of a third party accident as fellow shoppers gawp as they drive past. No Exige has ever provided discrete transportation, though.
So, having established that this new Exige S can handle dinner dates, high speed blasts through the countryside, street parking, scaring friends, business meetings and the weekly shop, only one trial remained: weather. It was with heavy heart I discovered rain as I prepared to leave the office. Bugger. With the traction control cranked to its most idiot-proof setting I found that even with my fists of ham I was able to convey myself safely back to the dealership without crashing once.
I had promised myself total objectivity going into this test. I would not be gushing, effusive maybe, but definitely not gushing. Despite my attempts to enter the day unburdened with preconceptions, I had expected simply to conclude by saying that it’s good, but that the S1 is better because it’s lighter and simpler and has unservoed brakes, etc. You know the forum banter.
I cannot, in all sincerity, conclude that the S1 is the better car. It isn’t. In every measurable, empirical, way it is grossly inferior to this new car. The V6 Exige S is brilliant. But, and it’s a crucial but, it’s a very different kind of Exige those which have gone before. If you chase your thrills up to 100mph, love the stench of petrol and savour the physicality of a racing car for the road then the original Exige is still the hyper-agile adrenalin shot of driving you need. If you seek a slightly more civilised, deeper-lunged challenge then this new car will amaze you.
The new Exige S is a triumph for Lotus. Now let’s see the company build – and deliver – a few of them.
My eternal thanks go to Andy Bryan at JCT600 for entrusting his precious demonstrator with me.
I must confess at this stage to a little un-journalistic bias. I love Goodwood. There’s something in the air on that grand old estate which seems to contain a sprinkling of magic. Somehow everything they touch just works. I’ll try not to be too gushing.We arrived at the Goodwood Hotel on Friday afternoon as privileged guests – rather out of our depth in such salubrious surroundings. The hotel is lovely; thoughtfully designed and with every whim neatly catered for. They even have the Sky Sports F1 channel so we could keep abreast of the F1 testing from Barcelona without resorting to Twitter. They even serve burgers at the bar and have a huge Jaguar E-Type evocation painted on one of the outside walls. It’s personal too; with Lord March’s own arboreal photographs decorating the corridor walls.
We had decided to take advantage of a classic car break, jointly offered by Goodwood and local hire company Vanilla Classics. This affords the opportunity to enjoy a luxurious stay in the Goodwood hotel and rent a classic car. I’d rather rashly promised Mrs Motorcardiaries a day with Vanilla Classics’ AC Cobra replica to indulge her love for muscle cars. If anything is likely to sate an appetite for V8 American muscle, a 5.1l 350bhp Chevy V8 shoehorned into a tiny fibreglass bodyshell is it.Vanilla Classics is about fifteen minutes to the south east of Goodwood and offers a wide range of classics for hire. For the enthusiast, their Cobra rep and glorious V12 E-Type shout the loudest. The Cobra is a BRA replica produced in 1972, and therefore by some considerable distance, the oldest car either of us had ever driven. A short test drive revealed a very different character to the VW Polo we’d arrived in.
We had the car for the full day and an allowance of 100 miles included. We did the only obvious thing and headed back to Goodwood to pose for some photos at the Motor Circuit. Sooze took the wheel first – after all it was her treat. With vestigial roof off and blaring side-exit exhausts, this was elemental motoring in a sense which made my Exige seem positively civilised. We were well wrapped up against the elements and enjoyed the thrill of the cold air on our faces and being able to virtually reach out and touch the Tarmac beneath us.As you’d expect, the noise dominates the whole experience. No opportunity was wasted to savour the aural ferocity. It’s a mighty, potent sound which hardens considerably as the revs rise, pricking the hairs on the back of your neck – if the wind hasn’t got there first. Arriving at Goodwood we dropped through the tunnel, with the obligatory engine blipping showering us in V8 thunder. Magic.
There was a track day on at the circuit, with numerous exciting noises signalling rapid lappery. We paused long enough to pose for a few photos before heading off in search of some fine driving roads to savour the Cobra experience. Mercifully this picturesque corner of West Sussex has them in abundance so we headed out past the race course and towards Petworth. With its claustrophobic streets, Petworth seemed the perfect location for some more juvenile, confined, engine revving. Despite the rather childish nature of this enterprise, I defy anybody with petrol in their veins not to laugh at loud at the lunacy of such unbridled aural defiance in the narrow streets of a polite provincial town.
After a lap of Petworth with the sole purpose of making a bloody racket we headed west and out towards Midhurst and one of our favourite pubs in the area – the Halfway Bridge just near Cowdray Park. Having been without a roofless car for several years I’d forgotten quite how chilly an experience it can be, even with thick coats and scarfs. A few minutes by a radiator with a hydrating caffeinated beverage and we were ready to brave the car and the elements.
This time it was my turn and immediately finding reverse was a struggle; not helped by the kitchen staff acting as an impromptu audience. Eventually I found a gear and headed out onto the open road. The view down the bonnet is evocative, with big air intake dead-ahead and the road framed by those high arches atop the front wings. Suddenly I was Phil Hill on the 1964 Targa Florio. In my dreams…
The Cobra driving experience is really quite something. That view is evocative enough, but gripping a three-spoke wooden-rimmed Mono-Lite steering wheel feels special, with every throttle opening feeding greedy carbs and rousing those crazy side exit exhausts. The steering is well weighted but not terribly feelsome so your appreciation of the car is mainly from the traditional seat-of-the-pants. Slung over the back axle, you never feel anything less than totally involved in the driving process.The pedalbox is narrow and there’s no space for a left foot rest, but that just seems a good excuse for stirring the gearbox more often. The gearchange is pretty good out on the road and blipped downchanges are rewarded with generous burbles and pops on the overrun; especially satisfying when there are adjacent walls or verges to reflect all that malignant noise. The brakes take some getting used to, with little initial bite, and then lots. Still, they’re way more effective than you’d expect from a car produced in the early 1970s and never provide any worry.
I expected to be totally intimidated by the Cobra. With little weight, a hugely torquey engine and a relatively unsophisticated chassis it sounded like a recipe for a fearful driving experience. The truth is far removed. The damping isn’t going to give Lotus engineers sleepless nights and it’s slightly unsettled by mid-corner bumps, but never to the extent of eroding confidence. We both ended up driving it fairly briskly, but obeying the usual principle of exercising extreme caution when braking or accelerating unless in a straight line. I was soon imagining what it must be like piloting a real Cobra in the TT Celebration at Goodwood…hammering down towards Fordwater before a lift to stabilise the rear and drift through, hurtling off towards St Mary’s.
We ended up finding some stunning roads around West Sussex and they were mostly quiet. We briefly passed into Hampshire before returning to Goodwood for lunch. We had a sandwich in the Aero Club and warmed up before spending a few minutes on the roof of the pits to observe the combatants on track. It was your typical mixed track day bag. Making the largest impression was a huge – and hugely dramatic – Lamborghini Aventador; its V12 searing across the paddock. A Bentley Continental GTC looked incongruous, hauling two occupants at considerable speed, despite its apparent lack of suitability for track work.
No track day would be complete without a Porsche 911 GT3 and a red 997.2 looked an absolute weapon. Equally ubiquitous at track days is the BMW M3 and an E46 well represented its ilk. Of course there was also an Exige there, and this particular S2 had blotted its copybook by dumping its gearbox oil all over the pitlane. We felt for the poor owner and hoped he got home under his own steam.
Still, we had a Cobra for the day so decided to worry about our own motoring. I took to the passenger seat once more and Sooze gave another obligatory throttle blip as we ducked through the tunnel and back out onto the open road. We headed out towards Midhurst again, but this time along a different road to enjoy some new surroundings. We then turned back east, through Petworth and on towards Storrington, eventually dropping south and nosing reluctantly in the direction of Vanilla Classics to hand back the car.
It was a really fun day. We both loved the Cobra and immediately did the obvious thing and started browsing the Pistonheads classifieds at prices of good replicas. Maybe when we’ve got a second garage it’d make a good partner for the Exige. We were blessed with a rare day without rain and the Sussex roads were usefully quiet. Best of all, it’s earned me some awesome birthday brownie points with Sooze.We stayed locally on Saturday evening and set the alarms early for Sunday morning. Despite my general reticence over road cars and traditional car shows, the Goodwood Breakfast Club is such a great morning out. This represented the first of the year and was themed Tax Free Sunday – ostensibly for pre-1973 classics. An enormous turn-out of evocative old cars made the early morning jaunt, as well as thousands of others not directly applicable to the theme.
The great thing about the Breakfast Club is that you have no idea what might turn up until you arrive. The tax-free theme permits all manner of machinery and the site was bustling was old cars and motorcycles. Mercifully, despite the potentially beardy age of the cars, the crowd comprised folk of all ages, with kids loving the chance to run around on a real race track. As well as people, there are also scores of dogs in attendance, with canine companionship encouraged. For the most part, they seemed as well-behaved as their owners.
The range of cars was bewildering. From early cycle-fendered jalopies to track-ready E-Types it was hard to know where to look. The variety highlights the sheer diversity in automotive interests which abound. There were muscle cars aplenty and at one stage two Ford Mach 1 Mustangs amusingly faced down a trio of Mopar’s finest as they departed the circuit. Hot rods were also out in force, with pin stipes decorating bodies which exposed glistening carburettors. These sat alongside glamorous Astons, Ferraris, Maseratis and Gordon Keebles, while the usual British suspects from Triumph, Austin Healey, Jaguar and Bentley added familiarity.
With the Breakfast Club winding down we started the long drive back up north to our native Yorkshire. In keeping with the Goodwood theme, my local Lotus owners’ club was due to receive Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams to deliver a presentation to members and friends about his remarkable career. Whizzo has become something of a hero to Goodwood crowds with his demonstrative exploits aboard a variety of machinery at the Revival – he’s now competed in 65 races at the Revival.
Whizzo is a natural raconteur and kept the crowd entertained for more than two and a half hours. He’s lived a colourful life, now 74, and having raced for 50 years aboard a huge variety of machinery. He’s competed alongside a bewildering array of racers during a fascinating career. There can barely be a racing driver alive or dead who Whizzo doesn’t have an incriminating story about. It was a great evening and a pleasing way to close out a wonderful weekend. Now it’s back to reality.
Panic descended across the UK last week due to the threat (imperative word) of striking tanker drivers leaving motorists stricken; bereft of fuel. In reaction to this possibility, the entire motoring populace filled their own tanks, ironically enough leaving many others at the risk of being stricken; bereft of fuel. It seemed somehow unjust that this occurrence coincided with a trip away in my rattly old Lotus. I was choked to find the only super unleaded in the area priced at 161.9p/litre. However, the tank was brimmed, tyre pressures moderated from the previous week’s track activities, harnesses strapped and we hit the road destined for North Wales. 20-something miles of road works on the M62 ensured there was no danger of any fun on the country’s motorway networks and fuel economy hit a VHPD record high.
Over in Wales, the reason for taking the Exige was to try out some of the country’s fine driving roads. The ‘evo Triangle’ is triangulation of three roads forming a neat loop across glorious open countryside between Betws-y-Coed and Rhuthin. This section of highway has adopted the moniker due to evo magazine’s regular occupation for road testing. Accompanied by clear blue skies and warm sunshine, the first day of April promised much. The Triangle itself is spectacular – with the ever present danger of errant sheep and pontificating farm vehicles keeping one on high alert at all times. There are some fairly quick sections, with good visibility for the most part, and the surrounding countryside ranges from rolling valleys to woodland and desolate moorland. It’s almost like the North Yorkshire Dales compressed into a half hour blast. It seemed only to last a few minutes. Given sufficient time, it would be easy to justify three or four passes to get a proper feel for the road.
From there we decided to head up to Rhuthin for something of a minor pilgrimage. Tom Pryce was one of the UK’s most promising racing drivers of the 1970s, with a flamboyant style which earned respect from his peers and the general public. He had found a home at Shadow, first alongside Jean-Pierre Jarier, then for 1977 leading the team himself. He was killed in the most appalling circumstances at Kyalami during the 1977 South African Grand Prix. He had yet to win a World Championship Grand Prix but that famous sideways style and trademark deerstalker hat were already lost to the Formula One fraternity.
It gladdens me to know that Tom’s home town of Rhuthin has seen fit to pay tribute to him by erecting a permanent memorial to their fastest son. Right in the centre of the town is a brass plaque depicting him behind the wheel of a brace of Shadows – distinctive black stripes on his helmet obviously visible. I imagine many younger residents didn’t know the name ‘Tom Pryce’ until the unveiling of the memorial but I hope some have chosen to research his legend. His was a natural, world-class talent, aided by an apparently gentle personality – definitely a Welshman to be proud of.