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August 1, 2006 > Lotus Elise and Exige

Lotus Elise and Exige

by Dick Ryan

The Lotus Elise and Exige are basically the same car except for body styles. The Elise is a convertible roadster and the Exige is a hardtop with better aerodynamics and a rear wing. The doors and rocker panels are the only shared body parts, but mechanically they are exactly the same. Elises have been built since 2000, and the 2006 model is its third generation. The first Exige was produced in 2005.

So we start off on the right foot, you need to know that any Lotus automobile is not a "normal" car. They are limited production cars targeted at a very narrow buyer segment: sports car enthusiasts. Only 300 Exiges will be sold in the U.S. this year. Lotuses are made to go around racetracks and twisty roads FAST. These cars are about as close to racecars, designed for street use, as you can purchase.

Being a limited production manufacturer, Lotus does not make its own engines. It buys engines from other manufacturers to install in its cars. Both the Elise and Exige use a mid-mounted, 190 HP (at 7800 rpm), Toyota 4-cylinder, fuel injected, 1.8-liter unit that develops 138 foot-pounds of torque. It has variable valve timing so, at 6200 rpm, the power output jumps way up. The 2015-pound Exige only needs 4.9 seconds to get to 60 mph. Both cars share a 6-speed manual transmission (there is no automatic).

So what's the real difference between the two? At speed, the Elise has only 4.4 pounds of aerodynamic down force on the rear wheels. The Exige has 48 pounds of down force on its rear wheels. In fast, sweeping turns (especially ones with elevation changes) the Elise can get nervous and tends to scare you. The extra down force on the Exige keeps the rear wheels planted for flat out, no-sweat, confidence-building, motoring.

Let's drive an Exige around the Laguna Seca racetrack in Monterey. The first question is "How do I get in?" Unless you're are 5'6" or less, the answer is "with difficulty." In the Elise, you can take the top down to improve the entry process. For the Exige (or a top up Elise) you stick your right foot under the tiny steering wheel, sit on the wide doorsill, and try to get your left foot under the steering wheel. Then slide your rear end over and drop into the seat without banging your head on the roof. Once you are inside, there is plenty of room. Except for the foot box-you need to wear the narrowest shoes you own.

These cars are meant for driving, and the interior was designed that way.  There are no cup holders. Storage space? No way! The dash is a wealth of electronic information, but it takes some time to get used to. At one point, I saw 138 on the dash, but I didn't think I was going that fast. It turned out to be the trip odometer.

Fire up and head out. In the first 50 feet you discover the race car similarities. The steering is very quick and the ride is rock solid. (A 6-hour trip to LA would be tiring.) Shift throws are short and precise for the cable shifter linkage. You start to learn that the 4-wheel disc ABS brakes work very well. You realize that this car can corner REALLY hard.

Now you start to explore the motor's valve timing shift. In the lower gears, you need to be prepared for the power increase, because as you hit 6200 rpm the car can jump around a bit. Now, you are going harder and harder. Each lap, you go deeper and deeper into the turns before hitting the brakes. Your passenger is on the verge of throwing up. As you slow to exit the track, you realize that your face is frozen into a silly grin. You now know what "The Lotus Experience" really means.

The view from the Exige's center rearview mirror is all grating and wing and just about worthless. In fact, backing up is virtually a "leap of faith" because you can't see anything behind you.

So what's the bottom line? Yes, they are expensive ($50,990 for the base Exige and $42,990 for the base Elise). Yes, they are a pain to get into and out of. Yes, they are noisy. No, they are not even close to being practical.

But they are Lotus'. They are unique. They are fast. They are tons and tons of fun. Sign me up!

Dick Ryan is a freelance automotive journalist and member of the Western Automotive Journalists. You can contact him at rryan@frk.com.

 
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