Like a well-built running shoe, the Lotus Elise is snug, light, and—because it is a convertible—low-cut. Now Lotus has added one for the other foot, the Lotus Exige, which fits just as snugly but runs with less effort and exhibits better balance than its predecessor. Bearing a name loosely derived from the French verb exiger (to demand), the Exige is intended for enthusiasts fond of romping on lonely and wriggling country roads, competing in weekend racing, and visiting the nation’s growing clutch of motoring country clubs.
Lotus did not build this mid-engine two-seater for carrying home antiquing acquisitions. The trunk holds no more than a lunch pail and a toothbrush. (But it does have a federally mandated internal release, should, say, your Chihuahua get locked in.) Adding a cup holder—just one—is an option. “It is a high-performance track car for those who want the ultimate driving experience,” explains Mark O’Shaughnessy, director of sales and marketing for Lotus Cars USA. “The Elise introduced that formula. The Exige adds a fixed roof and a harder edge.”
The new Exige has exactly the same dimensions as those of the current Elise: It is about waist high, almost a foot shorter than a Miata, and less than 6 feet wide. As with the Elise, entering or exiting the car, even for persons of less than linebacker measurements, requires a shoehorn and several coats of lanolin. The transmission remains a 6-speed manual, and the muscle, from Toyota’s 1.8-liter four-banger, is unchanged at 190 hp. With the new roof and a few aerodynamic add-ons, the Exige barely tops 2,000 pounds (the Elise is a couple of kilos below that magic barrier), which makes it fractionally slower to its top speed of 147 mph and marginally more sluggish to 60 mph.
Most of that additional avoirdupois is created by an aerodynamic package that enables the Exige to perform like a track shoe, making the Elise seem like a wader in comparison. The front-end splitter and the hard top, which directs airflow to the resculpted engine bay cover and the rear wing, produce 90 pounds of downforce at 100 mph, compared to 13 pounds for the Elise. A smooth under tray and a rear diffuser further enhance the airflow management.
For an additional $2,500 to the base price of $51,000 (the Elise costs $43,000), Lotus will add its Track Pack, which includes adjustable Bilstein dampers, a five-position front anti-sway bar, reinforced rear suspension points, and a roll bar. A couple thousand dollars more buys a limited slip differential and traction controls.
Lotus picked the perfect locale to launch the Exige: Virginia International Raceway. This 3.27-mile circuit allowed the Exige to stretch its legs. The Exige tucks into corners more tightly, brakes later, and exits more quickly than just about any sports car, all without any skipping or waddling. On leafy lanes around Danville and South Boston, an area rich with clapboard cottages and antebellum chapels, the Exige restores excitement to driving passions that may have been deadened by turbochargers, paddle shifters, and 500 pounds of soundproofing.
“The Exige is for those who take their driving seriously,” says John English, president and chief executive of Lotus Cars USA. “Those looking for automatic wipers need to look elsewhere.”