Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner but this is the text. I hope you feel I have done justice to our amazing cars. The idea was to compare their federalised Elise with our most raucous derivative.
Mike - I have a copy of the mag waiting for you, I’ll bring it down to Donington on Saturday.
The Elise story has been told before, but it is worth considering the context of the car in Britain as part of its success. The Elise was released into a market which actually featured quite a few ostensibly similar sportscars ï¿½ the Toyota MR2, Mazda MX5 and MGF being among them. These are all perfectly worthy vehicles, but perhaps lacking the dynamic sparkle and feeling of specialness which made Hethelï¿½s finest such a runaway success. The Elise offered common mechanical parts fitted to an extremely lightweight and rigid chassis to offer performance far in excess of the apparent sum of its (few) parts. While lacking some of the luxuries of its contemporaries, the fitment of a roof and boot meant this was a car which could be justified to tolerant spouses, where a Caterham might not.
Through the lifespan of the Elise, the UK trackday market has exploded, with every spare expanse of private macadam being rented out to provide would-be Sebastien Vettels with thrills at the controls of their own cars. The Elise, and its derivatives, has been at the forefront of this trackday revolution; proving to be a car which you truly can thrash around Brands Hatch on Sunday and take to work on Monday. With this remarkable circuit capability so obvious, Lotus launched a one-make series for the Elise featuring revised, high-downforce bodywork, a highly tuned iteration of the Rover K-Series engine and a central seating position. This was known as the Sport Elise and the track-orientated bodywork soon found its way onto a road car: The Exige.
A few years later, Lotus released the first federalised Elise to allow sale in the United States: The 111R featured a powerful Toyota engine and refinements unknown to buyers of earlier Series 1 cars. Sound deadening, electric windows, digital radio and (whisper it…) cup holders all added to the carï¿½s newly-discovered civility. It was a 111R which tempted me into Lotus ownership after so many years of admiring from a distance. Coming from a background of the young UK driving enthusiastï¿½s weapon of choice ï¿½ the hot hatch ï¿½ the more sanitised end of the Elise market seemed a prudent place to start. And so it proved. I enjoyed two delightful years with my 111R, which included early-morning weekend blasts around North Yorkshire, car shows, trips to motor racing events and even a couple of laps of the full 8.5 miles of Le Mans; most of those 20,000 miles were covered with the roof off and a smile on my face.
Despite my love for this special little car, I found myself looking rather enviously at friends who owned Exiges. My Elise was such a nice example, with hours of careful polishing keeping the paintwork beautiful, it was too nice to take on the track and I rather felt that Iï¿½d got out of the car everything I had set out to. So when a very well-known Exige came up for sale, I had to go and have a look. I was immediately smitten and a deal was done soon after ï¿½ build number 447 of 595 was mine!
In some respects, trying to justify the move from a lovely 2006 111R to a 2001 Exige is difficult; the Exige is more expensive, noisier, less reliable, not much faster and more difficult to live with. But to drive one is to achieve understanding. Weighing in at approximately 100kgs less than my Elise, the agility and poise are remarkable. The suspension geometry is deliberately aggressive and broader front tyres mean any hint of understeer is eradicated. The front just grips and goes wherever you point it. On the road its capabilities remain beyond rational ambitions. #447 features a modified diffuser and splitter which work with the underbody and rear wing to produce un-nerving high-speed stability. With those wider front tyres and non servo-assisted brakes combined with high cabin temperatures, this is a very physical car to drive quickly and the reputation for all Exige drivers perspiring and suffering from temporary deafness is entirely justified! However, especially with the right suspension set-up, it will simply bludgeon its way along twisting country roads, carrying enormous speed through corners with remarkable ease. It enables the driver to focus on his roadcraft to make the safest and smoothest possible progress, knowing the car will follow every input and react as desired.
To complement that amazing chassis, Lotus employed the VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) version of the venerable K-Series engine, which featured in the earlier 340R. While there are some known weaknesses with the K-Series, and the VHPD in particular, this is a remarkable engine. Weighing less than 100kgs, it offers over 100bhp/litre and a rev limit of 8,000rpm. It will manage 40mpg in general driving. In VHPD form with roller bearing throttle bodies and hot cams, it is one seriously aggressive engine. With a lumpy race car idle and zero manners around town, the recalcitrant nature of the engine perfectly suits the dramatic exterior of the Exige. There is precious little urge below 3,000rpm and not much more until 4,500rpm but once youï¿½re motoring towards the redline, the angry little powerplant comes alive. It screams and shouts, with sports exhaust and de-cat pipe creating an enormous mechanical maelstrom which sounds as if every stroke has the conrods hammering the macadam. This is a seriously quick car when you start to wind it up. There is much banter on internet forums concerning the reliability of the K-Series engine, which has seen service in everything from the workhorse Land Rover Freelander through to Caterhamï¿½s manic R500. It is true that head gaskets are prone to failure and the cooling installation in a mid-engined car can be problematic, but most issues are now known and can be handled by specialists. As a highly-tuned engine, it requires a little special care and one must always carefully warm the car up, but most mechanically sympathetic drivers would do this as a matter of course.
On the road, the Exige isnï¿½t easy to live with, especially around town where its limited visibility, peaky power delivery and ultra stiff chassis can prove a little wearing. However, the reaction from the public is always fun and it takes some acclimatising to the sheer amount of attention it draws. A race car for the road goes nowhere subtly. As such, it would be wrong to own one of these cars and not exercise it off the highway and around the race tracks, where it earned its reputation a decade ago. #447 had seen something in the order of a dozen trackdays before my ownership and had been optimised towards this kind of use. Within a month of purchasing, I had my first trackday booked ï¿½ at the pretty Ty Croes circuit on the Welsh island of Anglesey. While the car was an experienced trackday warrior, I was not, and I approached the day with due trepidation. A day booked specifically for Lotuses, it proved a revelation, with every driver polite and courteous. The car was great and after a session with an instructor we were soon punting around at speeds you could never approach on the open road. The engine screamed in agreement with every revolution and the brakes never showed a hint of fade. The only limiting factors were the driver and the tyres, which are treaded road-orientated items, and they soon heated up and started to lose a little grip after 6 or 7 laps. As a novice, my pace was such that the rubber wasnï¿½t a problem and I was able to lap at a speed appropriate to my experience. The car really was faultless and only a couple of tail-out moments blotted our copybook, but there were no spins and the handling proved more predictable at high speed than I dared hope it could be.
I came away from the experience with a renewed respect and love for this wonderful little car. Spending a day with other owners of similar cars, enjoying fine company in a relaxed setting and really getting to grips with one of Lotusï¿½s finest achievements…that, surely, is what motoring Lotus-style is all about.