First drive review: Lotus Exige S roadster (2013)

Hands up for a 145mph blow-dry

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IT MIGHT be a few takeovers from its origins, its body panels might be formed in France and its engines shipped to Norfolk from the factories of Toyota. Yet the Lotus brand somehow remains stubbornly British at heart.

The accumulated history in that green and yellow badge has proved a devil to shift. You see it pinned to the front of the new Exige S roadster and you automatically feel that the car must still in some important way be flying the flag for oily rags, courageous chaps in polo necks and the timeless virtues of driving stupidly fast around disused airfields.

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This is the first time the twin-seater Exige has been offered as a convertible, although not necessarily the first time you have seen one, because in the 13 years that the car has been among us, some customers have got ahead of the curve by performing their own acts of home surgery. Lotus owners can be a bit like that.

Now, though, entirely negating the need to go at it yourself with the hedge clippers, we get a pre-softened model. We grow lazy about car-roof removal in these days of cheap and cheerful, push-button automation, so be aware that achieving rooflessness in your Exige will involve you personally in some unclipping, some sliding of metal support struts and some entirely manual rolling up of canvas.

But, of course, it wouldn’t be a proper sports car if this kind of thing were easy, and it’s still several leagues simpler than stowing the top on the old Porsche Boxster Spyder — a lightweight roadster like the Exige  — which required a Scout’s badge for knots and a Duke of Edinburgh award for rag-top removal.

With your canvas successfully rolled, away you go, your head in the air (albeit behind the Exige’s almost globular windscreen) and the supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine (the same as in the Exige S coupé), pinned under glass, barking and whining behind your shoulders. At high speed the engine noise combines with the wind throb in the cabin to press your eardrums in on each side until they meet in the middle of your head. This can impair relaxed conversation. Indeed the chances are you will barely be able to hear your passenger scream, “Slow down”. Still, who’s talking? And who’s slowing down?

This is the fastest soft-top Lotus yet, we’re eagerly told — that eagerness almost, but not quite, lifting us over the contradictions at the heart of the very idea of a high-performance roadster. Is this a car for belting around tracks in a helmet, worrying about lap times, or one in which to sunbathe and show off outside crowded pubs? And can those two be blended?

According to Lotus, this is a practical sports car. You hear this hopeful melody sung quite often by the manufacturers of what are essentially flame-throwers with bucket seats in them: “You can take it anywhere — honest.” Still, it’s entirely forgivable as a marketing strategy on Lotus’s part. People who would not have considered a Lotus before might plausibly do so when heated seats, parking sensors and the opportunity to lift your chin up and cheerfully browse the endless skies are an option.

Heated seats and parking sensors, though: do hardcore drivers give a damn about this stuff? Surely they want to feel like they’ve been dragged down a runway on a sheet of metal towed by an RAF Tornado.

They don’t even care that the car’s hopelessly fiddly-buttoned CD player appears to have been seized in a panic from a branch of Halfords just before closing time. The chances are they’re going to identify it as surplus weight and toss it into the gutter even as they leave the showroom.

And do they even really care about going around with their hair in the air? They may care more when they hear that the car’s performance hasn’t been compromised. The Exige is built on a tub-shaped bonded aluminium chassis. Lopping off the roof and filling the hole with a tent flap doesn’t really change anything about the body’s rigidity. The roadster accelerates to 62mph at exactly the same blistering rate as the coupé and pulls even harder up to 100mph.

However, whereas the coupé will go unhindered all the way up to 170mph (traffic permitting), the top speed of the roadster has been limited to 145mph, which is the point at which Lotus suspects the air will tire of flowing co-operatively over the canvas and instead rip it off and blow it over to Jersey. Hardcore users may balk at that interference, even if they can’t remember the last time they needed to go at 146mph on a British road, or even on a British track.

Speaking of which, on a racetrack, the car seems agile to a quite staggering degree. The basic Tour mode is fruity enough but the Sport setting sharpens the throttle response and fattens the noise from the exhaust.

The corrective electronics in Lotus’s estimable, bespoke Dynamic Performance Management system seem to work by a process of insinuation rather than by bossily grabbing hold of the car and ordering it around. But there’s an option to switch it all off, in any case, if you prefer to go into the Armco and burst into flames.

The car performs plausibly out in the world too, even if the metal-topped gearstick in its six-speed box is a tough throw, and even if the entirely unassisted steering — wonderfully precise and involving at speed — is something of an upper-body workout during parking manoeuvres and three-point turns.

The suspension is forgiving enough that Norfolk’s knackered and gravelly country roads were skittered over relatively comfortably. And for a bonus, Norfolk’s plentiful summer bird life was movingly audible — albeit briefly and only at junctions.

You’re not paying any extra for that birdsong either. Unusually the roadster costs no more than the coupé at base price. However, the Exige S is still almost £8,000 steeper than the Porsche Boxster S. The latter is probably the better everyday car. The Lotus is probably the better racing car. Neither is entirely both. You choose.


Verdict ★★★★☆

The hardcore soft top


Lotus Exige S roadster

Release date:
On sale now
3456cc, V6
346bhp @7000rpm
295 lb ft @ 4500rpm
6-speed manual
0-62mph in 4.0sec
Top speed:
28.0mph (combined)
Road tax band:
L (£840 for first year)


Lotus Exige S rivals

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