The Exige shows the way that performance cars have to be
The Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, believed that reducing weight was key to performance. John Simister is all in favour

Specifications

Model: Lotus Exige S

Price: £34,945

Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, supercharger, 220bhp at 7,800rpm, 158lb ft at 5,500rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Performance: 148mph, 0-60 in 4.1sec, 31.0mpg official average

CO2: 216g/km

There's a problem with the Lotus Exige S. I'm sitting in the driving seat, an achievement in itself given the contortions en route past high sill and low roof, all I can see in the interior mirror is a stack of air ducting. This ducting is important. It's the outward manifestation of the Exige S's key advantage over a mere Exige, which is the extra power gained from its supercharger and intercooler. The intercooler needs air to cool it, hence the rear-view-blocking scoop and associated louvres.

The effect is to make the little Lotus look like a racing car in which all function is focused on power and pace. This makes sense; Lotus expects most Exige owners to take to the track regularly.

But how do I know what is behind, other than by catching in my peripheral vision the changing patterns of a flashing blue light? There is a pair of door mirrors, which helps, but their glasses are convex so objects are closer than they appear (as the etched warnings on American cars' mirrors are always keen to tell us, dimwits that we are). And I'm going for my first Exige S drive in darkness. I feel vulnerable, given that I'm going to be unable to resist the Exige.

Its charms, which make it the quickest-ever roadgoing Lotus this side of the barely road-suited (in either sense) 2-Eleven, include a 0-60mph time of 4.1 seconds. But, unlike the megapower supercars which have thundered into these pages recently, no doubt causing disquiet among some readers, the Exige S mixes this pace potential with sensible fuel economy: the "official" average is 31.0mpg. That's because this Exige, perhaps more than any other car on sale today, points to the way high-performance cars will be, and need to be. View aft excepted, anyway.

The Exige is small, in a world in which too many glamorous cars, and even some humble family saloons, are just getting too big. Not only that, but the Exige is very light, thanks to its extruded and bonded aluminium structure and lightweight composite body panels: it is, effectively, an Elise with tougher looks, more power and a solid, fixed roof.

The S weighs 935kg, which is rather lighter than any modern supermini. Yet it has 220bhp, and at least 80 per cent of its maximum 159lb ft of torque is on tap from just 2,000rpm, even though the engine can power right up to 8,000rpm – or even 8,500rpm for two-second bursts. Its power-to-weight ratio is extraordinary.

Acceleration, though, is not the Exige's sole appeal. More alluring still is the agility that comes with the small size and minimal mass. You can flick through corners and dart through gaps with an easy, effortless immediacy that is utterly addictive, always in the dynamic picture, always intimately involved with your machine. There's no power steering, because the mid-engined Exige's light nose renders it unnecessary. So you feel every force acting through the front wheels, every nuance of grip change and cornering load. It inspires great confidence.

Taut suspension helps here, a special, Lotus type of tautness: there's no after-bounce or drama. For such a light car to be simultaneously so firm yet so yielding is a miracle, but small Lotuses were ever thus.

I'm on one of my favourite roads, a twisting, up-and-down ribbon through the Chiltern hills on which the front goes light over crests and forces act in three dimensions. The Exige devours this road with the light-touch power of a tough-ankled ballerina, power occasionally overwhelming the rear wheels' available grip, tail squirming and biting and squirming again. There's a little explosion behind my head every time I accelerate, an initial thrust of energy multiplied half a second later as the supercharger starts to whine and the intake air gets pressurised. That's when the Exige hurtles forward as if it weighs nothing, whether the engine has been just ambling at low revs or is already wound far round the rev-counter. That's when you feel that this is how a fast car should be: lean, sinewy, pure, focused; pace without waste.

Yet, paradoxically, the Lotus feels anything but insubstantial. The aluminium structure is very rigid, the fittings are solidly attached in a way not entirely true of the first Elises of a decade ago. And in this car, with its optional Super Touring pack (an extra £1,995 on top of the £34,945 purchase price), you get two airbags (yes, one even fits inside that little steering wheel), an iPod connection for the Alpine stereo and a cupholder designed as only Lotus can.

There are central locking and electric windows, too, and even an ultra-lightweight air-conditioning system for an extra £1,295 – worth having, because without its dehumidifying ability the Exige steams up very easily. And there are the seats, lightweight, orthopaedically-clever creations from ProBax which suit the Exige ambience perfectly.

This is a car of complete functionality; it has everything you could reasonably want without a hint of extravagance, excess or creative laziness. There's even a half-sensible boot.

It should be reliable, too, which has not always been a given in a Lotus. That amazing engine is by Toyota, a 1.8-litre unit created originally for the unloved Corolla T-Sport. In that car, without a supercharger, the engine didn't come alive until very high revs, so much of the time it felt disappointingly sluggish. Lotus has adopted this standard engine for the Elise and standard Exige, and it can work as it should.

The supercharger installation for the Exige S (and 2-Eleven), though, is Lotus's own. It raises power from the standard engine's 192bhp to 220bhp (plus lots more torque) for the Exige S, as we have seen, but with simple changes it can be boosted to 255bhp for the Exige Cup trackday car and the remarkable, ultra-lightweight 2-Eleven we tested a few months ago. Further effort brings 275bhp for the Exige GT3 concept car shown at Geneva last March, which is the basis for today's Exige racing cars with even more power – 285bhp upwards.

Next year we'll see an all-new, bigger Lotus, the two-plus-two Eagle with a mid-mounted Toyota V6 engine. Two years after that comes a new Esprit, priced at Porsche 911 levels, which will no doubt be billed as the ultimate Lotus. But given today's need for lighter, greener performance cars, and the way the Exige S so perfectly fits the Colin Chapman idea of what a Lotus should be, I think the ultimate Lotus is already here.

The rivals

Lotus 2-Eleven £40,495

Effectively an Exige without a roof, doors, windscreen and much of the interior, it is hugely quick and a perfect trackday toy. Road-legal, just.

Porsche Cayman £36,220

Reflects the Exige's civilised side with more room, a tuneful flat-six engine, lovely handling, but a heavier, softer edge and rather less pace.

Renault Mégane R26 £19,860

This most trackday-oriented of hot hatchbacks lacks the Exige's purity but has terrific turbocharged pace and the best handling of its genre.

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