““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Lotus Exige S 240
Returning a seriously good car to its lender at the conclusion of an evaluation brings a mixture of relief that it has survived a week on New York metro-area roads unscathed and regret that the loan is up. The Lotus Exige S 240 is the first loaner I've returned with more relief than regret, and that's a reflection on its preferred habitat rather than a verdict on the machine.
This go-kart on an overdose of stimulants was not bred to be a daily driver on the clogged lanes of New Jersey's Garden State Parkway or the canyons of Manhattan. It has a blind spot the size of Gotham immediately downwind of the driver's ears, and presumably the only reason there's an inside rear-view mirror is to satisfy DOT regs, since the intercooler for the mid-mounted Toyota engine's supercharger blocks any view through the rear window.
Never before had I regarded a Honda Civic in the neighboring lane as an imposing structure, but that's how it is when your heels and butt are flying at the same altitude scant inches above the blacktop.
You don't have to have my back problems to find it difficult to enter and exit the Exige. Were I to own one, I'd remove the roof-a quick process with simple tools but not one Lotus recommends for reasons explained later-and build a hoist in the garage to install and extract the driver and passenger vertically. My wife made one halfhearted attempt to fold herself into the Exige and soon concluded the effort was futile-not uncommon, a local dealer later confided, adding with a wry smile that some buyers in fact consider this limitation a plus.
So what does the S 240 have going for it? Plenty, if you're supple enough to get in and out and can learn to live with Suburbans lurking invisible in the wings, and a whole lot more if you have access to a track.
The Exige S 240 represents a stage of metamorphosis for a supercar before-how shall we phrase this for polite company?-before it undergoes voice changes, grows body hair and transforms into an F430. It's exactly what a Lotus has always been: a four-cylinder bare-bones screamer in a world of bigger, heavier, pricier machines. It's the scrawny gym regular who can bench-press with the best of them.
Forty years ago, while the U.S. was building big-bang V8s for not many bucks and Italy was seducing the wealthy and siphoning their wallets with shapely V8s and V12s, Lotus in its native England was peddling highly strung, two-seat four-bangers such as the Elan and Europa and souping up Ford Cortinas for those not content with a mundane MG, too skint for a Morgan or a Maserati and averse to the thirst of a muscle car from the colonies. Above all, Lotus was a winning machine on the track with lightweight mid-engine race cars, and that pedigree is abundantly apparent in the Exige S 240.
Even if body hair isn't one of them, the S 240 and the F430 evidence some similarities: striking styling, two seats, mid engine, not much storage space, unmistakable voice and jowl-stretching performance. For less than four-tenths the price and prestige of the Ferrari, the Lotus provides eight-tenths of the grins and seems relatively expendable enough that one would never hesitate to take it onto the track for a tussle. The track is exactly where the Exige belongs, and it can get there without having to be loaded aboard a trailer and hauled by a pickup truck. That's pretty appealing. Of the 20-plus cars this track novice drove on the Pocono Raceway during a press event last fall, none was so much at home as this Lilliputian race car.
The engine is a Toyota 1.8-liter four, pumped up by a supercharger whose output is cooled by an intercooler fed by the air scoop over the center of the windscreen. This is one reason Lotus recommends not removing the roof, which also serves as the duct to the intercooler that blocks the view through the rear window. Removal of the roof disrupts airflow over the rear spoiler, too.
The Exige weighs a ton, next to nothing in this context, propelled by 240 hp through a six-speed manual gearbox. The overriding message from the S 240 is the sheer wonder of light weight: there's no power steering, the response and nimbleness are a delight and the Yokohama tires grip like demons. Power windows are the pinnacle of the creature comforts, along with an optional single cupholder, made of aluminum and leather, that retracts into the bottom center of the dash. Reflecting Lotus founder Colin Chapman's guiding ethos since he started designing and building cars in the early 1950s ("simplify, then add lightness"), the Exige S 240 has an epoxy-bonded extruded aluminum chassis and glass-fiber body panels, for a curb weight of 2,077 pounds. This is roughly double the weight of the old Lotus 7, but still feather light compared with current production cars.
The materials coexist but not silently. The Exige I borrowed had a mere 192 miles on it when I picked it up, but its body sounded worn out. Again, think of it as a race car designed for minimum weight and high performance, and this just doesn't matter. It's another reminder that the Exige is no ordinary car. The beautiful aluminum extrusions that serve as the engine cover hinges and door hinges emphasize that this is not a cut-price car in terms of materials. In fact, it exudes sport airplane-another tribute to Chapman, who was a pilot and aluminum engineer with an airplane designer's quest for lightness and strength. (He died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 54.)
The engine and exhaust noise is unlike anything else you'll hear on U.S. roads, too. Between 3800 and 4200 rpm, it's as if the accelerator pedal is thrusting a poking device into a hornet's nest, so fierce is the buzz from back there. The push in the back is equally fierce as the S 240 accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds (Lotus figure), just one-tenth of a second behind the book time for the F430 we drove (see 'Ferrari F430' -Ed.).
Gear changes are helped in the S 240 by red telltale lights in the instrument display, three of them that illuminate in sequence as the revs get closer to the limit of 8000 rpm or 8500 rpm for a 1.5-second transient. They're smart in that the first one lights up earlier in lower gears to account for the more rapid rate at which the revs are building toward the limit, and they certainly convey the message more precisely and with less distraction and interpretation than trying to nail a needle position.
Don't buy an Exige S 240 as your daily drive, but if you want a race car to wring out on the track, this is an awful lot of twists, turns and Gs for the money.