What is it?
Modern sports car buyers love automatic gearboxes. This much we know because so many successful makers now sell cars in south-east Asia, where such transmissions are popular, and because even Europeans have come to enjoy the self-shifting properties of the many dual-clutch cars now on the market.
So sure is Lotus that even its rawest and most focused model – the 1.2-tonne, 345bhp supercharged Exige – will attract more buyers with a self-shifter that it has built such a car using a conventional Aisin six-speed automatic ’box but giving the driver exceptional control over gearchanging by using its own control software and providing an elegant pair of alloy shift paddles.
The Exige is related to the Elise but styled differently and a little longer in the wheelbase. Its biggest difference is its Toyota-derived 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, which has control software and a supercharger designed by Lotus. The auto ’box adds £2000 to the price and is offered as an option on both coupé and drop-top versions of the Exige.
What's it like?
Damned fast, in two words. The automatic Exige S is almost exactly as quick as the manual version. The 0-60mph sprint takes a deeply impressive 3.8sec, the car reaches 100mph in just 9.2sec and the performance is easily deployed using a superbly weighted accelerator pedal and a hard-pressed traction control system.
In fact, the best thing about this car is its easily accessible performance; not many performance cars as low and small can go as fast, and the thrust continues unabated well beyond 120mph. Our drophead test model was governed at 145mph to protect its roof from the 162mph winds the coupé version shows would otherwise be possible.
All Exige Ss come with a selector offering three driving modes: Off, Standard and Sport, which adjust chassis stability, throttle ‘alertness’ and the exhaust note. Sport seems most interesting since it allows some cornering slip on the limit, while rescuing you from disaster, and a sporty exhaust note most of the time.
For track-minded enthusiasts, there’s an extra-cost Race setting, the set-up that Lotus’s talented band of engineer-hotshoes have devised to make the car go around a track as quickly as it can. The rest of the car certainly supports such use; the unassisted steering is superbly accurate and perfectly weighted at speed, and the brakes are hugely powerful and easy to modulate.
The seats are spare but comfortable. The cabin feels snug and businesslike but distinctly old-fashioned against something like a Porsche Boxster. But in this car the performance dominates, as intended.
Should I buy one?
If performance with agility is your criterion, the Exige S is hard to ignore. A Porsche in the price bracket feels rather large and (whisper this) even a little cumbersome by comparison, although it is far better protected from effects like wind noise than the Lotus.
Still, this is a small, none-too-versatile Elise-related sports car that's showing its age in some ways, and a price approaching £60,000 is solid indeed.