Last year I changed the final-drive on my 2007 Lotus Exige S. I strengthened the third and fourth gear and installed a stronger and shorter ratio final-drive. The stronger third and fourth are slightly longer gears than the standard ones. So I opted to install a lower ratio final drive to compensate for this and installed a quick shifter in the process. I ended up with such a sweet ‘box, that the engineers at Hethel wouldn’t have imagined it in their wildest dreams. What were they thinking when they took a gearbox from a Toyota saloon and installed it in a supercharged version of the engine?
Exige forums advise as to how to attempt to overcome this weakness especially if you want to increase the power. ‘Buy five spare gearboxes’, ‘switch to the MR2 Turbo ‘box’, ‘strenghten the third and fourth’ and so on and so forth. The gears I opted for (Jubu) are helical cut (as opposed to straight-cut) but the final drive is semi-helical, which reduces the inevitable whine that results from straight cut gears. I was prepared for the fact that my car would whine – but it takes some getting used to. Think of the noise a car makes when driving in reverse – well that’s because the reverse gear is straight-cut. Now imagine that whine in all forward gears too, increasing in volume and pitch as the revs increase, and remaining at a constant when cruising. Well thanks to Lotus’ decision to use gears made of cheese – that’s what I have to live with. (For those of you who are also musicians at heart – there is a game you can play which makes the whine interesting – match the key of the song you’re listening to in the car with the final-drive whine.)
The list goes on you see. This performance vehicle doesn’t come with strengthened (braided) brake lines. So take it to the track and after a few proper laps you’ll suffer the annoying phenomenon commonly referred to as brake fade, or even worse: your brake pedal will start to fall without warning. The brake fluid boils, loses its viscosity and forms air bubbles which compress under pressure. The heated brake lines expand, resulting in a loss of hydraulic pressure. I bought and installed braided brake lines and a big brake kit from AP Racing to counter this. Lo and behold, to change the brake lines you need to take the entire front clam off. Again, thanks Hethel. Why on earth wouldn’t Lotus employ just one Japanese engineer? Poach him from Honda. Pay him double what he earns in Japan. And just have him think.
Overall the Exige is a fantastic car. It has made me ecstatic at the track – the steering feel is second to none, it looks good from every angle, and it feels like a race-car from the moment you hold the wheel in your hand and fire up the engine. The chassis is one of the best you can buy south of £50K. It hugs apexes with an enviable ease and exceeds power-to-weight ratio expectations making use of aero dynamics, down force and mind-boggling amounts of grip. I have raced it against far more powerful cars and it has always held its own. Take it to a B-road and again the confidence it inspires when taking bends at speed is out of this world. Nothing I have ever driven comes close. It is a very fast go-cart which you could, in theory, drive to work. And I’m sure some people do.
But it is compromised. It doesn’t offer any of the necessary comforts we have come to expect from modern sports cars. A dashboard for example. The interior is practically non-existent in an attempt to save weight. Mine is the ‘Touring’ version so I do get a round piece of metal which is meant to pass for a cup holder. But that’s it. The only plausible justification for this is that the car is more track-oriented. But evidently it is not engineered to take serious track abuse without a series of modifications which cost a lot of money. People talk of engine swaps, gearbox swaps, charge-cooling (I have opted for this too) and many other ‘fixes’ in order to be able to track this car reliably. Another option is to spend more and buy the Exige Cup 260. A track version of a track car.
This is precisely where Lotus has fallen between two stools. Why didn’t they look at Porsche’s strategy? It has worked like clockwork for the past 30 odd years. Why not add 150 kilos of interior on the standard Exige for those who are not chasing a tenth at the track week in week out? Then strip the interior, reduce the weight and offer the Cup 260 for track-junkies. And make sure the latter can suffer track abuse right out of the box. Think Cayman and Cayman R, or Carrera and GT3 if I may?
Ex Lotus CEO Danny Bahar’s plan made sense if you think about it, even if the execution might have been questionable. In the current British market, the likes of Caterham and Radical are satisfying track enthusiasts nicely and have done so since long before the Exige came onto the market. And for those who want a track-oriented car with more ‘comfort’, Lotus have the Elise. This is it, you see. Even the Elise has been around for ages. And it has been loved ever since the Elise S1 hit the market in the late 90’s. What was the point of building another one?
I love my car. But the more I get to know it, the more I cannot help but think that the Exige contributed to the mess which Lotus finds itself in at the moment. And they might just be sealing their fate with the next Exige. It does in fact weigh over 1,100 kilos – but the weight increase is mostly due to the bigger displacement V6 engine they opted for. Still, there’s no interior. I have no doubt it is as fantastic to drive as the car journalists have made it out to be. But I do doubt it is what Lotus needs to weather this storm. And I doubt even further whether it’s what the market needs.
For Lotus to survive it needs more than just switching to a V6 Toyota power train. Lotus might also need to employ the services of an interior designer from Italy, an engineer from the land of the rising sun and a marketing guru from Munich if they want to keep the company afloat. Then “add lightness”.