First Drive
Lotus Exige S 240
The light fantastic
*Nobody fear. I have a plan for when the aliens show up and demand that we justify our continued existence. We'll start with a movie: The Great Escape. You can't lose with McQueen. Then we'll head over to The Haus of Pizza for lunch, maybe an afternoon concert from Brian Setzer. And to really push us over the top, we'll go driving. But we won't just drive any car. It will be the new Lotus Exige S 240. I have yet to experience anything that sums up the true essence of driving quite the way this lightweight track star does.

For the 2008 Exige, Lotus has raised the bar yet again. Upgraded interior, adjustable dampers, variable traction and launch control, and the addition of 20 hp builds on what was already an amazing car. A big part of the power increase came from increased intercooler effi ciency and ECU programming. Sharp eyes will notice that the roof scoop now extends to the leading edge of the roof, just behind the windshield.

The 240's dampers are now 10-position adjustable, to make the car easier to live with on the street while also providing an option to go even stiffer for track work. There's also a new traction control setup that allows the driver to dial in exactly the required amount of electronic help. The new launch control system is simply amazing. The driver can select launch revs, which makes the system adaptable to all sorts of conditions and requirements.

The blokes from Lotus were nice enough to set up an entire day in southern Nevada to sample the new S 240 at the Spring Mountain Motorsports Country Club in Pahrump, Nevada. Located about an hour outside Las Vegas, this facility offers two tracks perfect for testing a variety of cars and honing one's skills. Lotus picked the 1.5-mile road course to show off the new Exige's handling abilities. Spring Mountain also has a 2.2-mile course, but too much time is spent in a straight line to really be fun.

We started out with dampers on a street setting of 3 at all corners (1 being the softest) and traction control on full assist. Even on street settings, the Exige is still one of the most responsive cars found on a showroom floor. Its 240 hp may not sound like a lot, but it's only required to move just over a ton of mass. My six-foot-two, 200-pound frame added almost ten percent more weight to the vehicle. It's plenty fast and, if I owned one, the first modification I would make would be to my diet.

Pulling out of the pits, you appreciate how precise the shifter is, a quick snick-snick between gears feeling more like a rifle bolt than rowing a bowl of oatmeal, as in other vehicles. Not only is the shifter good, the gearing is perfect for the engine's powerband. I never felt 'in between' gears and the supercharged 1.8 pulls strong from the midrange. Power is smooth and linear, never a violent shove like in a turbo-just predictable motivation toward the next turn.

This car is so good, it will work with just about any driving style. I started out working the car smoothly, preferring to get the front tires to let go just before the rear and really working on getting power down. As I became more comfortable, I found myself squeezing the new AP Racing brakes later and later into turns and letting the car move around more. There's so much steering feedback you can keep the car right on the edge and still be comfortable. Steering is totally linear; it works exactly like you want it to. No need to worry about suspension deflection and trying to second-guess how much angle is needed. It's almost telepathic. Small adjustments of steering angle and throttle input result in surgically precise line corrections.

If you feel a bit more hooligan, the car is eager to be your partner in crime. A brief trip to the pits and I cranked the stiffness dial on the dampers to change the balance and reflexes. A mid-level setting of 5 in front and a somewhat stiff 7 in back changed the car's personality. A little shove on turnin, stab at the throttle pedal and feel the back end swing around. Even without a standard limited-slip differential, a nice predictable drift will have you giggling like an idiot.

There are some downsides. At least some people consider them downsides. It's one of the tougher cars to get in and out of. The sills of the beautiful riveted and epoxy bonded aluminum chassis require gymnast-like dexterity to vault over without looking like a drunken polar bear trying to get unstuck from a barrel. But those same high and wide box section sills give the car its amazing torsional rigidity. Some will complain about the Spartan interior. Full carpeting would just distract attention from what is probably the finest pedal set in the auto industry-and it's not like there are no amenities. The S 240 is equipped with the most elegant cup holder ever devised, but it won't hold a typical American Glutton Gulp. Apparently, anything more than 12 ounces of fluid would risk throwing off the car's balance.

The Exige S 240 is not everyone. Lotus admits that sacrifices have been made for the sake of performance. However, it's for anyone who's a driving enthusiast of the first order. It's raw, basic and really good. Cars like this have all but disappeared-maybe because driving enthusiasts have all but disappeared, replaced with performance statisticians. We're all so concerned with achieving performance with luxury, I think we've overlooked what we're sacrificing: passion.

2008 Lotus Exige S 240

*Layout
Transverse mid engine,rear-wheel drive

*Engine
1.8-liter inline four, dohc, 16-valve,supercharged and intercooled

*Transmission
Six-speed manual

*Suspension
Fully independent unequal length double wishbones

*Brakes
AP Racing four-piston calipers (f), Lotus two-piston calipers(r), cross-drilled rotors

*Dimensions
Length/Width/Height (in.):
149.5/68.0/45.6
Wheelbase: 90.5 in.
Curb Weight: 2,077 lb

*Performance
Peak Power: 240 hp @ 8000 rpm
Peak Torque: 170 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.0 sec.
Top Speed: 150 mph (est.)

*What we like:
Prescription-strength driving experience, predictable and forgiving, good for novice and expert alike

*What we don't:
Entry and exit, visibility, go-kart experience at sport GT price

PRICE TAG
$64,890 H

Lotus 2-Eleven
Fried gold
*If the Exige S 240 is good, then the 2-Eleven is a slice of fried gold. Lotus definitely has the formula for distilling cars to the absolute bare essence of driving. And it doesn't get much more potent than this.

Colin Chapman became famous for cars built to his mantra of 'adding lightness.' In order to lighten the 2-Eleven, ideas were taken to the extreme. Some vehicles are described as hardcore because of their lack of windshield wipers and door handles. Lotus laughs in their faces with a complete and utter deletion of glass surfaces and opening doors. The 2-Eleven weighs a scant 1,598 pounds; a flyweight 997 GT3 is nearly twice that.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this car is essentially a rolling skeleton of the Elise/Exige. It's based on the same chassis, but is, unbelievably, even stiffer due to higher sills. Because of the lower mass, track focus and all-round hardcore bad-assness, Lotus decided on a suspension recalibration. Ride height was lowered by roughly an inch and the geometry corrected accordingly. Lotus calls this the best handling car it has ever built. I'd say it's more likely one of the best handling cars any make has ever built.

Lotus is hesitant to give a power rating, but this engine in another vehicle produces 255 hp with a less efficient intercooler. Calculating exact power numbers would be wasting time that could be better spent on track-exactly where this car was developed. Lotus engineers built it as a pet project and its greatness and consumer viability was recognized instantly.

Everything about the 2-Eleven is ceremonial. From stepping over the side and buckling the six-point harness, to the quick flip down of your helmet visor on the way out of the pits. There's something special about driving a true open-cockpit car. You feel what the car feels; as you accelerate, you feel the air ripping at you. There's an appreciation of the aero dynamic forces that lift, push and force the car into submission. A cap and glasses wouldn't stay in place much past first gear.

A few laps around the track is life-changing. By classifying it as a track car, Lotus is making a clear distinction between the 2-Eleven and a racecar. It is, however, as close to a racecar as you're likely to find while still being driveable by the average enthusiast. The car is surprisingly predictable and equipped with the same traction control as the new Exige.

But the car likes to be driven with more precision than the Exige. Slotting the 2-Eleven into the rhythm of the track is addictive, steering inputs are extremely minimal through the racing-sized wheel, yet feedback comes in espresso-like doses. The car communicates even small changes in the track surface and you feel exactly what each tire is doing. Surprisingly, there's little kickback or harshness in the steering. Running over rumble strips and FIA curbing gives a little nudge, but never threatens to rip the wheel out of your hands, even with the most delicate grip.

Braking is equally predictable and insanely powerful. I was moving braking points further toward each corner, even with the greater acceleration out of preceding corners. There's almost no dive-just ease into the pedal and all four tires bite. Jumping on the center pedal can cause the back end to squirm slightly, but it's easily controlled.

Lotus plans on selling around 300 2-Elevens worldwide, a lot for a track machine. This car is street legal in England. It's shame we can't get vehicles like this legalized in America. To circumvent the rules, maybe the company should try selling it with only two wheels. I can put the other two on myself.

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By Michael Febbo
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