Like everything else in the modern automotive realm, the term `sports car' seems to have a pretty subjective definition. Ask 10 different people what a real sports car is and you'd probably get 10 different interpretations.
Still, it's hard to argue that the three cars featured here are anything but. Each shares a common trait or two: rear-wheel drive, sharp handling, a favorable power-to-weight ratio and a fixed-roof cockpit equipped with two seats.
Every now and then, we manage to slip the manacles to the daily production grind and hit the road for a bit of actual driving. And these three cars presented an ideal opportunity. The trip covered two days, more than 800 miles, 6,500 vertical feet, and every road and weather condition imaginable--from long, blustery desert blasts to towering switchbacks with zero emergency runoff, to gleaming, snow-dusted mountain passes. It revealed three vehicles that have their own distinct personalities, even though they've all been assembled for a similar purpose.
Proving that these cars even possess a modicum of functionality, we packed our tents, sleeping bags and a change of clothes with the photo gear and actually went camping at the end of the first day (really). And to avoid angering the various enthusiast camps with their pet definitions of a sports car, we won't call them that any more. We'll just call them canyon carvers.
Lotus Exige S 240
The ascetic choice
A lot of hype surrounds this car from engineering and so-called `purist' circles--that is, people who appreciate the bare basics in an automobile and nothing else. Lotus has traditionally eschewed creature comforts like air conditioning, power assist and cushioned seats in the pursuit of a completely raw and undiluted driving experience. The Exige S 240 is the latest embodiment of that philosophy.
The cockpit is cramped and noisy, and it's difficult to steer at low speeds due to the absence of power steering. But turn into your first corner at speed, crest your first apex and it quickly becomes clear there's nothing else like it on the road today.
The S iteration supercharges the Toyota-built 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and adds close to 30 hp to the previous Exige's 190-hp peak. The S 240 features a more efficient intercooler fed by a larger integrated roof scoop and pushes power by another 20 hp (hence the 240 designation). Off the line, the S 240 still doesn't feel particularly fast, but it isn't really about straight-line speed. It's more about building revs to keep the supercharger on the boil, screaming into bends and maintaining silly velocities through the exit thanks to unbelievably flat cornering. And the faster it goes the more stable it becomes, the aerodynamics sucking it ever closer to the pavement and generating a reported 100 pounds of downforce at 100 mph.
On a tight, twisting road, there's no doubt the Lotus carves the hardest of the three and maintains cornering speeds with the greatest confidence. In this respect, it's a perfect weekender or track-day toy, albeit a pricey one ($60,000 and change to start). This particular Lotus isn't as spartan as some, equipped as it is with the Touring Pack, which adds leather seat and door trim, an Alpine stereo with iPod connector, additional sound insulation and full carpeting (basically a set of floor mats).
Even so, living with it on a daily basis would take a special sort of individual. Two grown men can fit inside, but they may occasionally find themselves dueling elbows. Or the driver may inadvertently grab the passenger's knee while reaching for the shifter. Rearward visibility is severely compromised by the intercooler, which is vertically mounted directly behind the cabin. The car comes with an interior rear-view mirror, but about the only thing it's good for is pointing it out the passenger window to help monitor the blind spot.
Ingress and egress aren't easily accomplished. Getting in requires negotiating high and wide door sills and the non-adjustable steering wheel. Getting out can only be described as clambering. The car has more storage than might be expected. The entire rear end behind the central engine bay is hollow, although everything must fit through an opening about the same diameter as a human torso.
To deride the car for its inherent asceticism, though, is to miss the point. Any complaints are quickly forgotten once the curves are reached.