Driving a Lotus Exige S 240 for the first time is, surprisingly, an exercise in déjà vu. Why? Because it's the exact same car you've driven in daydreams since you were seven years old.
Since people with money buy fast cars, we've partnered with TheStreet.com to bring you this review. And since people with money now have less money than before we decided to review the Lotus Exige S 240, the car for supercar shoppers on a budget.
Obviously, there are also moments of stunned amazement, because this is a truly uncompromised sports car, and extended periods of low-level irritation, occasionally verging on terror, because this is one godawful car in traffic and around town. But this compact little collection of wings, vents, spoilers, handling, oomph, and grip was built to order from the happiest days of your childhood.
Consider: When you're seven, driving fast is a simple concept. You don't really know oversteer or understeer or polar moments of inertia or curb appeal or sex appeal, and you don't yet care. You just know that cars should just skim down the road as fast as possible. It will be fun. There will be vents and fins and a scoop on the roof. There will be cool noises. There may or may not be rockets involved somehow, but that's it for options. When you're seven, the only cars you ever think of are race cars.
So okay, we're all still seven. But evidently so is Lotus, where all their cars are "race cars for the street," and none more so than the Exige S 240. It has the stiff suspension, the bare-bones interior with thinly-padded buckets, the unpowered steering done through a thick unpowered wheel, the narrow close-set pedals, and the precision short-throw shifter linked to a six-speed gearbox that make challenging driving really fun and daily driving a real challenge. And it's all propelled by a supercharged and intercooled Yamaha-engineered Toyota motor that screams in your ear all day and takes up all your rear visibility, making the challenge of daily driving far too real at times.
But bombing the Exige through Brooklyn traffic, while no one's idea of a good time in any car, was not as bad as anticipated. The car is actually so small that no one can hide from your side mirrors, so with practice you can get used to the lack of rear visibility.You'll count every pockmark in the pavement thanks to the stiff suspension and rigid seats, but the ride is just supple enough that your butt never gets numb, allowing you to count pockmarks all day. The brakes, nifty AP Racing units just like on the Exige Cup cars, are very touchy and occasionally squeaky at street speeds, but one gets used to it. The steering follows every groove and rut, but hey, deal with it. You'll have to crane your neck over the wheel to look at traffic lights, especially if you're over six feet tall, and getting in and out of this very low car by crawling over the extremely wide sills is pure splay-legged yoga-If Paris Hilton had been photographed exiting one of these instead of her SLR, we'd have seen the bottoms of her lungs-but one develops a routine. Plus the clutch is decently light, there is of course plenty of power available for shooting into gaps, there's a rear cargo area big enough for a decent-sized carry-on bag, and the Exige will even condition the air to your favorite temperature and play your music through an adequate Alpine stereo if you so desire.
It'd be remiss not to mention the optional cupholder here: It's obviously a joke and an insult to anyone who ever ordered a cupholder on purpose. It's nothing more than a satin-finished horizontal aluminum hoop with a fore-and-aft black leather strap underneath it, and it looks vaguely sleazy, like a miniature version of the loincloths worn by Chris Bangle's court eunuchs. Unfortunately it's part of the $1600 Touring Pack, so if you want the stereo and the additional sound insulation you'll get this too. Remove and destroy it immediately or FBI agents will raid your house.
So the whole Exige commuting experience is a bit abrasive but ultimately bearable, not quite the classic hairshirt but more one of those tight UnderArmor athletic compression jackets. Unlike UnderArmor, however, the Exige won't make you look utterly ridiculous if you don't have the genetic gifts of a top talent. Get it out of traffic and down a twisty road, or into its natural track habitat, and it is really unbelievably good. The motor is good for 60 in under four seconds and a hundred in just ten, and it makes fairly wonderful sounds while doing it all the way to 150 or so. Those touchy brakes are of course excellent when used the way they're meant to and give truly remarkable feedback, though of course you shouldn't use them mid-corner unless you want to learn a valuable lesson worthy of the world's coolest after-school special.
But the real story with this or any Lotus is the handling, the reason they throw out things like floor mats and lumbar adjustments and nav systems, the reason they make the frame by bonding aluminum spars together and drop a fiberglass body over it. The car rotates freely and predictably around a vertical axis drawn through your right shoulder, exactly as you knew cars would back when you drove your third-grade desk. Like the seven-year-old you, the Exige doesn't acknowledge understeer or oversteer. It just goes very, very fast indeed no matter what you do with the steering-column-mounted traction control knob or which way you're pointing it, as if it's on... well, not rails, but a much-beloved orange plastic track with little ridges to keep you just where you should be. But those tracks were usually straight, and this car is all about lateral grip; It will push the front end if you make it, and you can kick the rear end out with the throttle if you like, but you feel vaguely wrong and cruel if you do this, like that time you threw the cat into the bathtub. Difference being an Exige won't cut you to ribbons if you exceed its tolerance; it just starts to push the front and jabs you grumpily through the wheel. No doubt you could really make it angry enough to spin on you, but you'd have to be acting like a real six-year-old.
Growing up momentarily, it's hard to deny that at around $70 grand with all the options you might want, the Lotus Exige S 240 is a real commitment. Lotus' own Elise is probably a better everyday second car for much less. If you're looking at combining some grand touring with your track time, the Cayman becomes a real consideration. And if you want to take people on dates in this car, you are most probably an idiot. Still, every seven-year-old knows that dating is gross and icky, grand touring is what stupid grownups do to visit relatives, and faster cars with big old scoops on the roof are always better than slower cars without. So choose carefully. You're only seven once, so you really should try to make it last the rest of your life.