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2008 Lotus Exige S 240 - First Drive Review

One of the best-driving cars gets even better.

BY STEVEN COLE SMITH
December 2007
CarandDriver.com

Lotus Exige S 240 Track Photo

Granted, we often get a bit technical here at Car and Driver, a nuance due in no small part to having an editor-in-chief who has an engineering degree from MIT and expects everyone to keep up with him during luncheon conversations, or at least nod enthusiastically.

But here's the simplest, least painful lesson in automotive engineering you'll ever find.

Today's topic: "Power-to-weight ratio."

Today's subject: The 2008 Lotus Exige S 240, introduced at the Los Angeles auto show.

According to Lotus, the 240 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds and from 0 to 100 mph in 9.9 seconds, claims bolstered by our own informal stopwatch sessions. It does this with a Toyota powertrain-a 240-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission.

The Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG, according to our own testing, accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and from 0 to 100 mph in 10.8 seconds. It does this with a 518-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 with a seven-speed automatic transmission.

So the Mercedes, with well more than double the horsepower of the Lotus, is slower. How is this possible? The scales tell the story: The Mercedes weighs a portly 4910 pounds. The light-on-its-feet Lotus weighs a claimed 2100 pounds. The Mercedes has more than twice the horsepower but carries more than twice the weight. This, of course, points up an added benefit for the Lotus: an EPA-rated 23 mpg in the city compared with 11 mpg for the Mercedes.

The Back Story: Keep It Light

Light weight and utter simplicity have been the birthright of Lotus since the first one was built in 1948 by racing driver Colin Chapman. A very light car with a small engine could outrun a very heavy car with a large engine, Chapman reasoned, a thesis he proved on the racetrack over and over. Lotus became an enormous force in motorsports, entering Formula 1 in 1958 and winning the championship in 1963 and 1965 with Jim Clark, who died in 1968 while piloting, yes, a Lotus. That year, Graham Hill won the F1 championship for Lotus, and Jochen Rindt did the same in 1970, followed by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972 and Mario Andretti in 1978. Future three-time champion Ayrton Senna won his first Formula 1 race with Lotus in 1985.

Chapman died of a heart attack in 1982, in the midst of a nasty controversy over his role in developing the star-crossed De Lorean sports car. Lotus designed much of the vehicle, and Chapman was facing an investigation regarding money laundering along with company founder and former General Motors executive John De Lorean. After Chapman's death, Lotus struggled, both in motorsports and its side businesses of building cars and selling engineering expertise.

General Motors bought Lotus in 1986 but had no idea what to do with it. Lotus was selling its Ferrari-like Esprit in the United States in small numbers, but GM figured the name was worth something. So it had Lotus build the Elan, an odd little sports car, powered by a four-cylinder Isuzu engine, that Lotus tried to sell in the United States for $40,000. Unfortunately, the 1991 Elan looked a lot like the 1991 Mercury Capri, which cost about $27,000 less.

In 1993, GM sold Lotus to a company in Luxembourg owned by an Italian businessman, who also owned what was left of Bugatti. The company went bankrupt. In 1996, Lotus was sold to Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Sdn. Bhd., otherwise known as Proton, the state-owned Malaysian car company.

Lotus purists were appalled, but after one major setback-the company's Malaysian chairman was killed in a helicopter crash in 1997-Proton, which builds some good small cars for the European market, turned out to be a decent curator of the Lotus legend. Without Proton's money, Lotus might well have folded its tents for good, but the company finally found its footing in the U.S. with the introduction of the 2005 Elise.

Challenging? Yes, Indeed.

Beneath the skin, the Elise and the Exige (pronounced ex-seej, French for "challenging"), introduced in the first quarter of 2006, are very similar. They share an ultra-lightweight aluminum frame, and although a family resemblance to the Elise can be seen in the Exige's body work, every panel is different except for the doors.

The 1.8-liter Toyota engine, actually built by Yamaha, was first seen here in the now-discontinued Toyota Celica. The regular Exige S carries over for 2008 with 220 supercharged horses and 164 pound-feet of torque; in the S 240, that jumps by 20 horsepower and six pound-feet, thanks to a remapped engine-management computer, higher-flow injectors, and a repositioned roof-mounted air scoop. The S 240 also gets larger front disc brakes, with AP Racing four-piston calipers. The clutch has been beefed up, too.

For the first time, traction control is variable-the base setting is 0-percent rear tire slippage, and you can dial that up to 10 percent. Going beyond 10 percent disengages the system. On the racetrack, Lotus test drivers seem to prefer about 7-percent slippage. There's also a new launch control, allowing the driver to set an rpm limit, floor the accelerator, and sidestep the clutch for a neck-snapping standing start. For 2008, all Exige models get a new instrument cluster and a soft-touch dash covering.

Happiest on the Track

We love the regular Exige, and we love this one about 20 horsepower more. After dozens of laps on the tight, technical 1.5-mile course at Spring Mountain racetrack near Las Vegas, we'd come to the pits and find the brakes as strong as ever and tire tread still cool enough to touch. Top speed on the longest straight was about 106 mph, approaching the limit in fourth gear. The six-speed tranny has short, positive throws, with a light, nicely progressive clutch.

And the steering-well, it doesn't get much better.

The downside, as with all Lotus models, is a moderately cramped interior-two adults will rub elbows. Getting into and out of the driver's seat requires acrobatics for anyone not named Sneezy, Grumpy, or Sleepy. But once you're in, the seat is plenty comfortable, even for long stints.

The 2008 Exige S 240 lists for $65,815, almost four grand more than the already expensive Exige S. A $1600 Touring pack gets you leather, more sound insulation, and a few more niceties. The $1650 Track pack adds adjustable anti-roll bars and adjustable Bilstein dampers. A limited-slip diff is $1790, but no one at Lotus suggests you need it unless you are a career autocrosser. Two colors-red and British racing green-are standard, with other colors adding up to $5100 to the price. For us, the base model in red, please. Everything else adds weight.

Certainly there are faster, far more luxurious sports cars available. But none of them is more fun. The Exige S 240 makes you feel like a hero.