Cow pats. I agree that this isn’t the best object to start the tale of Lotus’ latest roadster, but the scent is so robust that I’m tasting it at the back of my tongue. Yes, taste, mostly hay. Why? Fate has it that the weather is roadster-perfect, and that means driving without the top, exposing my senses to the wonders of the English countryside.
In spite of the aroma, the surroundings are actually quite scenic, with rolling hills and hints of the hinterland that is rooted closer towards the horizon, which seemingly continues into the blue sky. Nice. It’s scenery that I would not otherwise enjoy if not for the fact that I’m driving a Lotus Exige S Roadster.
Yes, Lotus has replaced the perfectly-working metal roof of the Exige S with a piece of cloth, which needs to be manually folded and tucked into the boot. Or at the back of the front seats – it’s that malleable.
This isn’t the first time Lotus has let drivers feel the wind in their hair; the brand has already done that on many occasions with the Elise. In fact, the Exige S Roadster is cut from the same cloth as the Elise, Exige and the Evora, albeit with differences in the wheelbase, tracks and overall length.
The car is built around the same lightweight tub, so there’s no need for additional strengthening of the body usually required when a coupé is refolded into a convertible. So, instead of adding on weight to the car, the Roadster is 10 kg lighter than the coupé.
While this might seem that the Roadster is the faster of the two Exiges, Lotus has actually knocked off a few kilometres per hour off the top speed, now 233 km/h versus the 274 km/h of the coupé, citing air turbulence, buffeting and passenger comfort as the main reasons.
That’s not the only thing that gets knocked off. The front splitter, rear diffuser and wing are jettisoned off the car, making the Roadster look less like a track-day special. It’s intentional, of course. Lotus wants the Roadster to appeal to a whole new market segment (you can take a potshot at who the new audience is), hence the softer approach.
To that effect, Lotus has decided to spruce up the interior. There’s a Premium Pack that wraps skin around certain elements of the car, and quilted leather in other places. The level of options isn’t as extensive as, say, what Porsche would have offered, but nevertheless, there are seven different interior colours to choose from the candy jar.
In spite of all this, it’s still a Lotus, and that means not overwhelming the car with things that you don’t need, like a second cup holder and a two-DIN touchscreen multimedia system with sat-nav and a whole army of push-buttons for different things. The Roadster comes standard only with the equipment that you need. The stereo system is single-DIN, the cup holder looks like a basketball hoop and the leather seats are as thin and comfortable as a yoga mat. Or to view it under a different light, the Roadster has a very zen-inspired, practical interior. All to keep the weight off, of course.
There’s no doubt that the Roadster can be driven with tame passiveness around town. The exhaust will gurgle and purr at low revs, and it will happily stroll through the streets without causing much ruckus. The only aspect that’ll cause sprained necks in pedestrians is how this Exige looks. I also suspect, since this is Norfolk, home of Lotus Cars, that people will view the Exige with a good dose of fondness, mixed with pride.
Once the road opens up, so can the throttle, although you only need a light touch to make the 3.5 litre supercharged V6 spin quickly, gears locked into fourth, for it’s all the car needs. Even so, you’ll be going at speed upwards of 130 km/h with the rev needle only point slightly off north. There’s at least 4,000 rpm left on the clock to savour.
But you won’t, at least not on roads that are drawn beautifully unstraight, but not crooked, because it isn’t – the roads around Lotus’ backyard are very much like how a four-year old girl would draw them if handed crayons and told to draw a straight line.
You’ll love every inch of the not-straight road though. Once into the rhythm, you’ll be flowing smoothly from one sweeper to the next without raising the heartbeat; it’s actually quite meditative, really.
The chief concern here is if the omission of the wing would somehow make the rear twitchy. It doesn’t. Lotus has compensated the lack of wing by increasing the rear camber by a quarter of a degree and reduced the front camber by a quarter of a degree. Then, the rear anti-roll bar has been thickened by another 0.5 mm to help achieve rear stability. It’s the little things, isn’t it?
So, it’s pretty much a case of sailing along the road, the bum riding just inches off the tarmac, coasting over sudden dips and sharp mini-crests without the need to work hard for control. And the steering. It’s a non-powered mechanical rack-and-pinion unit that’s generous in its detail and positive in its accuracy, albeit it being too heavy in car-park speeds, but nicely-weighted once the speed picks up. I’m not complaining – it all adds up to the Roadster’s brilliant handling.
Another thing about the Exige S Roadster is just how comfortable it is. The chassis does a six-star job in dissipating unwanted road conditions, so the car never punches you in the gut or kicks you in the nut every time it rolls over a pothole or a bump. Do take into mind that it shares the same spring rate as the coupe – firm, but never harsh.
Now, if this seems that the Exige S Roadster has become tame, here’s a fair warning: this softer approach is deceiving.
Hethel, the hallowed home of Lotus Cars, and the company’s test track, where it’s second servings. I flick the DPM switch – or Lotus Dynamic Performance Management – from Tour to Sport, which puts the throttle on edge, increases traction slip thresholds, gives you more control of the car and moves the redline from 6,800 rpm to 7,200 rpm. If the Roadster was good out on the road, it’s even better in here.
Throttle squeezed to the floor, and the 3.5 litre V6 starts pummelling my eardrums with a throaty roar, signalling the transformation of the Roadster into its track-day alter ego. The rev needle surges towards 7,000 rpm, where the full 345 hp joins the party. The 400 Nm torque arrived earlier, at 4,500 rpm.
It will do naught to 100 km/h in four seconds flat and hits 160 km/h in double the time. Clutch in and third gets thrown into the gate – the world gets stretched, objects starts disappearing in the rear and eyes start to water as I exit Windsock Corner into Mansell Main Straight.
Not more than a second later, I’m hitting the rev limiter. Clutch in and ram in fourth. The engine spins, the needle chases the redline, but I’ve run out of road. Time to brake, and the four-piston AP Racing calipers grip the 332 mm ventilated and cross-drilled cast iron discs. Speed rapidly drops and the rear starts to get nervous, but quickly settles.
Now a right-hander – Chicane – and it’s a slow one taken in second gear. Right, then left, then right. The front wheel acknowledges with plenty of enthusiasm, bang straight on the apex. Throttle on half throughout, then full on exit. But I’ve put the kettle on too soon.
The rear steps out. Throttle in and the steering goes into the other direction. The Roadster adjusts itself straight immediately and just in time for the Rindt Hairpin. Brake late into the corner, feed more steering right to zero in on the apex.
Done, now hold the power midway through then full on even before you finish the corner. Slowly unwind the steering and let the car take up all the road to earn even more speed out of the corner. It goes against the conventional thinking of slow-in-fast-out, but you’ll be doing this every time a corner happens – in the Lotus, it is late on the brakes and early on the power.
Grip is phenomenal. The Pirelli P Zero Corsas bite with all the ferocity of a dire wolf, then swings you around the corner at speeds that would make Sir Isaac Newton rise from the grave to revise his calculations. You’ll feel every movement of the car in detail, and it joyously lets you know everything. Yet, don’t discount the playfulness of the Roadster, as it will let the rear tyres overtake the front if you give it the chance to.
Still, in spite of its racetrack capability, this is still very much an car that Lotus wants to offer to a broader audience, and so the added softness in the Roadster proposes a new side to the Exige chapter. And it works.
Here’s a Lotus that isn’t a track car which happens to be drivable on the road. In fact, after multiple laps around the Hethel test track, I begin to feel that the Roadster is better off touring the countryside. The Exige S Roadster opens up the world in ways that no other Lotus can, introducing a whole new element to the brand. Mission accomplished.