LOTUS ELISE & EXIGE
Driving enjoyment distilled – and nothing added
WHERE TO START WITH WHAT COULD ARGUABLY BE the greatest sports cars of all time? Not only did the Elise and Exige save Lotus from extinction, they have inspired generations to experience the thrill of driving in its purest form. And they continued to do so right up until Lotus finally called time on the Elise-based family of cars last year.
As a used proposition, the problem is which to choose. A Series 1 Elise feels a default choice: it’s the original and for many the purest. There’s a marvellous simplicity about everything it does, pure in its approach to driving and rewarding the driver across every mile. Those early cars, with their 1.8-litre K-series engines complete with soggy bread for a head gasket, might have had lowly outputs, but 725kg doesn’t require the thrust of a fighter jet to get it down the road, and when you factor in sublime steering, a magical ride and pin-sharp handling, if the thrill of driving was to be perfectly illustrated by a car, it’s an S1 Elise. It’s why we used an image of one on the dummy issue of evo way back when.
Even as it evolved into the S2 and on to the S3, the Elise never lost its focus or reason for being. Contemporary sports cars went upmarket, chased power and lap times, traded on a lifestyle rather than a principle, and all the while the diminutive Lotus carried on doing what it always did and focused on being the purist driver’s car it could be.
So which to go for? If, like yours truly, you were looking at an S1 Elise 18-24 months ago and thought £15,000 would get you a sorted, well-documented car, you’ll need to find at least another five grand today. Sorry. The good news is that an S2 with the more reliable Toyota VVTI engine won’t cost any more and the S3 is still available for under £30,000 for an early 2010-2013 car. So which one? An S1 for the purists, an S2 Elise S for what is possibly the best mix of everything the model has ever offered, or the S3 Final Edition for something special would be our suggestion.
Or perhaps you’d like your Elise a little more hardcore. And with a different name. In which case the Exige is where it’s at.
A scaled-down Group C racer in looks, the Exige was Lotus turning up the wick and taking a more direct route to satisfy the needs and requirements of the burgeoning trackday fraternity.
Arriving four years after the Elise, the S1 Exige came with a more powerful K-series motor (177bhp or 190bhp), a clamshell rear body, hardtop roof, extra aero (100kg of downforce at 100mph) and cooling ducts to aid on-track braking. There was a wider track, revised spring and damper rates and an edge to its dynamics that sacrificed some of the Elise’s on-road pliancy for on-track focus.
It’s not the easiest of cars to get into or out of if you’re much taller than a nine-year-old, but once inside the Exige takes you on a journey of pure driving joy. It’s not as calm as an Elise and it requires more commitment to extract all that it has to offer, but when you do the Exige takes you back to a world of driving in its simplest forms.
The arrival of the S2 in 2004 saw the Exige receive a six-speed gearbox and a limited run of 50 cars with a 243bhp supercharged version of Toyota’s engine. This would go on to be the standard engine for the Exige S before a supercharged V6 motor was fitted from 2012 with the launch of the S3. Throughout its evolution the Exige has stayed true to its roots of being the track-focused member of the Elise family, its final 410 and 430 Cup iterations demonstrating that, two decades after the model’s launch, the Exige remains a force on road and track.
This track pedigree requires a £25,000 buy-in for an S2 (£40k-plus for the rare and collectable S1) with prices increasing depending on the specification, which can vary due to the Lotus business plan of the time of introducing limited-run specials throughout the model years. Our advice is not to be caught up on the spec, but focus on the condition. An S3 can be yours for around £40,000, and for some has the widest appeal thanks to its removable roof panel. Later S3s from 2018 onwards still command strong money, which some will baulk at if they judge a car by its badge and social media presence. For the rest of us, the Exige remains one of the most inspiring road and track cars of the last 20 years.