Lotus Exige S: A Toy For Grown Ups

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) — Oh, the sweet sound of screaming tires! I’ve got the back end of the Lotus sliding as I slalom up a steep corkscrew turn, and the rubber is pushed to its limit. No worries, this car pivots on a dime. As the road straightens, I snap the back end into line and really give it the gas.

Rocket propulsion!

The Lotus Exige S is an English car that could teach other automakers a vital lesson: Lose weight, fatty. Because this two- seater doesn’t need a V-12 or even a V-6 to achieve its sensational performance. A humble 220-horspower four-cylinder sourced from Toyota does the trick.

The way of the Lotus is to shrug off luxury, embrace simplicity and maintain a strict regimen of keeping the weight down.

As a society we’ve all put on some excess pounds, and our vehicles are no exception. A 5,000-pound SUV is common, necessitating an ever-more-powerful engine. And like obese patients who can’t quite give up the nachos, husky autos manage that bulk with ever-more-complicated electronic stability and traction systems, trying to restrain the ill effects of physics (sort of like a girdle and support hose).

The 2,077-pound Exige takes the opposite tack. Light is nimble, and each of its 220 horses needs to push only about 9 1/2 pounds. It’s essentially a street-legal go-kart.

Just don’t expect to take it on a grocery run or any of the 1,001 other tasks for which you’d normally stick a key into the ignition. The Exige is a niche player, designed only for enthusiastic driving.

Speed-to-Weight Ratio

Sailors who race sailboats around the world cut toothbrushes in half to save weight, and they could tell you that the speed-to-weight equation can be brutal. In the case of the Exige, forget seat padding for your behind, let alone your back; the radio is tinny-sounding; and you won’t find any fancy electronics on the dash.

The two-seat Exige looks as exotic as any creature on the road, and I mean creature: It’s tiny — less than 4 feet tall — and the various intakes and scoops and swept-back headlights on bulged fenders are reminiscent of an insect. If it were a Transformer, its robotic alter ego would be a praying mantis.

I bring my friend Casey for a drive. We’re both big guys (though thankfully not XXL big), and the cockpit feels comically overstuffed. (“Dude, stay on your side.” “This IS my side!”) Getting in and out involves advanced yoga positions. Casey, an Army vet, says it’s actually easier to get inside an M1 Abrams tank.

The addition of a passenger affects the handling, so I jettison Casey when we reach my favorite road. A curvy track that wends up a steep ridge, it’s a demanding course that rewards smart heel-toe downshifts and quick steering inputs.

Sister Convertible

Years ago I’d driven the Exige’s sister, the Elise, at this track. That model has less power, though it has a removable soft or hard top so you can enjoy the open air. I prefer it over the more rigid Exige, which has such a low roof that you often find yourself snugging down into the seats to see the outside world. On either model, the driving position is so close to the ground you might fear scraping your jeans right off.

Going from 0 to 60 in about 4.1 seconds, the Exige blurs the scenery in a hot flash, and I blast up the hill in record time, filling the air with the alternating sounds of the tightly wound motor, screeching brakes and howling tires.

At one point I cheat a wide sharp corner on the hill by cutting it too close to the inside and bleed off acceleration. The tires are at an awkward angle, and most cars would demand that you straighten them before getting back on the gas. Instead I drop hard on the accelerator and the Exige’s rear wheels lock in with a grunt. The car screams up over the hill as smoke from the wheels pours through the interior vents.

Awesome.

Runt’s-Eye View

Driving the Exige in traffic, however, is a test of nerves. You’re so low that you’ll find yourself eye level with the door handle to other cars, and an average SUV towers over the car like a brontosaurus. And since the engine is located directly behind the cockpit, the view out the rear window is utterly obscured. The rearview mirror seems to be in place for only one reason, to check out your own kid-in-the-candy-store expressions.

Ah, yes, it’s hard not to feel like a kid behind the wheel, as the Exige is nothing if not a toy. It even looks like one, a Hot Wheels come to life. Only this one runs $59,890 and up.

C’mon, Mom! Can I have one, please?

The Lotus Exige S at a Glance

Power: 1.8-liter in-line four-cylinder, with 220 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds.

Price as tested: $63,750 (base $59,890).

Best feature: The fast, taut handling of a go-kart.

Worst feature: Stadium bleacher seats have more padding.

Target buyer: The grown-up-kid looking for a thrill-a- minute automotive toy.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)