If you told the late, great Colin Chapman that you're adding 200kg to the weight of one of his cars in order to improve it, we suspect it would have been the last time you had anything to do with the founder of Lotus. His obsession with weight reduction is legendary and it's an ethos the company still employs — even though ownership has changed countless times and rumours persist that it may do again soon. However, if Mr Chapman had let you tell him that, in adding this weight, the Exige would become a credible rival for the mighty Porsche 911 GT3, he may have sat up and taken notice.
Like the GT3, the Exige has always been hard core, appealing to keen driving enthusiasts that are frequent attendees at track days and other motorsport events. Until now that's where the comparison ended, as the Porsche is priced significantly higher and boasts nigh-on supercar performance.
The key words there are "until now", as some bright spark at Lotus decided it was about time the Exige had a serious powerplant. So out goes the screaming supercharged four-cylinder engine bought from Toyota and in goes the rather more cultured 3.5-litre V6 from the Evora.
For good measure it's supercharged (as in the Evora S), which helps explain its 345bhp and 400Nm of torque. And so the 0-100kph time drops to four seconds dead, while the car maxes out at 274kph. Bear in mind that the latest 911 GT3 RS 4.0 (with 500bhp, remember) is only a tenth of a second quicker to 100kph.
But these cars are not about straight-line speed; they're designed with one thing in mind: getting around corners at indecent, physics-defying speeds. Despite the extra weight of the new Exige S, it managed to beat one of the more extreme, track-focused variants of its predecessor around Lotus's own — relatively short — test track by a full five seconds. So what's the trick?
Well, believe it or not, it's still a case of low weight. Even at 1,176kg it's about 200kg lighter than that Porsche. Admittedly the GT3 has a superior power-to-weight ratio, but then again it is still significantly more expensive.
Let's leave the 911 aside for the moment and focus on what Lotus has done to bring its coupé into contention, with such esteemed company. The engine transplant is at the core of the project, though the larger unit didn't fit into the chassis of the standard Exige so Lotus took the daring move to alter the platform. We say daring as insiders admit that Lotus ‘stumbled on' a magic formula in the Elise (on which the Exige is based) on day one, relating to the wheelbase and the distance between the wheels from side to side.
The new car is wider and longer and has a longer wheelbase. Hence, other than the shapely doors, every exterior body panel is new. There's no doubt that the Exige design theme is carried over, but the restyled nose is at the same time more aggressive and more substantial. At the rear you'll find the characteristic quad-light design as on the original Series One Exige, but the requirements of the aerodynamics have clearly shaped the rest of the bodywork, with a muscular stance and highly technical-looking diffuser and rear spoiler. Finishing off the track-ready look is a set of tasty alloys (17in front, 18in rear) shod in specially developed Pirelli P-Zero Trofeo tyres.
While it's all change on the outside, the cabin of the new Exige will be more than familiar to owners of the older model. There's good and bad in that. The minimalist design is an engineering masterpiece on one side, with plenty of exposed access to the aluminium tub underneath and the bare essentials to hand, but given that Lotus is hoping to compete with the likes of Porsche for rich enthusiasts' attentions, we'd like to see more investment in the switchgear and quality of the plastic used to make the dashboard.
It's still a ‘challenge' to get in and out of, especially if you're tall or broad, though the driving position itself is perfect. You sit right on the floor more or less and though the seats are slender and thin, they support you in all the right places. The three-spoke steering wheel is a tactile highlight and the simple aluminium gear knob is mere centimetres away.
Nearby you'll also notice the switch for the new Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) system. There are three modes to choose from by default — Tour, Sport and Off — and an additional setting (Race) if you pay a little extra. It controls the throttle map, the electronic safety systems, rev limit and even a bypass valve in the exhaust. Sport is huge fun on the road while keeping that safety net within reach, and Race is a little special — Lotus reckons the vast majority of drivers would be quicker on a circuit in this mode than with the system switched off.
And how is the new Exige on track? In a word, sublime as ever. The power-to-weight ratio may have increased marginally over its predecessor but there's much more torque, so the car feels significantly quicker. Yet that's not the source of the biggest change. Due to the longer wheelbase Lotus has had to alter the steering, with the result being a quicker system with more lock, which really suits track work. Allied to that, the new rear sub-frame helps double the lateral stiffness, allowing the fitment of an anti-roll bar for the first time — and hence revisions to the springs and dampers.
The result is a car that's completely at home on the circuit — and much more forgiving on its tyres and brakes than heavier exotica. The strong brakes feel invincible regardless of the abuse you subject them to and the unassisted steering has to be one of the most engaging in any car.
Naturally there are compromises to make away from the track. That steering is heavy at parking speeds and rear visibility isn't great (hence the option of parking sensors, which seem a little incongruous next to suspension settings optimised for the special Trofeo tyres), but practicalities aside, the Exige is a remarkably usable road car. It soaks up bumps better than ever before and the longer wheelbase also adds to the comfort and stability at a high-speed cruise. A race car that you can comfortably drive to the circuit? Colin Chapman would have approved.