It is better, they say, to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slowly. Still, no one stays awake at night dreaming of driving a slow car fast. What you want is to drive a fast car, and you want to drive it just as fast as it can go.
Fast is focus. You think you're seeing a road course in 20/20 behind the wheel of your hopped-up Bimmer or Vette? Check your vision. It's possible to see more, to focus harder. Colin Chapman founded Lotus Cars to pursue that focus relentlessly, to cut weight and complexity wherever possible. Whether it was the Formula-Ford-for-the-street Lotus Seven, with its tube frame and a pedalbox so narrow that owners usually left their shoes in the trunk, or the first Lotus Esprit, which used its half-shafts as suspension control arms to save weight, Chapman's creations wielded the scalpel where others swung the broadsword.
In the service of that tradition, we lined up three very different descendants of his original ideas and set them free at Sonoma Raceway for one brilliant day behind the wheel.
The original Lotus Seven is represented here by a U.S.-market Caterham 7. It's a private-owner evolution of the theme, with power and various aftermarket speed bits added in prescription-strength doses. From Lotus itself comes the uncompromising Exige V6 Cup, in many ways the perfect merger of the spartan Seven and the forward-thinking Esprit. Lastly, we have a special take on the Chapman formula of grand-prix performance for the enthusiast—the Caterham SP/300.R, which offers Le Mans Prototype thrills without the seven-figure budget.
These cars are different in execution but united in one thing—they're demanding and rewarding to a degree you won't find anywhere else.
Lotus Exige V6 Cup
By the time I get to Sonoma on the morning of our test, Senior Editor Jason Cammisa already has the British Racing Green Lotus fueled and ready to go in pit lane. First impressions are fantastic: If the original Lotus Elise had a sort of insectile grace, this scooped-and-vented final take on the formula is more killer wasp, nakedly aggressive and ready to attack slower-witted prey.
The specs wouldn't impress the man on the street, but they'll elicit a knowing nod from the racers in the paddock. Three hundred and forty-five supercharged horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque from the 3.5-liter Toyota V-6, a bonded-aluminum chassis and composite body that owe much to the second-gen Lotus Elise. And here's a secret about that Toyota V-6: It might be twins with the one in your neighbor's Camry, but it's got the right stuff. Big bore, short stroke, plenty of room for tuning. As a consequence, it loves to rev, and when Cammisa blips the throttle against the light flywheel fitted for Lotus duty, it doesn't sound close to street-legal. Which is fair, because in the United States, this Exige doesn't meet safety regulations and can't wear a license plate.
At 2381 pounds the Exige is, amazingly, the heaviest car in this test by quite a bit. But it's still light enough to threaten the outgoing Corvette Z06 in power-to-weight, and compact enough to make the Chevy feel like a Seventies personal-luxury coupe.
Which leads to a problem. At six-foot-two with a 48-inch chest, I can't sit up in the thing or move my left shoulder freely. A change of helmet from my top-vented Impact to a smaller Bell from Sonoma's Simraceway school makes it possible for me to hold my head upright. Just because you fit in a standard Elise or Exige, don't assume you'll be comfortable in this factory-caged variant.
This engine is something special. The Evora S, which shares the Exige's V-6, never feels overpowered, but here the engine shoves me hard uphill through the track's first turn with a snarl. The grip is spectacular and easily a match for the available thrust all the way to Turn 4, which arrives far too quickly for comfort. Luckily the brakes are strong and reassuring, biting from the top of the pedal's travel despite a lack of heat in the pads. Still, I overshoot 4 by quite a bit. The car is faster than it seems to be, and by quite a margin.
Earlier in the day, Cammisa expressed his concerns about the relatively high center of gravity in this car—the Exige's short platform was originally designed for a smaller, lighter four-cylinder—and it's true that the Lotus's rear seems to move with more inertia than it would in a four-pot Exige. I provoke a few dramatic-looking slides while taking the long way around Turn 7 and am able to catch the car with a quick spin of the usefully small Alcantara steering wheel. This Lotus isn't quite as nimble as the junior Exiges, but as I press on through Sonoma's "fast 9" turn, I'm reassured by its solid high-speed grip and the predictability of the rear tires.
Each time I blow by the flag, I'm more impressed. Above all, the Lotus is smooth, responding to disciplined inputs with well-damped responses. There's no obvious heat soak going on behind me despite the fact that the blower is working hard, and the car is easy enough on its 205/45R-17 front and 265/45R-18 rear R-compound Pirelli P Zero Trofeo tires to keep lap times consistent.
Simraceway's chief instructor, Nico Rondet, agrees to fold his diminutive frame into the Exige and crank out a hot lap for us. He runs a respectable 1:54.39, and his refusal to pit the Lotus immediately after makes it plain that he's enjoying himself. "Balanced, solid," he notes, but before he can say more, I've cramped myself back into the driver's seat for a few more laps.
The Exige's $98,500 sticker would buy a house in much of this country, but it's a value when you look at how much you'd spend on the German competition. Out of the box, the Lotus is usefully faster than most advanced track-day cars, but more important, it's more rewarding than virtually anything with more power and weight.
From the vibration in the wheel when you rub the shoulder of the outside tire against a curb to the shifter's wrist-flick precision, this is a boutique experience, coupled with limits that will take the average driver a long time to find. The fact that it looks the business doesn't hurt. If you've liked any of Hethel's new cars over the past 15 years, you'll love this one. It's the sharpest modern Lotus, fit for purpose and deeply satisfying.
Caterham 7 S3
This, on the other hand, is a 23-ounce hammer delivered directly to the forehead. Bristling with atavistic menace and carbon fiber, the Caterham 7 looks like a steampunked museum piece, too exaggerated to exist. Caterham took over production of the Lotus Seven street car four decades ago, but it hasn't sat on its laurels. Every few years there's more power, a more finely tuned suspension, and more focus on the task of building the most involving car possible.
Twelve hundred or so pounds separate this from the Exige, and you can see where every one came from: The body, a tapered wedge sitting over extra-wide axles from Caterham's bigger 7 SV. The rolling stock, visibly smaller than the Lotus's already modest wheels and tires. The interior, which basically consists of two potato-chip-thin carbon buckets and a few spare panels over the 7's steel-tube frame. There's no car here. It's an engine and wheels and a place to sit, and you can reach down and touch the track at speed if you're mad enough to try it.
Gone, too, is the sophisticated whir of the Exige's V-6, replaced by a barely muffled, 260-hp Ford Duratec four that spits out an unbalanced roar when you blip the throttle. This painfully coarse, Cosworth-built 2.3-liter, sold in England in Caterham's CSR 260 7, is capable of spinning the rear tires at pretty much any time. Our test car's private owner has fitted a Freestyle aftermarket inboard front suspension—four inches wider than Caterham's optional wide-track setup—and a de Dion rear axle. State-of-the-art stability-control and anti-lock-brake systems are conspicuous in their absence. The only safety net here is the one you create with your reflexes and sense of restraint.
The 7's nature causes me to approach the first lap with caution. It's duly rewarded. In a straight line, this bellowing oxcart easily dispatches the Lotus, but it doesn't stop like a modern car. Not enough pressure, and you'll sail into the runoff at 4; too much, and you'll smoke the tread off the locked front wheels. The area between the two is measured in toe pressure.
More worrisome is the nose-up attitude the car adopts as its speedometer hits triple digits. This sort of thing is common to 7s, but the Duratec's hideous strength makes it laughably so and a little daunting. The too-short pauses between upshifts of the close-ratio five-speed are more superbike than supercar; during second and third gear, there's barely time to return my hand to the wheel.
Down the straights, the Caterham hunts left and right before settling its nose as the aero lift disappears under braking. When I'm foolish enough to dial in steering before the nose grabs, I'm rewarded with a ludicrous, heart-stopping slide around Turn 6. This, at last, is where the bug-eyed monster feels at home, its drift held with microscopic wheel movements, the open-sky view letting me pinpoint my corner exit and touch it with the precision of an electron microscope. Hot damn.
At speed, the 7 is continually in motion, shuddering under braking before adopting a cornering set that betrays just how much flex there is in the car's old-style space frame, then scrabbling for traction on exit. It's total involvement, the kind of rush that doesn't seem possible without pharmaceuticals.
They wave me in and Rondet takes a shot. This time, he returns without a pleasure lap. "The front end—no good," he says. "Loses grip at speed; it's a problem." But his lap time is an Exige-shading 1:51.88. I understand what he's saying. From the perspective of a professional racer, the 7 is far from perfect; it's exhausting and requires everything from the driver, all the time. As an experience, however, it's without peer, a Supermarine Spitfire for the road.
Dyson Racing Caterham SP/300.R
"If you drive this car," American Le Mans Series LMP1 champion Chris Dyson told me, "then you know what it's like in an LMP."
He'd know, wouldn't he? Unlike the Exige and the 7, both of which have roots in street cars, the SP/300.R is a track-only proposition. From the pushrod-operated Penske shocks feeding load through the stressed gearbox to the prototype-style square steering wheel and Farringdon-supplied LCD dash, this is effectively a scaled-down Le Mans Prototype. No wonder, then, that Dyson himself assisted with the development of the 300.R and insisted on serving as the car's U.S. distributor. It's unusual to have a major Le Mans competitor in the business of selling sports cars, but Dyson says the car justifies the effort. He's right.
A glance at the specifications makes it obvious the 300.R doesn't even play in the same league as the other cars here. Weight is listed at 1200 pounds, about what the 7 weighs, but there's a full 300 hp from a supercharged Duratec. That alone would make this the fastest car here, but consider this: At 150 mph, the 300.R generates half a ton of downforce. I've driven 1000-hp GT-Rs and Porsche GT2s that could spin their back tires in fifth gear, but I've never been in anything with this kind of raw cornering capability. Nor, I suspect, have most track-day drivers.
In recognition of that fact, I decided to ask for help during the one 20-minute stint I was given behind the wheel. The Dyson Racing team has, at my request, fitted an Autosport Labs RaceCapture/Pro system to the car, which will allow Chris and a representative from Autosport to monitor my runs in real time and offer suggestions.
But first, I have to learn how to operate the car. Once I've slithered into the driver's seat, my feet are level with my hips. My right shoulder is locked solid against the bodywork. Were I to summon up the approximately $157,000 necessary to buy a 300.R, Dyson would size the car to fit me. But today, I'll do most of the steering with my left hand. In a car that can sustain more than two g's of steady-state cornering at over 100 mph.
With the Autosport and Dyson people watching nervously, I use the clutch to get rolling out of the pit box. That's the last time I'll use it until it's time to stop; the Hewland FTR six-speed sequential transmission is operated by paddles behind the steering wheel. This is no tame dual-clutch. On the move, it emits an unearthly howl that drowns out the Duratec, and each shift is shoved home with a clunk I can feel in my lungs.
My senses are still calibrated for the Lotus, and my first lap is an Exige-like 1:53.00. I pull back into the pits for coaching. "You're slow … everywhere," the Autosport rep chuckles. "Go back out and be committed."
Frankly, I'm scared. I can't figure out the limits of this thing, and I have very little time in which to do it. I decide to trust the data and push harder. I watch the engine temperature on the wheel's LED readout until it shows ready. And then I do.
When I get the 300.R sideways around Turns 4 and 7, I know I'm starting to find the groove—later on, Dyson will laughingly note that I was slightly faster than him around the track's slower corners—and I decide to hold my breath in the fast corners. Turn 1 needs to be flat, as do 8 and 9. On the move, the car bobs vertically in increments so small and so precisely controlled, it seems to vibrate over track imperfections. I line up 9 visually and hold my foot in the throttle until long after I'd have met the wall in the Exige, but the car sails through, sending the data system's g-meter past the 2.0 mark. In the next two laps, I push harder, but I literally cannot find the car's high-speed limit. I'm entering turns at what my brain says is Corvette-smashing velocity, and nothing happens.
If I owned this car, I'd keep pushing in the fast corners until I was challenging the limits of the downforce and something genuinely frightening happened. But since it belongs to Dyson, I pull in for a debrief. Chris Dyson shows me the lap time: 1:44.50. Amazing. Seven seconds ahead of the 7, and I'm still a full 10 mph slower than he was in many spots. His reference lap, set later in the afternoon, is a staggering 1:39.40.
And yet I think I could get there eventually. It's not the 300.R that's holding me back. It's my mind, which has to recalibrate for this kind of hardware. I got 8.5 seconds in six laps; with another 60, I know I could get five more.
This is less a track-day special than a pure race car—and when Dyson took this same demonstrator to its first race on U.S. soil, it swept the weekend. It's simply thrilling, both in what it's capable of and what it asks of you. No street car can prepare you for it. The only downside is that everything else feels glacial afterward.
By the end of the day, everyone at the track had a favorite. A lady friend present adored the Exige V6 Cup for its futuristic looks and cultured noises. Mr. Cammisa had to be physically pried from the 7, citing its raw involvement, and the car was the favorite of most spectators.
For me, however, the choice was plain. Each of these cars offers capabilities beyond the talent of most drivers, but the 300.R presents a taste of sports-car racing at its most exalted level and a challenge worthy of the truly committed. In a group of genuinely focused automobiles, this one has the sharpest edge.