Look at the two of these cars...how can you think about anything other than going fast? They flat-out scream excitement. And while they are incredibly different animals, they share one thing in common: They aren't quite what they appear.
The Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series looks and sounds like a race car, but in reality it works far better as a street machine than it ever will on a track. The Exige S, on the other hand, is basically a race car that Lotus has thinly disguised as a road machine, leading some to believe it's livable for everyday, drive-to-the-office use. Trust us, it's not.
Take the Exige S to a track or on a back road, though, and holy cow! You'll think you died and went to sports-car heaven; it may be the purest driving machine on the planet, even if it's nowhere near the quickest in a straight line.
The Exige S is much improved over the normally aspirated Elise and Exige models (the last is no longer sold in the U.S.), due to adding 7.3 psi of boost via a Roots-type supercharger to the 1.8-liter Toyota 4-cylinder mounted transversely aft of the driver. The Exige S makes 220 bhp (versus 190 bhp in the Elise/Exige) at 8000 rpm and 165 lb.-ft. of torque at 5500 rpm. The supercharger's aftercooler is mounted atop the engine, making what was already a difficult car to see out the back of...now an impossible one.
While its 0–60-mph acceleration of 4.6 seconds was only 0.2 sec. quicker than the normally aspirated Exige we previously tested, what's significant about the Exige S is how much more driveable it is over an Elise or Exige; those models make all their power at 6000- rpm, while the Exige S makes 80 percent of its max torque at just over 2000 rpm. Basically, it now has power everywhere, accompanied by a light whining noise from the supercharger.
Running full-tilt around Willow Springs Raceway showed the unbelievable capabilities of this car. The non-power-assisted steering, fed to your gloved hands through a tiny Momo steering wheel, is the most direct you'll ever find, and quite quick at speed. Aim the Exige S toward a corner and it goes there right now. Get hard on what appear to be tiny brakes (11.5-in. rotors all around, 2-piston calipers up front/single-piston at the rear) and it scrubs off speed so quickly through the firm pedal that you'd think the car weighs only 2030 lb. Wait — that's because it does!
Trail-brake into a corner and the tail will step out slightly, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Get back on the throttle too early and that light front end will push — that means you did it wrong. Take a corner correctly, for instance the left-hand, uphill Turn 3, and the tail wags just slightly as you trail-brake, and then wags a touch more under power as you exit; but don't count on big powerslides — its mid-engine layout endows it with terrific traction.
Proving how perfect the Exige S is as a track car, we found that despite the legendary gripping ability of its Yokohama Advan A048 tires, they wore at a far slower rate than we expected, especially considering we were running in desert heat — there was still plenty of tire left when we drove home. And those tiny brakes? Even after many, many laps of pushing the car to its limits, we never experienced any fade.
The track is where the Exige S is brilliant; the street — especially daily use — not so much. The seats are neither comfortable nor laterally supportive, their extreme light weight not really a good enough excuse. The ride is rock-hard; the 4-speaker stereo fights a losing battle to keep up with road and engine noise; and it's downright comical to watch anyone over 5 ft. 8 in. tall try to crawl into or out of the diminutive interior.
But none of that matters if you have the right intentions for the Exige S. Factor in price — $64,855 as tested — and the Exige S is the best street-legal production track car you can buy. Period. No need to install a big brake kit, do any suspension modifications or even carry out an expensive search for more power; it's ready to rock and kick butt on overweight, overpowered cars as soon as you drive it off the showroom floor.