‘Discrete’ is one word rarely applied to the Lotus Exige. It becomes a laughable notion when you gather three of them – plus a brand-new Bentley Continental GT and photographer Martyn’s lurid green ‘Elige’ – in one of the less salubrious corners of Leeds for a photo shoot. The results seemed to be worth the jeopardy though as an apparently unremarkable underpass became the stage for what we understand is the first purposeful photo shoot of all three generations of this iconic car in the UK – and probably the world.

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The catalyst for this gathering of bewinged racers was the arrival of local dealership JCT600’s new Exige S demonstrator; in glistening pearlescent white. Being blessed with a laser blue S1 Exige myself, all we needed was a red S2 and we had the set – in patriotic livery. Skipton resident and enthusiastic owner Andy Gates generously brought over his stunning ardent red 2005 S2 Exige and so the stage was set for a freezing cold evening of standing around hoping none of the locals decided to relieve us of our precious metal.

The original Exige, now known as the S1, was derived directly from Lotus’s own race car. The Sport Elise had its own domestic racing championship in the early part of the last decade. The racer donated its dramatic Kamm-tailed bodywork and lumpy K-series engine (which had previously seen service in the manic 340R) to a limited run of road cars produced between 2000 and 2001. With UK road registered numbers now dwindling, it seems hard to believe that Lotus actually struggled to shift the Exige in period.

According to its own figures, Lotus produced 583 S1 Exiges and they’re now considered something of a commodity. Rising values are not dissuading owners from using their cars, though, and the Exige is a regular sight at track days and events across the country. It’s a compelling car, which seems only to become more beguiling with time. As mainstream cars seem ever to remove the driver from the driving process, the Exige hardwires you in – it’s like intravenous motoring.

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The S1 is not an easy car to live with and it would take a masochistic temperament to use one on a daily basis. The drive train is race car raw with hacking, lumpy low-rev hostility and shrieking violence higher up the rev range. It gets mighty hot in the cabin and on a committed drive you emerge drenched in sweat from the physicality of it all. Subsequent Exiges have been faster, but none has been more intense.

By comparison, Andy Gates’ gorgeous S2 Exige seems civility personified – though compared to just about anything else on the road it’s still as raw as an open wound. The S2 Exige entered production only three years after S1 Production ceased, yet the car seems from a different age. Though now motivated by a serial production Toyota engine, rather than the VHPD Rover unit in the S1, any thoughts that the Exige might have calmed down prove unfounded.

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The Toyota 2ZZ-GE may only displace 1.8l but it revs to a giddy 8,500rpm, higher even than the VHPD. With a distinct cam change ‘kick’ at 6,200rpm it creates a usefully schizophrenic character which thrives on hard driving. The moment the engine hits the high-lift cam the induction note hardens and acceleration changes from brisk to rapid. It’s seriously addictive.

Andy has owned his car for three years. Finished in ardent red, he added longitudinal stripes to break up the colour. With black wheels, splitter and diffuser it carries itself with the usual Exige swagger. Andy has been remarkably restrained with the modifications to his car, though a sports exhaust should add to the drama plenty when installed.

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The S2 became an instant hit for Lotus. Combining plenty of the visual drama of the S1 but asking for far less commitment from owners, it has gone on to sales success. Successive models have added superchargers offering greater power, bigger brakes and bodywork revisions. The original, naturally aspirated version still hits the spot perfectly though. This model helped opened the door to new generations of Lotus owners with game-changing performance on and off track, combined with remarkable build and reliability. Oh, and beating a helicopter gunship on TV’s Top Gear did it no harm either.

By comparison, the latest V6 Exige S looks an entirely different car. It’s longer and broader with a thicker-set stance which offers greater presence than its forbears. If ever there is a topic to arouse widespread debate in Lotus circles, it is weight – mostly the accusation of too much of it. The new Exige S breaks the sacred 1,000kg barrier for the first time. Perhaps even worse for Exige die-hards, the new car now dispenses with that crowning bastion of Exige-ness – the roof scoop. While the S1 needed all the cool air it could get to prevent untimely detonation and later S2s needed it to feed to hungry intercoolers, the latest S3 Exige didn’t require one so none was fitted. The horror…

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Putting aside these preconceptions, take the new Exige S in isolation and it is an amazing achievement from a small company. The drive train is suddenly more characterful than it ever was in the Evora S, with agitated pops and gurgles on the over-run. That engine is simply mighty, with phenomenal acceleration in any gear at any speed. It delivers you deep into licence-losing territory with terrifying ease. That the chassis is the equal of the engine is nothing short of miraculous. It smoothes out bumps, ridges and crests in a way which must have Rolls Royce engineers scratching their heads. As a driving experience it’s hard to think of anything else short of a Ferrari 458 which could touch it.

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Delivery issues have been well publicised online and probably don’t warrant discussion here. Suffice it to say that the works are selling cars as fast as they can produce them; the problem is they’re struggling to produce them fast enough. Still, if the testimonials from owners are as positive as the road tests then this promises to be a massive success for Lotus – and it deserves to be.

Back at our photo shoot, photographer Martyn displays endless patience in placing the cars millimetre-perfectly. He seems to spend as much time lying on the floor as he does standing up. He uses a technique called ‘light painting’ which seems to involve long exposures and an LED torch. It’s all deeply impressive stuff, though the female members of our party rather prudently take up residence in the Bentley; replete as it is with heated massage seats. I wish I’d thought of that. My toes are stinging from the cold.

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The results of the shoot are spectacular and worth braving the freezing temperatures and jeopardy for. Whatever your sporting automotive preference, there is now an Exige for you, and you can guarantee nothing else will match it for dramatic, head-turning looks and ultimate dynamic potency.

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My thanks to JCT600 Lotus, martynlewisphotography.com and Andy Gates for their time and effort in making the shoot happen.

Andrew Swift – Motor Car Diaries

Lotus Drivers Club Motorsport Editor