LIVING WITH AN EXIGE
AEX, kindly on loan to me during April and May of 2001 from the Lotus service centre Ketteringham Hall for approximately 7 weeks. During this time I was mainly running the car in from 140 miles or so and putting another 1300 on the clock.
Lets begin at Hethel where I picked the car up. Immediate impressions were that the car did not feel as track-honed or "hardcore" as the 340. The steering initially felt lighter and turn in was less sharp and generally the car felt less solid and planted. I initially likened the overall drive to somthing closer to my old 111s as opposed to my 340... more on this later though.
The other thing to hit home was the gearbox. Unfortunately this car has a very stiff and notchy gearbox (1st & reverse are particularly recalcitrant) and I could see this becoming a bit of an annoyance. Across the back roads around Ketteringham the Exige's steering felt quite light in comparison to the drive up and moving through some bends it definitely felt less planted than the 340r with quite a bit more roll (but thats not exactly criticism !).
Later in the day, hitting the Motorways (M1 in particular) the biggest disappointment was bump steer. Subsequent drives in the Exige over sections of road that I know well and have been in the 340 confirmed to me that the EXige does seem to suffer quite badly from this. In the 340 there is little bump steer by comparison. Drive up the M1 form the north circular and its pretty damm nauseating, the wheel jostling quite violently from left to right in your hand.
For the next 7 weeks or so I used the Exige most weekdays to travel to and from work. Although elises were not intended for this type of driving (especially the harder Exige variety) I nearly always picked the Exige over my Seat Leon to go to work in. After being in an elise chassis for over 2 years now I've got used to it so much, it is the norm and the way the brakes, steering, throttle, driving position etc.. all works feels so right to me. When the Leon rolls in a corner or dives heavily under hard braking I really do NOT like it - that to me is not normal. The net result is that I find elises and the Exige far far easier to drive than something like a Leon or a Golf or probably any other "conventional" car.
The car certainly does get the looks, more so than I was expecting, but in no way does it illicit the inane reactions you get whilst out in the R. It is a fabulous looking thing, one of the best ever in my opinion but there lies a big problem; with all that aggressive bodykit it surely must have the gut to go with it. Sad truth of it is that the EXige has a real lack of power low down and when the VHPD does start to get into its stride at about 4500........ nothing really happens.
After 1100 miles or so I took the thing out with some other elise owners and had the chance to run it through the rev range. It really just never gets going ! It was going quick enough, certainly faster than a standard car but it definitely doesn't feel quick. Rather, the car actually feels quite heavy as if its struggling with the power it has and crying out for more. If it wasn't for a final nudge of pull past 7000 You'd swear that the thing behind your head was no way VHPD.
The other thing that bugged me during that run was the suspension again. I am told that despite the incerased roll and softer feel of the EXige suspension compared to the 340r, the setup is actually quite a lot stiffer to account for the weight increase. So although the car feels more compliant at first impression, across country it does actually jostle about quite a bit and what with the bump steer it makes for quite an annoying drive on certain sections of road. Although the steering at first felt lighter than my 340r, it is actually a great deal meatier than an elise and the weight that gathers on turn in is significantly greater. This is also not to my liking; the whole point of the elise is its light fluidity and its wonderful figertips and toes form of telepathic driving but the Exige requires a bit more muscle and is not so effortless.
It seemed that everything was against the Exige that day. I couldn't catch my mates 111s in a straight line, the gearbox was as difficult as ever and the car was all over the shop on some of the route. It was quite hot as well and by the time I got home the cabin was like a goddam sauna. Believe me, I was well pleased to get out of the thing and tend to the stinking headache that I had. Thats not to say that the 340r isn't a demanding drive because it is but I feel that despite the lack of protection from changing weather, its a far better road car. Although I first thought the Exige's steering to be quite light, it is actually more demanding than the 340. The R's turn is sharper and the footprint feels meatier but the whole car is much more agile and accurate... for overrall feel its simply streets ahead in my opinion. AEX will definitely feel a little faster when it gets some more miles under its belt and it could do with its breathing sorted out but on balance I'd take the silky swift 111s as a country blast car any day - somehow I can't help feeling that out of all the elise variants (save the 190) the Exige is most biased toward the track. Although the 340 is on one level even more track orientated, its also a superb road car and copes with bumpy tarmac a whole lot better.
Maybe what we're talking about here is just weight and very small spring/damper settings. I'm not the person to ask when it gets technical but what I do know is that I've owned a 111s, driven a standard and a motorsport 190 and there is something about the 340 which makes it infinitely more exquisite as a driving experience. Maybe some of it is psychological, like you know that your in a spaceship that the whole world around you is totally bemused by. But maybe a lot of it is down to weight, setup and those tyres. The 340 just feels so much sharper, more precise, more acute, more intense .......... without doubt the most involving and stimulating of all elises.