Turn 12, Road Atlanta's screaming-fast, off-camber, downhill bend defines this old-school European-style road racing circuit. In the 2006 Lotus Sport Elise, it's dispatched in 4th gear at about 95 mph. Get it wrong and there's a massive concrete wall only 22 feet off the outside of the bend ready to make you regret your lack of talent. Get it right — flat out, eyes fixed past the apex, foot to the floor — and there's no drama at all. It takes us about 100 tries to get it right.
In the Lotus Sport Elise, however, we find there's more to learn entering Turn 1. This 3rd-gear, right-hand bend climbs about 70 feet to a blind crest where the road turns to the left before immediately snapping back to the right. Placement, weight transfer and grip must be perfectly set and commitment is critical to achieve real speed. Repeat enough laps in a standard Sport Pack-equipped Elise, and the otherwise minimal difference between it and the Lotus Sport Elise becomes obvious.
In the Sport Elise we discover added stability at turn-in for Turn 1. The resulting boost in confidence sends us through Road Atlanta's famous "esses" significantly quicker and slams us mercilessly into the exit curb at Turn 5. It's hard proof that the Sport Elise's Öhlins dampers, adjustable stabilizer bar and slicker aero profile relative to a topless Elise make a difference.
Just when we thought the Lotus Elise couldn't get more focused, along comes Lotus Sport and recalibrates the most undiluted performance car sold in the United States. Lotus Sport, Lotus' nine-person-strong specialty division responsible for performance parts as well as production and one-off racecars, gets credit for tuning the 50 2006 Lotus Sport Elise models in the U.S. market this year.
Adding exclusivity to this already distinguished club, the Lotus Sport version of the Elise is identified by its proprietary Saffron Yellow paint, Storm Titanium racing stripes and matching hardtop. Inside, there's a numbered build plate, body-color center console and leather-trimmed seats with harness cutouts. Lotus Sport also redesigned the indicator stalks, window winders, floor mats and other details.
But those aren't the parts that make it special. The real hardware components, the differences that make a difference, are hidden underneath. Threaded shock bodies with height-adjustable collars house Öhlins dampers at all four corners. The Öhlins units are two-way adjustable and utilize 22 compression and 60 rebound settings. The five-way-adjustable front stabilizer bar from the Track Pack option is also included.
Lotus' advanced traction control is in place, but interestingly, the Torsen limited-slip differential, which is optional on all Elises, isn't included. Lotus engineers and PR folks alike admit that the limited-slip diminishes the car's world-class steering feel and was made available for the small but vocal group of owners whose autocrossing demands required it in low-speed, high-load corners. For road racing, it's not necessary.
Other hardware changes include stainless-steel brake lines and high-temperature fluid. There's also a stronger clutch that's able to handle more abuse. The same Yokohama A048 195/50R16 (front) and 225/45R17 (rear) tires and lightweight forged wheels from the Sport Pack are included.
Familiar power, new handling
The same Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter four-cylinder powers the Lotus Sport Elise through a six-speed manual transmission. Rated at 190 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque, it provides ample motivation in a car whose weight is almost exactly one ton.
Row through the gears in a straight line and you'll have a hard time distinguishing the Lotus Sport Elise from a standard car, but drive it back-to-back at 10/10ths, and the limits are clearly redefined. Our track time showed the Lotus Sport Elise more stable over midcorner surface undulations in high-speed turns. Steering response is ever-so-slightly sharpened and confidence is similarly increased.
The result is a tighter chassis, fewer distractions and a more direct connection to the Sport Elise driver's nerve centers. And that's something we simply didn't think was possible. Then it got even better.
The even better that it got: Lotus Sport Exige Cup
The Lotus Sport Exige Cup's connection to the driver is the same as the Sport Elise's, but its synapses fire at twice the speed thanks to another 53 horsepower and 36 lb-ft of torque. Feedback from the chassis and powertrain are similar to a standard Exige, but everything happens in excess. Acceleration is faster. Grip is higher. Braking loads are increased and lap times sink like W's approval rating.
So does our ego the first time we crank the Exige Cup's Momo steering wheel off-center. Cornering and braking limits aren't even in the same world as most street cars, given the Exige Cup's Yokohama slicks, competition brake pads, fluid and stainless-steel lines.
This is a lot of car and it's clear we won't be approaching its limits in the few laps we're given. The increased torque doubles the engine's flexibility, making the Exige Cup less momentum dependent. Third-gear corners become 4th-gear corners. And the faster we go, the more downforce (100 pounds at 100 mph) there is sticking us to the tarmac. It's an intoxicating snowball effect that speaks to the heart of pure driving enthusiasts.
Surprisingly, we found the Exige Cup to be only about 8 mph faster at the track's fastest point than the Lotus Sport Elise, which was marginally quicker than the standard Exige. Still, it achieved that speed much earlier, which translates to significantly quicker lap times. The standard Exige's added drag actually reduced peak speeds at this track relative to the hardtop Elise.
The big reason for the added speed in the Exige Cup is the 62-cubic-inch Eaton supercharger bolted to the relatively stock Toyota power plant. Pressurized intake air is routed through an air-to-air intercooler mounted vertically above the engine. The intercooler is ducted to the Exige's roof scoop to provide airflow at speed. The result is 243 hp at 8,000 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at 7,000 rpm. The only other significant modification to the engine is a dry-sump lubrication system to ensure consistent oil pressure under the massive cornering loads this boosted, downforce-assisted car can generate.
The same six-speed manual transmission is used in the Cup car. However, engineers opted for the adjustability of a clutch-type limited-slip differential that utilizes removable plates to tune its locking rate.
The same Öhlins two-way adjustable coil-overs and five-way-adjustable stabilizer bar that grace the Lotus Sport Elise underpin the Exige Cup. Lotus Sport forged-aluminum wheels help keep weight down.
This non-street-legal, race-prepped version of the Exige expands that car's already outrageous limits into the realm of a true racecar, which is exactly what it is. Lacking any sort of street-going hardware like headlights, interior trim or a radio, it's a focused machine designed to dole out an ass-kicking to anything it might share a track with. Don't even think about a warranty.
The spartan interior is filled with an SCCA-legal roll cage, FIA-certified race seat and six-point harness. The U.S.-spec dashboard and gimmicky "start" button aren't even installed. Instead, the European-spec dash is in place. Its lack of airbags allows better air vent placement — critical for airflow to the windshield and driver.
Other race-only features include an FIA-approved fire suppression system and electrical cutoff. The standard Exige's air conditioning system is never installed, saving an additional 22 pounds. Lotus tells us the Exige Cup weighs 1,998 pounds.
Get them if you can
Current plans call for only 15 Lotus Sport Exige Cups to be available this year in the U.S. Depending on your perspective, the Cup's $78,990 asking price is either outrageous or a relative bargain. Looking at the car as the purpose-built racecar that it is, that price looks fairly reasonable — especially considering the company it's going to keep on a racetrack. Performance estimates for the Exige Cup have it hitting 60 in 4.1 seconds and continuing to a 155-mph top speed.
Lotus tells us each dealer will receive one of the 50 Lotus Sport Elises. The $54,990 asking price hasn't deterred customers so far — many cars are already sold.
At the end of the day the Lotus Sport Elise and Exige Cup are unique cars that suit only the hardest-core enthusiast. They appeal to a unique driver who prefers cold extruded aluminum to carpet and the brilliance of unassisted steering to flubbed-up power assist. These are uncompromising cars for uncompromising drivers. What they lack in amenities, they make up in feedback, control and speed. And with these two new additions to the family, there's even more exclusivity.