Can you improve the already brilliant Lotus Exige?

Tuning an already powerful sports car can go horribly wrong if undertaken carelessly, but done properly it can yield spectacular results – as we found out

Dark clouds gather between the three Forth Bridges, an ill-omened black mass towering over Port Edgar’s various warehouses and yachts. Water gently laps at the slipway as an ominous hush descends over the estuary’s calm surface. The wind has died, a soft clang of sailing equipment is audible over distant traffic upon the Forth Replacement Crossing. A storm is coming; I can feel it.

The marina’s jetty, pontoons and one-way road appear deserted. With only the echo of my own footsteps for company, I move towards the repository housing Ben MacDowell’s Engine 710 garage. A pulsating growl curls its way through the dank air.

The demonic exhaust tone radiates underneath the workshop door, a noise that I can feel in the pit of my stomach. I wheel back the roller door to find the source; a bright orange 2009 Lotus Exige. Best of all, it has been set aside for me – with a virtually abandoned harbourside to navigate.

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Ben MacDowell and I have been good acquaintances for many years, having first crossed paths on the Land Rover scene. I take any opportunity to swing by and view the latest classics in his workshop, but today is proving something special. Usually Ben has my Range Rover P38 to fix, but not this time – I’m here to sample his tuning work.

My visit stems from a conversation where the topic turned to engine tuning, with Ben claiming to have improved a Lotus Exige with various upgrades. He had added some 60bhp and fettled the underpinnings. He also reckoned it was therefore better to drive, but I disagreed. Being a huge Lotus fan, I had to counterbalance and say ‘the Exige is damn near perfect; play with it and you’ll ruin it’. I am now at his door hoping not to taste humble pie.

The modified Lotus emerges from the garage sporting a custom rear wing large enough to iron a shirt on. Apparently, the tweaked Exige now pumps out 340bhp at 8000rpm and can breach 60mph from a standstill in under four seconds. The recorded top speed of a standard model is well beyond 150mph, yet Ben assures me this one can top 170mph.

Boiling down all the knowledge, with an already feather-light kerbweight of sub-900kg each pony carries around 5.8lb. That’s a serious power-to-weight ratio, aided by carbon-fibre panels. The tailgate, side-intake ducts and roof are all formed for sheer weight saving. However, there’s more than just weight loss going on here…

To enhance Lotus’s trademark pin-tight handling, there’s new, upgraded springs alongside fresh drivetrain components – but Ben can’t tell me what they are. Not that he doesn’t want to; the owner requested the upgrade details remain only between himself and Ben. With a devilish smile, Ben gestures towards the passenger seat. It’s time for a demonstration.

‘There are no airbags,’ is an odd thing to be informed of as we edge out of the warehouse. Traversing the thin drainage channel and slowly crawling up the tarmac embankment dominating the garage forecourt, Ben continues: ‘The radio has been removed, as has the central locking and most of the sound deadening. A lighter motor-sport battery has also been fitted. It goes fast.’

Then the talking stops. As we crest the hill and turn towards the main road, an intense burst of torque pins me into the seat. Ben changes gear with a throttle blip, and the power curve promptly pounds each of my senses. I can hear the mid-ship engine rattling and fizzing like an injured Brian Blessed, while the roadside buildings are briefly reduced to a blur of colour. The taste of salty air seeping through the open window intensifies with outright pace. It’s just as well I trust young MacDowell.

Cutting through the scenery, as a passenger, this Exige is highly impressive. I can see Ben is having to work hard to maintain momentum without the assistance of various driver aids – something most other modern classics that are claimed to be out-and-out driver’s cars can’t boast. The result speaks for itself, however, as the grin slapped across his face stretches from ear to ear. Even his tuned Land Rover Defender 90 can’t evoke such a reaction.

What’s the Lotus like on the road?

He pulls into a layby, and I’m granted access to the driver’s seat. I don’t have to be asked twice. Setting off for the return leg to Port Edgar, it’s clear that the attention to detail on this project has been meticulous. Lotus’s own race-tuned Exige tends to tramline and pull mildly to one side under braking, yet Engine 710’s upgrades appear to have solved these niggles.

The Lotus barely slows as the first corner approaches, tackling the tight curve with minimal tyre squeal or fuss. The hull remains steadfast and balanced, boasting little sign of oversteer or wayward control.

As I follow an admittedly sketchy racing line, the power delivery working through the gears refuses to let up. Even catching a breath almost feels like effort as the front end tucks into the next corner with a hunger rarely seen outwith pure-bred rally machines. As a road car, this is raw enough to reduce Gordon Ramsay to a frenzied rage.

As with any Lotus, if you drive like a fool the chassis can become fidgety; the Exige’s firm ride usually produces a blend of overconfidence and adrenaline. It’s the same story here, yet where normal variants feel somewhat unchallenged at lower revs, this one seems alive and pure.

Even driving sensibly, the Toyota-sourced 1.8-litre engine offers a sense of willing. I can confirm this, despite being too apprehensive to properly stomp on the accelerator. After all, this car is someone else’s property – I don’t fancy informing them that it’s now located in a hedge.

This Exige would never make for sensible everyday transport; each pothole must be skilfully danced around for undisturbed momentum, making the car unsuited to modern British roads. While the steering is focused and alert, the modified suspension offers little in the way of sympathy as imperfect tarmac is fed through my pelvis. If we were to hit a 50p piece, I swear we could count its sides.

On track, the view would be different. The undying grip, stance and chassis agility would clearly make for an extraordinary racer, yet under the restrictions of Her Majesty’s highway I can only push so far. We can establish that Engine 710’s tuning capabilities have produced a Lotus Exige with more power and enhanced response, but it has come at a cost. The already unforgiving ride has been heightened, yet only for exploitative reasons. You simply can’t have a Lotus with more power and enriched control without compromise.

The car is sensitive, prickly and unconcerned about your wellbeing, which is exactly why any petrolhead would take to it. The original Lotus formula has been respectfully tweaked, defying any naysayer who might claim it can’t be done.

As I swing into the marina’s entrance and carefully feed the Lotus back towards the garage, my own scepticism has been quashed. Whereas I believed Lotus’s own recipe couldn’t be improved, Ben has proven me wrong.

Retreating to my Rover 800 as the rain sets in, the trip home feels flat and monotonous. While Ben wouldn’t inform me who the Lotus’s owner is, should you be reading this, you are one lucky git.

Photography by Andy McCandlish

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