Lotus Exige vs. Noble M12: Brit barnstormers head to head Quickstep and sidekick Steve Sutcliffe revisits two of his favourite mid-engined road-burners – the stunning Noble M12 and Lotus Exige – but can he pick a winner? Photography Julian Mackie.
Noble versus Lotus Brilliant lightweight Brits Flyweight driving icons: which is best?
It was a Thursday lunchtime as I recall and, as the road test editor of Autocar magazine at the time, I was flat-out – back to the wall as usual – attempting to write that week’s cover story before the production deadline swallowed me whole. My phone rang and it was the nice lady from Reception. She said that there was a man in the foyer called Mr Noble who’d come to drop off a test car.
A minion was dispatched to collect the keys, but five minutes later my phone rang again. The lady from Reception said that Mr Noble was still here, and that he wouldn’t be handing the keys over to anyone except yours truly.
So with something of a “harrumpf” I pressed save and wandered downstairs, whereupon I was greeted by Lee Noble, looking slightly dishev-elled – he always was, and always will be challenged by the wardrobe police – but smiling warmly as we shook hands. He wanted to talk me round his new car, the M10, so that I fully understood what it was all about. Which was fair enough, all things considered.
An hour later he left, having handed me the keys. It was one of the more pleasant hours that I’d spent at work in a very long time. And a week later he came back, during which time the Noble fairytale began.
The car looked a bit weird, true, but the way it drove – the way it steered, the way it handled, and most of all the way it rode – knocked sideways each and every one of us who sampled it. The M10 was so well sorted, in fact, that we dialled up a Lotus Elise to compare it with at the 11th hour and, at the end of a two-day comparison test, the Noble won. Which was – and still is – one of the biggest upsets that we’d ever come across on Britain’s oldest car magazine.
A few years later, the Noble story went from good to good grief, however. When the M12 emerged it not only drove beautifully, just as the M10had, but this time it also looked like the real deal, and it went like the real deal, thanks to a stonking new twin-turbo Ford V6. It was more expensive than its predecessor, but the increase in visual appeal and the Ferrari-slaying levels of performance meant that it was instantly a hit.
So much so that, just one year later, Lotus decided to fight back with its own answer to the M12, the Exige, which was based mechanically on the mid-engined ‘Alouise’, but had a roof in place of the regular car’s Heath Robinson hood. In reality, though, the Exige and M12 weren’t really playing the same game as one another.
The Lotus was a thinly disguised track-day special, a car that you could just about tolerate driving on the road on the way to whatever circuit you were headed towards. The M12, on the other hand, was much more of a proper road car, even though it was, if anything, yet more devastating in terms of the giants it could humiliate if driven properly on a circuit.
Judging from the two delightful examples of which you see here, time has been kind to both of their designs when it comes to holding back the years. These two still look like remarkably contemporary machines, even though they’re both now nearly 15 years old.
In bright yellow, the 2002 M12 GTO of Peter Chaplain appears, and indeed is, immaculate. Its paintwork still glistens in the sun as if the car had been delivered from the factory in Leicestershire just yesterday. And its back-to-basics (but actually quite well-appointed) interior feels and smells just how I remember from the various press demonstrators I drove. I actually ran an M12 GTO for six months and did 4000 miles in it, and I don’t remember that car feeling as well made as this one does today.
There are no rattles on the move, no squeaks when you open or close the doors. The quality of the interior makes Chaplain’s car feel pretty much brand new to be honest. But then, to be fair, he’s only had it for a couple of months, having run various TVRs beforehand. And even though it’s 12 years old it’s only notched up 7000 miles, so it really should feel in tip-top condition. More surprising, maybe, is how well the 2000 Lotus Exige S1 of Simon English has aged, a car that he’s had virtually from new and “will now never sell because it fits me like a favourite pair of shoes”. English is one of life’s more committed Lotus fans; he also has an Essex Esprit, an original Europa and has owned so many Elises over the years that he’s lost count.
He drove his Exige down from his home in the Lake District to our location on Salisbury Plain, without so much as a hint of complaint. His car has covered 75,000 miles and, so far, has “done a head gasket once but that’s it. Otherwise it’s never missed a beat”.
It’s not in quite the same showroom condition as the Noble, although it’s still extraordinarily well maintained for a car that’s put so many miles beneath its wheels. And it’s as hard to climb into as it ever was. When I do, all the memories come flooding right back. The cabin is small, tiny even, but everything in it is situated just-so. Pedals, gearlever and leather-rimmed, Lotus embossed steering wheel are all exactly where you’d want them to be.
The engine in English’s car is the 190bhp Very High Performance Derivative and it has a sports exhaust fitted that emits a suitable din. The gearlever snicks up into first with the same mechanical but precise movement that I remember, and the clutch is light, the throttle response immediate, almost to the point of feeling a bit punchy.
Move away and the ride, as ever, is surprising in its suppleness. You look at and listen to a car like this and think that your fillings are going to fall out, but in reality it’s way better resolved than that. Always was.
It’s toasty inside the cabin, too, so dropping a window is pretty much job one on a day as hot as this. But that’s fine as well, because when you open up the four-pot K-Series for the first time, the noise it creates is that much louder with the window down. Plus, the acceleration seems that much more intense.
And trust me, it still feels properly rapid, does a 190bhp Lotus Exige. Sometimes, cars that you remember as being quick then feel a bit disappointing 10-15 years later, though not the Exige.
It needs a few revs on board before it gets fully into its stride but when it does, the scenery comes at you in a blur, and most other traffic gets left behind in an eruption of exhaust blare.
Yet the Exige’s party trick, its reason for being if you like, was always its handling, and that’s still very much the case today. Its unassisted steering feels digitally precise, enabling you to place that little nose to the nearest quarter-inch, seemingly, through any given bend. And because there’s so little mass to manage (it weighs just 785kg) the handling response always seems immediate. You almost become a part of the car when you thread an Exige along roads such as these.
Really lean on it and you can sense the weight in the tail start to try to influence your direction of travel, but it never takes over. Indeed, if you know what you’re doing you can use it to eliminate the understeer that builds, and which is there to keep you on the road and out of the undergrowth. Not that you need to be teetering on the edge to enjoy a Lotus Exige S1. Just looking at it is good enough for some.
The same goes for the Noble M12, although again it’s surprising to discover just how modern, how precise, and how fast the M12 still feels when you go for a quick blast. It couldn’t be more different to the Exige in most aspects of its character. The driving position is much more low-slung, the view out of the rear – past that huge wing – is far worse than it is in the Lotus. And when you fire up the engine there isn’t anything like the same explosion of noise.
Instead, the twin-turbo 2.5 V6 comes to life quietly, with the gentlest of purrs, and then idles smoothly at around 950rpm. But it’s the calm before the storm – because when you move away in the M12, noticing how refined and soothing the ride seems, already there are telltale signs that the monster within has yet to be unleashed.
Press the throttle halfway and there’s an almighty ‘whoosh’ from behind as the two turbos take a lungful of air. As yet, though, there’s no great sense of acceleration. Press a bit harder and the whoosh gets louder and then – boom! – the torque wave hits you hard in the back and suddenly you are 200 yards further up the road than you thought you were.
In fourth gear, the M12 feels fast enough to deal with just about anything else on the road. If you drop to second gear it feels so quick, you wonder if the world is about to end, and it’s the torque that makes it seem so very rapid. And the traction it can generate, which is ridiculous.
As with the Exige, though, the M12’s genius is as much to do with its steering, its handling and its ride as it is to do with its rabid straight-line performance. Lee Noble’s biggest talent was always his ability not just to design but to fine-tune the chassis of his cars, and with the M12 he really did hit the sweet spot. The ride and handling are incredibly well resolved, reminiscent of the very best versions of the Lotus Esprit in that there is comfort and precision present; grip as well as balance, agility mated to stability.
Which is probably the key reason why it sold almost 1500 M12s in the five years that his South African-built supercar was on sale. In the end, though, Lee Noble fell out with the people who invested in the company that bore his name, and the M12 subsequently suffered as a result. Other cars were planned, but only when Lee parted company with Noble did the other models finally materialise – in the form of the supersonically fast but heinously expensive M600 (a car that the man himself believes is way too pricey, by the way).
Don’t think that you’ve heard the last of Lee just yet, though. Nowadays he has a new company and a new mid-engined sports car in the making, one that I’ve had the privilege of seeing, albeit behind closed doors. The phoenix could yet rise from the ashes as far as a latter-day, but more affordable M12 is concerned.
As for Lotus, the most recent news on the wire is that, after years of staring into the abyss, it is at long last hiring again at Hethel. For all sports car fans, that’s about as good as it gets.
All they need to do now, both Lotus and Lee Noble, is to do what they did so brilliantly before and bring us some cars that are as breathtaking as these two landmark classics still are. No pressure then chaps, in your own time and all that.
Thanks to Peter Chaplain (www.pistonheads.com) And Simon English (www.exiges.com)