Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
The Lotus Elise turned 20 years old last year, its innovative bonded aluminium chassis spawning many derivatives over the years. Of those the Exige has always been the track-focused one, taking the Elise as a starting point and adding a fixed roof, aggressive aero and the most highly tuned variants of the 1.8-litre Rover and Toyota four-cylinder Elise engines available at the time. Popular among track day fanatics they tend to get driven hard, limited numbers meaning they hold their value well too. In 2012 the Exige got a whole lot more serious, gaining a 345bhp, supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine from the Evora S – double the power of the original and 911 GT3-chasing pace for half the money. This new Sport 350 version is the latest iteration.
Still recognisably Elise-related, the V6 Exige has evolved into a much more aggressive and muscular looking car. This new Sport 350 has undergone a very Lotus set of revisions under the catchphrase ‘light is right’ – a modern twist on Colin Chapman’s famous ideology that has stripped as much as 51kg out of a car already more than 200kg lighter than an equivalently powerful Porsche Cayman GTS. There’s an Esprit referencing slatted engine cover that cuts 3kg, body panels that weigh 12kg less than before, a neat exposed gearshift linkage that both looks cool and saves 1.5kg and so on. Over 100 components have been changed or ditched entirely and, as a result, it’s a second faster around the firm’s Hethel test track than the more powerful Evora 400.
In a word? Rampant! Throttle response from the 345bhp V6 is super precise and the supercharger gives a more linear power delivery than the turbos found in rivals, the only downer being a redline that arrives sooner than you might have expected. Non-assisted steering is heavy at parking speeds but incredibly communicative as you go faster, nuances of road surface and grip levels felt through the tendons of your forearms. There is an automatic option but the much-improved manual with its clickety-clack action is a much more interactive experience appropriate to the Exige’s purist brief. And on road and track the handling is beautifully balanced, Lotus dialling out the initial understeer found in the previous Exige S without making the Sport 350 feel twitchy or scary.
The Exige is not the most beautiful car in the world. Its interior is cosy, minimal and quite difficult to get in and out of. You need to option in air conditioning and carpets if you want a few creature comforts and the driving experience is raw, noisy and intense. But as modern sports cars become ever more synthesised and electronically enhanced the way it re-engages you with the process of driving is never less than thrilling. And it’s a timely reminder of how relevant Lotus’s traditional ‘less is more’ philosophy remains. Although very much built to deliver on the circuit it’s also a thrilling road car and a faithful expression of the core values underpinning this iconic British brand.
Price tag of our car – £55,900 (before options)