Three generations later, the Exige bows out – but not before one last hurrah

Find Lotus Exige deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
New car deals
Nearly-new car deals
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

So inimitable is the Exige proposition that you might wonder how it came to be. The textbook answer is ‘via the Lotus Elise’.

The Exige was conceived simply to be the hard-top, hardcore version of the tiny roadster that transformed Lotus in the 1990s. But the less obvious answer is Ducati motorcycles.

Rear wing is carried over from the old Exige S of 2015 and rests on aluminium stanchions. It’s an elegant device, although smaller and less effective than the motorsport-inspired designs seen on the Sport 420 and Cup 430

After the sales disappointment of the front-driven Elan, it was the pared-back beauty, jewel-like componentry and bone-deep purity of these Bolognese motorbikes that inspired chassis designer Richard Rackham and stylist Julian Thomson during the conception of the seminal S1 Elise. Four years later, the Exige arrived and, if anything, its uncompromising approach made it even more Ducati-esque.

The Elise and Exige shared Lotus’s unique extruded-aluminium structure but the Exige gained adjustable Koni dampers, thicker anti-roll bars, throttle bodies for Rover’s 1.8-litre K-series engine, scoops and wings, plus track-specific Yokohama tyres. All in, it was 49kg heavier than the Elise but, at 780kg, the Exige was still deliciously lightweight and spectacularly engaging to drive.

That was 21 years and three generations ago. Since then, the Exige has put on some weight (as an interesting reference point, it now weighs 75% of what a contemporary Porsche 911 weighs, rather than 60%, as was the case in 2000), but some of that can be chalked up to the fact that the third-generation car carries not an atmospheric four-pot but a supercharged V6.

Back to top

But why have we invited the S3 Exige back for another road test when it’s now eight years old and retirement beckons? Because this Sport 390 Final Edition has, in Lotus’s own words, “been launched to celebrate the Exige’s final year of production”. And not just S3 production but Exige production, full stop.

With the new Emira waiting in the wings, the Exige and Elise are being permanently relieved of duties. You’re therefore looking at the very last iteration of one of the great sports cars of the modern era, so just how badly will it be missed? Time to find out.

The Exige line-up at a glance

There has been a confusing multitude of Exige derivatives in recent times, but for this final year of production, the line-up has been trimmed to three models.

At the base of the range sits the Sport 390, which is road biased and touts only modest tyres and a limited aerodynamic package. The Sport 420 is an evolution of the recent Sport 410 and, in character, is probably marginally happier on track than road.

At the top of the tree sits the Cup 430, which is the most extreme Exige in every way and intended predominantly for track days. In the past, the Exige could be optioned with an automatic gearbox, but only the manual is now available.


2 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT hero rear

The Final Edition Exige comes in three distinct flavours: Sport 390, Sport 420 and Cup 430.

All use the familiar monocoque tub, made of box-section aluminium extrusions bonded together. It’s cloaked in composite body panels and suspended by aluminium double wishbones at each end. The whole show is diminutive on the road, too, being shorter, narrower and lower than even an Alpine A110.

Central windscreen wiper and wide- slung wing mirrors flesh out the Exige’s Group C racer vibe. Out of the front of the car, you can then see the tops of the front wings, which are part of the massive, one-piece glassfibre clamshell

Where the Sport 390 differs from its more serious relations is in mechanical set-up, which is more road biased. Rather than Michelin’s semi-slick Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, it wears Pilot Sport 4 rubber, which is what you would typically find on a middle-order hot hatchback. And instead of three-way adjustable Nitron dampers, you’ll find passive Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs.

The car’s anti-roll bars are also fixed, rather than adjustable, and its aero package is less effective than that of either the Sport 420 or Cup 430, which wear bigger wings. All three derivatives use the same six-piston AP Racing brake calipers and, given the sub-1200kg kerb weight, cast iron is favoured over carbon- ceramic for the discs.

Under the car’s louvred engine cover sits the same 3456cc Toyota-derived V6 that has been in service since 2012. It’s here that the Sport 390 get closest to its more hardcore range-mates, using the same upsized Edelbrock supercharger and charge cooler as they do. A wider-bore exhaust system (3in versus 2.5in) is the final major component responsible for increasing power from 345bhp in the now-departed Sport 350 to 392bhp in the Sport 390.

The Final Edition cars are also manual only, with Lotus deploying its special open-worked gearshifter. Downstream of the ’box, you’ll not find a limited-slip differential (as you will in certain Lotus Evoras). The division of torque is instead controlled by brake intervention informed by the ESP and TC systems.


14 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT cabin

The S3 Exige has a tight cockpit, with good forward visibility once you’re ensconced, but there is an awkwardly small door opening and few creature comforts.

For this run-out Final Edition special, Lotus has added a flat-bottom steering wheel (trimmed in leather here but also available in Alcantara) along with a new TFT instrument binnacle, and the seat trim is new. However, if high-resolution displays and comfort are important to you, you’d still be better off spending your £65,000 on Porsche’s 718 Cayman GTS 4.0. It’s a class or two apart in this respect.

Flat-bottomed steering wheel is new for the Final Edition models and is designed to increase leg clearance. At best, the improvement is only marginal.

In terms of raw ergonomics, head room remains an issue, especially if you intend to take your Sport 390 Final Edition on track, which you absolutely should. Anybody over 6ft tall should bring their lid along for the test drive, because at least one of our testers had to crane his neck forward with the extra height it gave him. Check you’re happy with the boot space, too: the Exige’s trunk is similar to an Alpine A110’s but, again, the Cayman does better.

Assuming you do fit, you’ll find this to be one of the most purposeful cabins around. You sit stupendously low in the car, with the chassis’ wide, carbonfibre-clad sills rising up either side of you and the long gearlever extending skywards to meet your left hand. There isn’t a huge level of adjustability in the driving position, but there’s nothing that impinges on your ability to drive the car hard.

Lotus Exige infotainment and sat-nav

The Exige provides you with the ability to make phone calls and listen to the radio but it doesn’t go much beyond that. And fair enough: this is a lightweight sports car of only the very purest intentions.

Navigation is therefore left to the driver’s phone, most likely mounted to the windscreen, although there’s at least a USB port on the passenger side to keep any devices charged. Equally, you could swap out the standard-fit head unit for one with a fold-out screen. (Many suppliers now offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.) Whatever you opt for, sound quality is pretty average and battles against mechanical noise.

The big news is that Lotus has replaced the old analogue dials with a new TFT digital readout that has two layouts: one conventional, another more progressive, and specific to Sport and Race modes. The new tech sharpens up the interior ambience a touch and includes a row of upshift lights, which can be useful on track.


22 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT engine

Extracting maximum standing-start straight-line performance from the Sport 390 is a matter of dialling up around 4000rpm, then side-stepping the clutch pedal, marvelling at how well the rear tyres hook up and then ensuring you don’t trip over yourself while minimising shift times using the short-throw gearlever.

On a warm, dry day at MIRA, our test car managed 0-60mph in 4.0sec against Lotus’s claim of 3.7sec, although the factory figure is achieved with scant fuel on board whereas Autocar records performance figures with a full tank.

Such is the aural violence when the exhaust valve opens that some of the staff at MIRA, watching us lap the Dunlop circuit from a distance, asked whether this was a new hybrid, only switching its V6 on sporadically

The Exige then took 9.4sec to reach triple figures – 0.6sec shy of the time set by the more powerful BMW M2 CS in similar conditions, but if you want something to trouble not just specialised sports cars but also bona fide supercars, the Cup 430 beckons.

As for the Sport 390, there are quicker cars in this price bracket, but none by much, and few if any possess the same flexibility. The gearing in this Lotus is reasonably long – third will take you beyond 90mph and fourth stretches from barely above single-digit speeds to the far side of 120mph – but the supercharged displacement of the V6 and the lightness of chassis mean you’ll rarely be caught short for acceleration.

On our favoured metric for tractability (30-70mph in fourth), the Exige matches the M2 CS to the tenth. It manages to do so because although torque is no greater than that of the old Sport 350, the rev band in which this fettled V6 reaches its 311lb ft peak is now much larger, ranging from 3000rpm to 6700rpm.

Stopwatch aside, this deep well of torque, along with sharp throttle response, also helps make the Exige feel so enjoyable and weightless. You spend less time ensuring you’re in the right gear and more time leaning on the superb chassis. You might even deliberately gear up, to allow the engine speed to drop, and then rip past 4500rpm – the point at which the valves in the exhaust open and the car’s tail unleashes a wall of noise.

Special mention must also go to the way this final Exige stops. Its AP Racing brake set-up has feel and precision – and power. From 70mph, it brings the car to a stop in just 42.2m, versus 43.7m for the M2 CS. Mind you, neither gets close to the Dallara Stradale, which managed a jowl-yanking 39.4m, albeit on very serious Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres.


23 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT on road nose

The Emira will feature two technologies the Exige has always done without, right up to the end. The first is power steering.

At 1218kg on our scales (against 1138kg claimed), the Exige Sport 390’s kerb weight is already at the limit of what Lotus considers possible with an unassisted rack, and the Emira, with its luxurious accoutrements, will simply be too heavy to go without what will thankfully be electrohydraulic assistance. The new-generation car will also feature a limited-slip differential, which Lotus has always shunned in the Lotus Elise and Exige because it can corrupt initial steering response on the way into corners.

The genius of the Exige is the way it adapts its character. For fast and flowing road driving, you can revel in the weight of the controls and the sheer integrity of the thing, but unleash it on track and it becomes so light on its toes, delicate and adjustable.

That’s all to come, though, and for now, this last-of-line Exige handles very much true to type. The things that stand out include the absolute precision with which it can be placed on the road via the small steering wheel rim, and the unity with which the front axle bites and the rear axle follows when this aluminium chassis is poured into bends. With a steady steering ratio and that distinctive heft in the action, this isn’t a ‘flickable’ car in the manner of the Alpine A110, and it demands deliberate inputs, but when you calm yourself and find some rhythm, the Exige is supremely composed yet agile and gives you world-class feedback. What’s remarkable is the lack of steering corruption on poorer roads.

Yes, there are times when a firm hand on the wheel is required, but these are limited to when the road is so threadbare that you can actually see the moment coming and prepare for it. Mostly, there are precious few drawbacks to having unassisted steering and limited suspension travel.

Push hard and you’ll find the Exige plays its heightened feedback levels off against benign handling. There is plenty of front-end grip, even on relatively ordinary Michelin Pilot 4 tyres, but through low- and high-speed corners, the first sign you get that the V6 or the conditions are winning the battle against the chassis is gentle understeer. You can bring the nose back onto line with a delicate lift of the throttle, and push it wider again with more power. It’s all so subtle, engaging and, if you’ll allow us the hyperbole, magical. For sheer tactility and accuracy, look no further than the Exige, even in 2021.

Without the semi-slick tyres and added downforce of its steroidal siblings, the Sport 390 was never going to slay giants at MIRA. Its time – just over 1min 12sec – was a good two seconds slower than that of the 600kg-heavier BMW M4 Competition recently tested. But really, who cares about ultimate lap times when the car feels this sweet to drive at full flow?

The Exige is remarkably good at avoiding brake fade and overheating its tyres, so you can enjoy the delicacy of its adjustability for lap after lap. In Race mode, or with the electronic systems off, it can require some taming, but never does the experience become nerve-racking because the chassis is so well balanced. Bigger slip angles cause the steering to weight up in a fashion that could catch you out if you’re not expecting it, though.

The only disappointment is the slight imprecision of the gearshift mechanism when you’re really flying, but as a home-to-track-and-back-again car, this remains among the very finest ever made.

Comfort and isolation

It’s unlikely anyone will use their Exige Sport 390 daily, so here’s a more plausible scenario: an 80-mile trip from your home to a circuit, then back again, all in one day. How would the Lotus treat you in terms of comfort and isolation?

Sliding (well, dropping and swivelling before folding yourself) aboard remains an unpleasant experience, but once inside, the driving position is mostly excellent and the seats are more supportive than they look. On a cruise along the motorway, then, noise would be your the main problem.

Below 4500rpm, the exhaust system is demure, but with so little protection from noise, vibration and harshness and with that stiff chassis, road roar levels are serious at a cruise. At 70mph, the 390 Sport registered 78dBA on our microphones – 7dBA louder than an A110, 5dBA louder than an M4 Competition and, yes, louder than a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ, albeit by only 1dBA.

Thankfully, although cacophonous (additional sound insulation is available for an extra £400), the Lotus doesn’t physically labour motorway surfaces, so beyond the steering patter that’s a hallmark of the Exige driving experience, the car isn’t unreasonably tiring to drive over long distances.

However, on the way home, after three or four hours in the saddle, you’d rue the lack of lumbar support or adjustability in the Exige’s chairs, and the closeness of the cabin might begin to irk. Any last-mile trundling and parking might also irritate because the unassisted steering is heavy at low speed.

Ultimately, though, you’ll have enjoyed a day out in one of the rawest driving machines around, while staying dry and having the ability to call ahead hands-free and find out what’s for dinner. Of course, once home, you’ll have to unfurl yourself from the cabin.


1 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT hero front

The Exige has always been aimed at a small niche of potential owners, and in recent years they’ve had plenty to tempt them elsewhere.

In 2021, the model is sandwiched between the more expensive 718 Cayman GT4 and, built very much in the same spirit as the Lotus, the Alpine A110. Both rivals are more usable than the Exige but also fantastically good fun on track. You might also consider the BMW M2 CS, which feels appreciably serious for an M2 and ups the usability factor further still, although the raised centre of gravity and higher kerb weight do differentiate it from the others in dynamic terms.

Exige performs slightly better than rivals from Porsche and Alpine for first two years, and then falls behind them.

Making life harder still for the Exige is the imminent arrival of the Emira. Built on a similar chassis, it should tout much of the Exige’s charm, only without many of the drawbacks.

Three things stand in the favour of the Sport 390. First, it is intoxicating to drive in a manner that arguably none of the above cars quite matches. Second, at £64,000, it’s reasonably priced, given the hardware involved and the single-minded expertise applied during its development. Third, the classic status of the Exige is all but assured. We will never see its like again, so these cars are only likely to be more sought after in the years ahead.

Quite simply, you’re unlikely to regret buying one.


28 Lotus Exige Spot 390 Final 2021 RT static

It’s more cliched to say ‘icon’ is an overused word than it is to use the word itself, but in this case, we say this: the Exige is absolutely an automotive icon, and one with a pedigree very few can match.

Almost 10 years after the third-generation car was launched, and 21 since the recipe was originally concocted, this flyweight British sports car continues to delight with its agility, finesse and focus. Three pedals, no turbos and very little weight: what more can semi-serious track-day goers ask for when the recipe is put together with such sensitivity and expertise?

Fitting finale for the Exige that beguiles on road and thrills on track

This Sport 390 Final Edition is particularly sweet, not least because it trades ultimate pace for more handling adjustability than many a hardcore Exige has offered in the past and, at £64,000, it is keenly priced.

Equally, while we’re sad to see the Exige go, there is compelling competition these days. An Ariel Atom 4 delivers an even more beguiling sense of connection and you might say Porsche better knows how to nail the sweet spot between usability and circuit aptitude. We now await the Emira, because if that car can take plenty of inspiration from the Exige but package it in a way that’s easier to live with, it could be sensational.

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering.