Hethel goes back to basics with its Lotus Exige, which makes for a capable track day machine, but one less refined than its direct rivals on the road

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The Exige perhaps now more than ever feels like the sort of car Lotus ought to be making.

After several turbulent years for the Norfolk-based company, this raw and focused model feels like a brutal counterpunch, or the instinctive lunge of a wounded animal. The Exige range is an engineer’s car, seemingly conceived for the purest of intents: to go fast and to entertain wildly while doing it. And it complements the rest of the Lotus range superbly, with the thrill-seeking Lotus Elise propping up the range and the GT-flavoured Lotus Evora topping it.

Superbly poised in a supple Lotus way

There are three flavours of Exige: the Sport 350, the Sport 380 and the Race 380. If you think these Exiges are simply a more focussed Elise, then you will need to think again, as the each one uses the same Toyota-sourced 3.5-litre V6 fettled at Hethel and found in the Lotus Evora. The main differences between the two are that all three Exiges produce less bhp than the entry-level Evora and utilise a Harrop supercharger rather than the Edelbrock version found in its bigger sibling.

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Lotus Exige S rear

A heavy Lotus wouldn’t go down well at all. Not with the customer base, with the critics or with the ghost of Colin Chapman. And a heavy Exige would be a real heresy, particularly when unadorned examples of the original Exige S1 weighed less than 800kg with fluids onboard.

Next to that, the Exige looks portly. Hethel’s claim is for a kerb weight of 1125kg, 10kg less for the Roadster, and the scales at our MIRA test track confirmed that our test car - a coupe - full of fuel weighed 1200kg. That puts the car within 95kg of the previous Porsche Cayman R and 160kg of the 997 GT3 RS 4.0. The Race 380 has a claimed dry weight of 999kg, which means ladened it will tip  just over the one tonne mark.

Weight distribution is 35 percent front, 65 percent rear

Light enough for a Lotus? The track will tell. But bear in mind that time and safety legislation invariably add mass to cars, and also that the new 911 GT3 is a 1430kg machine

Two things directly explain the mass increase; notionally, really only one. The Toyota-derived supercharged V6 that powers the car, also found in the Lotus Evora, has forced a growth spurt. There’s 70mm of extra length in the wheelbase and almost 300mm of additional overall length compared with the original Exige, and a current Lotus Elise. All of it is to accommodate that engine, which has been squeezed in sideways right behind the cabin.

The rest is familiar. There’s a monocoque tub made of bonded box-section aluminium extrusions, lightweight composite body panels and double wishbone suspension. The steering is unassisted - there isn't room for a pump - but if the car had been any heavier, Lotus admits, that wouldn’t have been possible. 

There are plenty of competition-spec chassis components here: Bilstein gas dampers and cross-drilled, four-piston iron brakes from AP Racing. Significantly, there's the option of extra-sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres and suspension, which is stiffer and specially modified to the new rubber. 

There’s no mechanical limited-slip differential; the Hethel-based company generally avoids them because, it claims, they introduce initial understeer into the handling mix. But there is a brake-based electronic system to quell wheelspin on an unloaded inside tyre in cornering. 

Compared to the previous generation Exige, the current range has had more than 100 components tweaked or replaced for the Sport 350 and Sport 380. The Race 380 is a different kettle of fish as its a track-focussed special which comes with a six-speed sequential gearbox, a performance air filter, uprated AP Racing brake discs, a full roll cage, adjustable Ohlin dampers and an FIA-approved exhaust system.



Lotus Exige S dashboard

The Exige has always had a way of exposing the uninitiated. He’ll be the one trying to get in one leg at a time.

This is a significantly less usable car than the related Lotus Elise, let alone a Porsche 718 Cayman. It’s the fixed roof that does it on the coupe. Roof off in the roadster, as with an Elise you can step over the wide sill and then lower yourself in. But given the roof doesn’t come off the Exige coupe,  there’s only one approach: head first into the intimate cabin.

The interior fan is pretty noisy, but acceptable

The rigmarole of embarkation will put off a decent chunk of customers and should make a bigger chunk think about how much use they’d get out of the car. But it won’t matter a jot to anyone buying a Lotus Exige for the right reasons, which we’ll come to.

Once you’re in, you’ll find that neither head nor elbow room is generous. The former limitation will affect you if you’re taller than 6ft 2in and – like everyone – you wear a helmet on trackdays; the latter might if you tend to carry passengers much and prefer not to dig them in the ribs every time you engage second gear.

These, though, are long-established issues for the Exige disciple. If you’re in the fold, you might be surprised to find how sparsely kitted out the interior is, with the Sport 350 getting front airbags, sports seats, a part leather upholstery, and central locking as standard, while the Sport 380 gains an Alcantara upholstery. The options list is extensive with air conditioning, leather upholstery, iPod connectivity and Bluetooth all boxes that need a tick prior to finding them on your Lotus. While further insulation, an automatic gearbox and cruise control are limited to the Sport 380.

The Race 380, is a ultimately a track car and the interior reflects this, with its carbonfibre seat and racing harness, a fire extinguisher, quick release steering wheel and battery isolation switch.

Overall the Exige remains a uniquely purposeful, pared-down driving environment. The seats are supportive but not overly comfortable over long distances, and the offset pedals make a bad situation slightly worse. Drive to Le Mans and you’ll notice both, but over four 20-lap stints at Oulton Park, or on a 90-minute B-road thrash, you won’t care about either. 


Lotus Exige S rear cornering

There is one thing – and only one thing – that Lotus would like us to point out about our acceleration figures. It records its times with one occupant on board, with a light fuel load and in optimum track conditions. At Autocar we test two up, with plenty of fuel on board and in whatever conditions we find at MIRA proving ground at the time. 

Wherever possible, we look for dry weather, which we found when testing the Exige, but it was cold, and the short of it is that the Exige hit 60mph from rest in a two-way average of 4.08sec, with two people on board, and cleared the standing quarter mile in a touch under 13 seconds.

Lotus still can't give us a decent manual 'box

We don’t doubt Lotus’s claim that it will duck under 4.0sec one up, and with less consideration for a clutch that had to complete a full road test and take us home again. 

Clutch slipping under acceleration is indeed key to a fast start. Initial traction is so strong that, despite the V6’s torque, it is possible to get bogged down at lower revs, while the engine’s output will just spin the wheels at higher ones. 

But once traction is secured and the clutch fully engaged, the Exige fairly rips through its gears. Its changes are still not easy to push through at speed, such is the indifferent quality of the gearshifts, but this is a car that can go from 0-100mph in 9.6sec and from 30-70mph in just 3.7sec.

The supercharged 3.5-litre V6’s throttle response is exceptional. There is less soundproofing here than in the Lotus Evora, and that allows some of the engine’s more mechanical notes to get through, but that’s no bad thing in a car like this. It just sounds better, all the way through to the fairly brutal 7200rpm limiter. And so intoxicating is the pace that you’ll be inclined to take it there as often as possible.


Lotus Exige S cornering

In a car as purposeful as the Exige, it would be easy to forgive a ride that wouldn’t be fit to grace the inhabitants of an indoor kart circuit.

But such is the cleverness of the work that Lotus’s engineers achieve, and such is their knowledge of chassis tuning, that it actually skims across rough asphalt with, if not quite grace, then considerable aplomb for its type.

Track drivers should opt for the Exige Race 380 if they can

Lotus admits it considered power assistance for this car. But after weighing up trying to make it fit with all the other gubbins under the short front end, and given the weight and immediacy disadvantages that it would also bring, it opted to let Exige drivers man-up a bit and live with it.

Perhaps a slightly larger-diameter steering wheel would help, and it's lighter in the Roadster anyway, but any lingering concerns turn out to be short-lived when you take this car by the scruff and hustle it along. At that point the steering becomes magical, precise and pure, filtering most bad inputs and allowing feel and weighting to feed through like nothing else of its size or purpose. 

What that wheel is telling you is that you can place the car with millimetric accuracy and that there’s masses of grip to play with. That grip will relinquish at the front first under most conditions, unless you actively seek to unsettle the rear because there is no limited-slip differential. We’d like one as an option, for antics. For very regular track use, the Race 380 is the one to have, but even a standard-suspended Exige is massively capable.

There are anti-lock brakes and a stability control system (to Lotus’s own tune) that always allows slip to varying degrees, through stages that culminate in the ability to be switched out completely. The brakes are indefatigable.


Lotus Exige S

There's a lot of quality competition in this price bracket. Lotus would argue that the Porsche 718 Cayman S and Boxster S are different types of animal (and they wouldn’t be wrong), but their shadow looms large over a limited target audience.

Perhaps, then, only the niche within the niche – many of them with a trailer to fill on the weekend – will even consider the Exige.

The Exige Sport 350 weighs 259kg more than an Lotus Elise Sport

Fortunately, they will also be the ones who see the advantages of a 175kg weight saving, even more power, even more stiffness and faster times attached to bigger three-figure speeds.

As a track-bound option, it’s quite plausible to argue that the Exige Sport models offer very good value indeed, and with 28mpg potential and broadly competitive CO2 emissions, running it on the road isn’t going to be prohibitively expensive, either.

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4.5 star Lotus Exige S

Context is all with the Lotus Exige Sport models. Think of this as a fast Elise or an alternative to lightweight track cars such as a Zenos E10 or an Ariel Atom and it looks respectable value.

Against the hugely capable Porsche 718 Cayman it appears much less so. 

The Exige Sport 350 is more focussed than ever

Then again, against the Porsche 911 GT3 or the Mercedes-AMG C 63, which is how we’re inclined to view the Exige Sport 350, it looks like stonkingly good value. It is every bit as intoxicating as those cars when driven hard – and driven hard it must be to get the best out of it.

While it’s considerably more grown-up than any lightweight special, this is no Cayman rival.

But as a way to drive (perhaps quite a long distance) to a circuit, where it'll lap more quickly than anything else and then return you home if not entirely tirelessly, then at least warm and dry and in the company of a stereo, the Lotus Exige Sport 350 has no equal.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Lotus Exige S V6 2012-2016 First drives