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“Simplify, then add lightness”, said Lotus founder and legendary designer Colin Chapman. It's the motto that the company has lived by since it was founded and expresses the thinking behind every Lotus from Chapman’s pioneering Lotus 25 Formula 1 car to, yup, you guessed it, the Lotus Exige.
Designed from the outset as a road legal track car, the first-generation Exige essentially took what was best about the popular open-top Elise sports car and ramped everything up a notch. From its lightweight composite roof, to its stripped-out interior and more powerful engine, the Exige was one of the first sports cars that sought to truly satisfy the needs of track day enthusiasts.
Two decades and three generations later, it still serves that purpose, slotting into the Lotus line-up between the cheaper four-cylinder Lotus Elise and the larger, more luxurious Evora.
The Exige line-up is also now divisible into three specifications, depending on your budget and your preference between road or track driving. The ‘entry-point’, if you can call it that, is the 345bhp Exige Sport 350. Capable of 170mph, it’s certainly no slouch, and is a natural rival for the Porsche 718 Cayman.
At the other end of the range is the scalpel sharp Exige 430, with its adjustable suspension, aggressive wings and 430bhp – and a price tag to rival a Porsche 911 GT3, it’s fair to say it’s something of a specialised tool for the privileged few. And, between the two, there’s the Sport 410. Think of this as a cheaper, more road orientated Cup 430 rather than an upgraded 350, and it could be the sweet spot of the range.
Without wishing to give too much away, the Exige is one hell of a track car, but should you really consider one over more civilised rivals? Read on to find out.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
The only engine available is a supercharged 3.5-litre four-cylinder V6 petrol, but it's available with three power outputs: 345bhp for the standard car, 410bhp for the 410, and 430bhp for the 430. In all cases it's hooked up to an old-school six-speed manual gearbox; if you want a paddle-shift controlled automatic, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
So far, we’ve only sampled the range-topping Exige Cup 430, which, as you might have guessed from the name, is very much designed for dedicated track day fiends. Indeed, from the moment you hit the starter button and hear that supercharged V6 blare into life, everything about the 430 screams motorsport.
But don’t go thinking that the 430 is simply a one-dimensional track toy. No, the Exige doesn’t have power steering, but don’t worry, you don’t need biceps like balloons to manoeuvre one out of a car park. Once you actually get the car rolling, the steering is nicely weighted and easy to judge. Unlike some ultra-focused sports cars, easing away from a standstill is a trouble free affair, partly because there is so little weight to get moving.
In fact, as a road car, the 430 is far more easy going than it has any right to be. On the kind of undulating country roads that you’d naturally seek out for a Sunday morning blast, the 430 displays a sublime level of body control, flowing over rough surfaces with a deftness that puts more focused track-toys such as the Ariel Atom and Caterham Seven 620 to shame. This control is mainly down to the clever three-way adjustable Nitron suspension dampers, which you can adjust (by hand) to find your optimum set-up; although Lotus’s pre-set fast road setup strikes an almost perfect balance between handling and pliancy.
And talking of perfection, the steering is pretty close to faultless, too. Even in a straight line, it chatters away in your hands, streaming little messages about the road’s surface for you to interpret. This could, admittedly, get a little tiring on a long journey, but once you reach the right road, the way the steering weights up in a quick corner is impeccable; the feedback streaming through the steering wheel leaves you in no doubt about what the front pair of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are up to and how much grip they have in reserve – and it’s usually plenty.
On a track, once the tyres are up to temperature, the Cup 430 has the pace to keep up with pretty much anything – six-figure supercars such as the Porsche 911 GT3 and the Mercedes-AMG GT-R included. Drop a few cogs using the six-speed manual gearbox (whose shifter is as good to look at as it is to use – more on this later), rev the engine beyond 4,500rpm (at which point the exhaust valves open, delivering a soundtrack worthy of a historic race car) and the Exige accelerates at a pace that would be inappropriate on a public road. It is every bit as intoxicating as revving out a GT3’s sonorous flat-six, and as far as we’re concerned, compliments don’t get any greater than that.
Of course, with a 174mph top speed, you need good brakes, and, thankfully, those of the Exige are as good as anything you’ll get from the likes of Porsche or AMG. From the moment you begin to squeeze the pedal, you know that stopping will be both smooth and rapid. And because the Cup 430 is so light, you can use the brakes hard all day without them ever overheating or losing their bite.
So is there anything bad about the Cup 430? Well, there is quite a lot of road noise at 70mph, the engine drones a little at a cruise, and you will definitely catch the nose on a speed bump at some point, but these foibles pale into insignificance when you use the Exige how it’s intended.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Once you’ve managed to twist and wriggle yourself over the wide sills that conceal the Exige’s bonded aluminium chassis, you’re received by a snug, minimalistic interior. There’s an Alcantara wrapped steering wheel, a couple of carbon-fibre backed sports seats, a smattering of switches, a handbrake, and that’s about it. Some will argue that it’s simply too spartan to tolerate, especially when you consider the Cup 430’s high price tag, but others will view it as a uniquely purposeful, pared-down driving environment.
Talking of uniquely purposeful features, those carbon-fibre backed seats, despite being wafer thin, are surprisingly comfortable on longer drives. They place you nice and low, with your bum seemingly hovering just a couple of inches from the tarmac, while the fixed steering wheel and pedals force your arms and legs to be stretched out before you. This might not sound like a particularly relaxed driving position, but it feels entirely natural.
In terms of build quality, the Cup 430 feels pretty well put together. Yes, the switchgear looks very basic and the ancient Vauxhall-sourced column stalks feel flimsy, but the Cup 430 can be spruced up with various option packs that add carbon-fibre to the sills, Alcantara to the seats and leather to the doors inserts. There are also some stunning details that engineering fans will love, such as the exposed aluminium door hinges and the open shift gate and tall aluminium gear stick of Lotus’s six-speed manual gearbox.
Just bear in mind that this car is about excitement rather than comfort, and that an Exige essentially comes as a stripped-out road racer. If you want even basic amenities such as carpets, a stereo, sound insulation, cruise control, metallic paint or air conditioning, Lotus will want your credit card details.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
If you want a practical two seat sports car that you can use everyday, the Exige is probably not the car for you. Not only is it far less civilised than a Porsche 718 Cayman or Alpine A110, it’s also a less usable car than the closely related Lotus Elise. The reason? Well, that’ll be the fixed roof.
You see, in the Elise you can simply remove the roof and step into the interior one foot at a time. In the Exige, with its low, fixed roof, it’s easiest to climb in head first and then twist your body around and into the seat. Once you get used to these awkward gymnastics, it all becomes part of the ritual of driving, but we don’t deny that it will put off a number of buyers simply looking for a fun day-to-day sports car.
Once inside, you’ll notice that you sit very close to the centre of the car. This is great for weight distribution, but less great for elbow room – at some point, you will end up inadvertently touching your passenger’s knee. Head room, meanwhile, is a little more generous due to the fact that you’re essentially sitting on the floor. This is especially handy when you need to wear a space-sapping helmet on track days.
Storage space is a weak point, though. There’s no glovebox or any door bins, and while the shelf below the dashboard can easily hold a large smartphone, a wallet and a few other odds and sods, it’s not rubber lined, so you have to drive very carefully if you want to avoid your belongings being scattered about the interior. There is, to the left of this ledge and above the sill, a USB socket that you can use to charge your phone, but it doesn’t connect to the optional Sony head unit.
If you’re planning a weekend away, we recommend you pack light; the Exige has only a small boot, located behind its engine, and it’ll take a few soft bags but that’s about it.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
At the other end of the scale is the bonkers quick Cup 430, whose price-tag puts it in the company of cars that include the five-star Porsche 911 GT3. Next to cars like that, the Cup 430’s six-figure price tag is very hard to swallow, especially when you consider that the bones of the car are nearly two decades old.
However, the Exige is not a car you buy with your sensible hat on. You buy one for the way it drives and makes you feel – it is an ownership experience that you have to enter into with your eyes wide open, knowing that it has limited luggage space, a stripped-out interior, and no infotainment system to speak of. Indeed, those who buy an Exige for the right reason will find themselves with one of the most invigorating and involving sports cars for the money.
Of course, when it comes to running costs, we would expect the cost of consumables, such as tyres and brakes, to be fairly high, especially if you plan on venturing onto a track. And while you’ll probably manage close to 30mpg at a cruise, if you plan on exercising your right foot (and why wouldn’t you?) you can expect those numbers to drop into the teens.
Happily, the Exige 430 Cup has quite strong residual values, depreciating at a slower rate than a number of premium sports cars from well established manufacturers, including the Porsche 911 Turbo, Mercedes-AMG GT-R and Audi R8. Of course, rivals produced in limited numbers, such as Porsche’s GT3, will hold their value even better, but then there is the added problem of getting your order in before the car goes out of production. That’s a problem you won’t have with a Lotus.
The Exige comes with an alarm and immobiliser as standard, while on the safety side, you get driver and passenger airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. And that’s it. If you want automatic emergency braking, you better start honing your reaction times instead.
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