On a chilly morning in mid-December, we found ourselves parking up outside the new Lotus management offices at Potash Lane, Norfolk in the UK. The British brand were unveiling their latest hardcore, mid-engined road racer, the Lotus Exige Sport 350. We would be among the first journalists to experience it.
Lotus has had a difficult time of late, however, the glass buildings are a sign that things are finally starting to look up for the iconic British car manufacturer. From these buildings, the Lotus design and management teams are hard at work preparing future generations of Lotus models.
Now in its third generation, the Exige was first released in 2012. Only the Exige S was available to begin with however, the Exige V6 Cup and Exige V6 CupR have since been made available, together with a limited edition Lotus Exige 360 Cup.
The Sport nomenclature has history within the Lotus brand. Most notable was the special edition Lotus Esprit Sport 350; the quickest version of the legendary Esprit. More recently it was used on special editions of the previous generation Exige and Elise.
With the current range of Lotus models, the Sport badge no longer signifies a limited edition model. The Lotus Exige Sport 350 isn’t a few extra badges and a limited production run. It actually replaces the existing Exige S which means the Sport 350 is now the only Exige available to order from the factory.
For Lotus, the Sport badge now signifies a lightweight philosophy. This model has been developed with the new Lotus Lightweight Laboratory who appear to have taken a pedantic view on various parts of the car in order to reduce unnecessary weight. The 51 kg saving is significant on a car which already weighed just 1,176 kg.
A briefing with Lotus CEO, Jean-Marc Gales revealed the technical details behind the Lotus Exige Sport 350. The fundamentals of the car largely remain unchanged. The motor underneath is still a V6 Toyota derived unit. It continues to generate 345 hp and 295 lb ft of torque at 4,500 rpm; enough for a 0 to 100 km/h sprint of just 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 274 km/h. Lotus had the option to fit the 400 PS unit which recently debuted in the Evora, however, they chose not to on the basis that it would add additional weight.
The gearbox options are both Toyota derived too, although the mapping has changed and shifting unit has been modified to address the quality of the shift. The aluminium shifter is the most distinctive change. Lotus have exposed the cast aluminium components in the same way that Pagani did with the Huayra. It looks mighty impressive, although Lotus insists it was done to further reduce weight. The box is mounted directly to the floor, unlike in the recent Evora 400 which uses a sub-frame.
The Lotus Exige Sport 350 uses a new chassis sub-frame too, redesigned to remove weight. The existing subframe has been re-engineered to remove excess metal work. A range of modifications to the body panels and sound proofing also helps to save 14.7 kg. Work to the heating system has resulted in a 3 kg weight saving following the removal of a heating pipe. Replacing the engine cover and removing the vanity cover has saved 4 kg while the re-designed rear diffuser saves a further 1 kg.
Fitting a new battery and bracket saves a further 3 kg with further weight reductions due to the removal of the sun visor and passenger foot rest. Air conditioning is an option which adds another 7.5 kg. Lotus offer also offer an optional two-piece braking system which saves 5 kg and a set of lightweight wheels for a further 5 kg bringing total weight down to 1,115 kg in total. Without, the Exige Sport 350 tips the scales at 1,125 kg.
From reading specs, it seems a lot of work has gone into the Exige Sport 350 to make it feel significantly different from the outgoing Exige S. “Simplify, then add lightness” is what Colin Chapman famously said. It applies as much to the Exige Sport 350 as much as it did back then to Chapman’s racing pursuits.
Our first experience of the Sport 350 is out on Lotus’ test track with a black, left hand drive example with a manual transmission. This is the same car used to set a new record for the Exige model, knocking 2.5 seconds off the Exige S with a time of 1:29.8 seconds. Only the Exige Cup and Exige CupR are faster.
Sliding behind the wheel, the Exige feels quite snug. At 6 foot 1 inches, headroom was about right, although with a helmet on became a little more restricted. The first thing you notice behind the wheel is the simple, uncluttered dash board. There is no MMI, no touchscreen, no transmission tunnel. Instead, you get a small radio head unit, a few cubby holes and a set of dials for the air.
Ergonomically, the aluminium handbrake lever has now received a touch of leather; a comfort feature to avoid the discomfort of a superheated lever in hot weather. Lotus previously offered a smaller steering wheel which has now been removed from the options list in favour of the larger leather unit which is now standard equipment. The interior also gets a tartan trim, a nod to the classic Esprit Turbo.
Heading out of the factory gate and towards the race track, driving styles are adjusted to compensate for the lack of assisted steering. Despite the physical workout at relatively low speed, our immediate impression is quite positive. The manual gear throw is short and precise while the clutch feels nice, neither too light nor too heavy. The supercharger means that the throttle response is instantaneous. The sound of the engine, supercharger and gears working in tandem is also mighty impressive.
Out on track, the Lotus really comes into its own. Naturally, it feels extremely nimble. With the lightweight wheels on, the rubber at the rear grows wider by 0.5 inches. Camber at the front and rear has also been adjusted, the car seems to glide from corner to corner as if it were on rails. The grip levels are staggering and with a low vantage point, you really feel the sensation of speed. It’s quite easy to see how the Sport 350 was able to set its record time.
On a damp circuit, we were able to push the limits of traction in the various different Lotus Dynamic Performance Management (DPM) modes. The previous Exige S used a switch panel carried over from 1996 models. In the exige, a more modern panel from the Evora enables the switch between the three modes; ‘Drive’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Race’.
From start up, drive mode is engaged as default. It features full intervention from the traction control system, although we didn’t notice a huge amount of intervention on our initial runs. It still allows plenty of fun out on track. Sport mode dials down the traction control and opens up the exhaust system whereas Race mode further cuts the traction control although doesn’t remove it entirely. Race mode seemed to fit the character of the Exige best on the track.
Next we got behind the wheel of a red Exige Sport 350 fitted with an automatic transmission. The exposed transmission of the manual car is obviously absent from this example. It has been replaced with a set of switch gear changing the gearbox from neutral to drive and manual modes. This time we were let loose on a 20 mile stretch of Norfolk countryside to experience the car in its normal environment.
As an automatic, the Exige loses some of its character. The mechanical sound of the gears engaging isn’t quite as pronounced and the experience does suffer a little. We had heard poor reviews of this particular Toyota-derived gearbox when it was originally fitted to the Exige S. Actually, we found the autobox wasn’t actually as bad as others had suggested. In Sport and Race mode, the gears are held for the correct period of time. Request a downshift or upshift and the box is willing to oblige, even the paddle is the correct length. That said, it wouldn’t be our choice given the option of the manual we had already driven.
Taking the gearbox out of the equation, the charm of the Exige Sport 350 is in its ride and grip levels. The combination of power, size and braking power make it perfect for the country roads that surround Lotus’ factory. As the speed increases, as does the feeling through the steering wheel. This translates into confidence behind the wheel and you often find yourself getting to your destination quicker than you expected.
The Lotus Exige Sport 350 will go on sale in Europe in February 2016 for €74,000 and will be available in other regions outside Europe (excluding North America) from March 2016. A roadster variant will also arrive in March 2016, Lotus says. Lotus will also open a bespoke options department in the near future although details were very scarce yesterday. Expect a press release in the next month.
Having gathered our thoughts over the past 24 hours, the Lotus Exige Sport 350 is definitely a car we can recommend. Short of an Ariel Atom, Caterham or Go-Cart it is the purest driving experience on the market. It isn’t perfect; the un assisted steering with bother some, as will the indignity of trying to get in, however, once you look past those things and get up to speed, the drive is incredible.
The modifications bought in by the Exige Sport 350 add to the experience. The exposed gearbox mechanism, the tartan cloth, the attention to detail all add up to make the Exige a unique package. The attention to weight is quite fitting in a market place where cars are increasingly getting larger and more powerful. As Colin Chapman himself said: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”