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Lotus Exige Sport 350 first drive

By raccars Published

Lotus Exige Sport 350

Price: £55,900

Gearbox: Six-speed manual/six-speed automatic

0-62mph: 3.9 seconds

Top speed: 170mph

Fuel economy: 28.0mpg

CO2: 235g/km

On sale: March 2016

Insurance group: TBA

Three 2016 Lotus Exige Sport 350 facts

1: Three 2016 Lotus Exige Sport 350 facts

2: It weighs less than 1,200kg – a key target of the new boss

3: Speccing it has been simplified: options choice is down from 16 to 9, for example

What is it?

The Lotus Exige Sport 350 is a surprise new car from the Norfolk sports car specialist. The car it replaces, the Exige S, was already critically acclaimed as one of the best cars Lotus made: so why overhaul it so relatively soon after launch? Because, simply, Lotus felt it could do even better.

The Exige Sport 350 thus gets some intricate suspension geometry changes, detail tweaks to the tyres and steering, lightweight new body panels and a distinctive weight-saving louvered panel for the rear.

Inside, and even more distinctively, it now offers a tartan seat trim option, plus better-than-ever fit and finish, to make this one of the most robust and premium-feeling Lotus ever. It’s still cramped in there, and very hard to get in and out of, but a real lift over before all the same.

The big 3.5-litre supercharged V6 engine remains unchanged; it produces 345hp for a top speed of no less than 170mph. But because it weighs less – it’s 51kg lighter – 0-62mph now takes just 3.9 seconds. That’s supercar fast. For a car priced like a sports car: £55,900, or around £10,000 less than its arch-rival, the Porsche Cayman GT4.

Lotus launches the new Exige Sport 350 to UK dealers next March and, to give us a taste of what customers can look forward to in the spring, we headed over to its Hethel base for a first drive of the high-performance new Exige range-topper.

Styling and interior

The Exige S already looked amazing. At its core is a Lotus Else, to which Lotus has fully redesigned the bodykit to create the most muscular, pumped-up-looking sports car out there. The front end is all air intakes and aero scoops, the sides are sculptural and the massive rear wing is fantastic.

For the Sport 350, Lotus has replaced the engine cover with a wonderful louvered panel – this is both 3.5kg lighter and also a lovely retro nod to the original Esprit Essex special edition of 1980. There’s no missing it.

There’s no missing the interior either, if you choose the tartan seat trim option. This is another retro Esprit-inspired touch, dating back to the original S1 car of 1976. It’s absolutely fantastic and, while it’s not for everyone, we feel it suits the stylishly idiosyncratic approach of the Exige perfectly.

As mentioned, the interior is better quality than ever, with new premium touches such as hand-stitched leather and carefully profiled fixtures and fittings. The heater is better than any Lotus before it, the Momo steering wheel is a delight and the body-hugging clamshell sports seats are some of the best around.

Performance

The Lotus Exige Sport 350 weighs around 200kg less than the Porsche Cayman GT4; it tips the scales at just 1,125kg. This means performance is intense and vivid, yet oddly ‘easy’ at the same time. You don’t feel the mass beneath you, just sense that it’s gathering speed very, very quickly.

The supercharged engine’s linear power delivery helps here. It’s torquey, which means pulling power is spread throughout the rev range, rather than demanding peakily high revs to give its all. And because it’s supercharged, surge is available the instant you press the accelerator – there’s no lag at all.

This all means the Exige is a curiously effortless car to drive, even when you’re motoring slowly. You don’t have to fight it and it’s always ready to squirt you into any gap you spot. A much-improved gearchange with a wonderful Pagani-like exposed gate is a neat touch too. You can choose an optional auto, which is very good, but you’d miss the lovely clicks and clacks the manual makes.

The engine is naturally exceptional when it’s revved to the max. It’s staggering, how quickly it will move you along, and although the noise isn’t the most outstanding element, the multi-cylinder hum still gives a classy backdrop. In almost every way, it feels like a true supercar.

Handling

If performance is impressive, then handling is simply outstanding. Lotus has electrified an already remarkable car, making it even more responsive, helping it deliver even more feedback, giving it even more natural balance. Experiencing it from behind the wheel is divine.

The previous Exige S was already sharp, but Lotus felt it could be sharper still. So it tweaked the suspension and steering to make the front end turn more crisply into corners, helping the driver feel like they’re sitting nearer the middle of the car with all the masses rotating around them. It’s a lovely feeling.

The neutral balance means that even if you step over the limit – by, say switching the traction control from normal mode into more lenient Sport and Race settings – it’s child’s play to correct the car and keep it tracking straight. You feel like you’ve inherited the skills of an F1 World Champion when driving the Exige.

Of course, it’s intense, with plenty of feedback and thrills. But it doesn’t come with a punishing ride. This is better than before too, with excellent body control and remarkable compliance for what is a firmly-suspended sports car. Few cars this quick are this comfortable cross-country; indeed, few cars are this quick, either.

This is all thanks to the car’s scant kerbweight. It means every movement and interaction is easy and natural, nothing feels forced and both gaining and losing speed is fuss-free and elegant. Lotus really has outdone itself with the Exige Sport 350; it’s an incredible driver’s car.

Price and value

OK, it’s not a cheap car; it costs £55,900 and bits like a stereo, air conditioning and those must-have tartan seats all cost extra. But, compared to a Porsche Cayman GT4, it’s still a bit of a bargain – as it is doubly so when you compare it to some of the supercars it’s faster than.

Lotus cars also hold their value really well, while the light weight should make it easy on brakes and the expensive Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres. The engine is actually a Toyota unit too, untouched by Lotus: this means it’ll be totally reliable and relatively cheap to maintain.

Fuel economy

The Exige Sport 350 is a bit of a thirsty thing, officially averaging 28.0mpg. We emptied the 40-litre fuel tank in less than an hour on the Hethel test track. But we’re sure more genteel driving will deliver better figures.

After all, there’s so little mass to accelerate, the oversized engine doesn’t have to work all that hard. No, it’s not the most aerodynamic of cars – the rear wing is designed to generate downforce, the very opposite of slipping through the air cleanly – but the Exige still has the potential to be economical.

If you can bear to drive it so. We’d say that’s a waste… enjoy it for what it is and still enjoy the fact that, at 235g/km CO2, it’s greener than the Ferraris and Aston Martins its running rings around…

Verdict

We thought the Exige S was a great Lotus. And now, Lotus has given us an even better Exige: the Sport 350 is an outstanding new sports car that is probably the best car Lotus currently makes. Thrilling to drive, great to look and better than ever to own, it’s a car that deserves a place on your dream British sports cars list.

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