Lotus Exige Sport 350 2016The amazing Lotus Exige Sport 350 completes the firm’s model range revival. It’s one of the most thrilling driver’s cars for the money

Overview

Lotus Cars is in good health. For the past two months, it’s been cashflow-positive, an incredible achievement in itself for the traditionally crisis-strewn British sports car manufacturer. It’s been busy too, launching new cars – and the Lotus Exige Sport 350 is the latest model in the new revolution.

Its arrival completes the overhaul of Lotus’ core model range. We already have the fantastic Lotus Evora 400, and more recently the Lotus Elise Sport. Now it’s the turn of the Exige; for a while now, the Lotus coupe has used the firm’s ace 3.5-litre V6 engine. Now it’s been given the focus to go with it.

A brief bit of positioning: Evora is Lotus’ range-topper, the car it wants to be its Porsche 911. Elise is its fun roadster and the Exige is its powerful hard-top cousin; to continue the Porsche analogy, if Elise is Lotus’ Porsche Boxster, the Exige is its Cayman.

And the Sport 350? Why, this is Lotus’ Cayman GT4. ‘Sport’ is a name with heritage within Lotus and it doesn’t just stick it on anything. The new Exige had to earn the right to use it; cue one massive overhaul that saw the car completely stripped to pieces, laid out in the Lotus Lightweight Laboratory and then analysed, bit by bit, to save weight.

The result is a car 51kg lighter than the old Exige S. Doesn’t sound a lot, until you remember the car’s overall weight is a scant 1,125kg. Makes even the basic Cayman 2.7, at 1,330kg, look like a bit portly in comparison.

But it’s not simply lighter. It’s also better. Boss Jean-Marc Gales has introduced a new focus on quality at Hethel that means, for example, the heater is both 3kg lighter but also faster and more efficient than any Lotus heater before it. The battery is 3.5kg lighter, but you can also leave the Exige Sport 350 in an airport car park for two weeks and it will still start. This is Lotus, thinking like Porsche.

Oh, and it looks outrageous. The Exige has always looked like a road-going race car; the Sport 350, with its new black composite louvered tailgate and matt black aero kit, is every inch the compact supercar. And if Porsche can charge nearly £65,000 for the Cayman GT4, Lotus can certainly justify £55,900 for the Exige Sport 350, surely? We visited Hethel to find out.

On the road

Lotus Exige Sport 350 2016

‘Light is right’ is the boss’s mantra. Here, it means the 345hp 3.5-litre V6 engine is good for 0-62mph in 3.9 seconds and 170mph flat out. Quick enough for you? Certainly it’s half a second faster to 62mph than that Cayman GT4, you know…

But the first thing that intoxicates you isn’t the speed, it’s the chassis and steering feel. Like all good Lotus in that respect, then. Steering is stupendous, a waterfall of ever-varying weight and pulses, writhes and wiggles through the tiny Momo rim. It’s a living thing you’re holding; this is F1-grade feedback, way beyond almost any other car on the road.

It goes without saying that it’s accurate, enhanced by a chassis that is sharper, more direct and more controllable. With extensive geometry changes and a lower centre of gravity, it right away feels more natural, more incisive, more intuitive and, interestingly ‘shorter’: you sense you’re right in the middle of the car, masses rotating around you. Again, rather like an F1 car.

You become incredibly confident in it as a result. Because it’s so light and everything’s so well-signalled, it’s easy to feel heroic driving it, and being intoxicated by the experience is virtually a default. It even makes the lack of stability control less of an issue – if you’re doing it right, you’ll be able to feel when the car’s getting unstable well in advance…

Instead of stability control, Lotus’ own traction control is standard. It’s good in full safety mode, ‘Sport’ lets you get the tail out in safety and ‘Race’ transforms the car yet again into a full-on livewire. On a cold, wet, early dawn Hethel test track, we found Sport was just enough to feel a driving god.

Like all good Lotus, it also rides unbelievably well. Brilliant damping and body control blend with unexpectedly fine B-road compliance and that mass-free light weight to deliver one of the quickest point-to-point cars on sale. You don’t fight it, just let it flow, and it hurtles stupendously quickly but with no fuss or heavy lag. Jaw-dropping.

That torquey supercharged 345hp mid-mounted 3.5-litre V6 engine helps. The multi-cylinder soundtrack naturally gives the Exige Sport 350 a classy, upmarket feel; the immediate and lag-free force it punches out is again race-inspired. The delivery itself is also rich – you don’t need to rev it to feel the instant surge which, combined with the lack of mass, makes this Lotus lively and responsive like few other cars. The thrill when you do rev it through is almighty.

The new gearshift is good. OK, it’s still not Porsche-like, but is much cleaner, snickier and positive than before. More importantly, it clicks and clacks as you shift gear not unlike an old Ferrari – it’s truly brilliant. For all the optional automatic’s surprising directness and lack of soggy slur, you’d be mad not to choose the manual.

Oh, sure, it’s intense. The ride has an underlying stiffness as a result of its racy setup (not to be confused with harshness or hardness, mind). The steering will chatter away to you even when you’re loping up a straight dual carriageway. And this is anything but a one-handed, sit-back cruiser. But you’d be disappointed if it were anything else, right? This really is the perfect Lotus.

On the inside

Lotus Exige Sport 350 2016

First things first; that brilliant heritage tartan interior. Yes, you have seen it before – on the original 1976 Esprit S1; Lotus has brought it back as an option on the Exige Sport 350, and surely it’s a default-tick for any Lotus enthusiast? It looks fantastic and is a suitably out-there touch for this brilliant British sports car.

Not that it’s all eye-popping fabrics; under Gales’ direction, Lotus has also worked incredibly hard on interior quality and tactility. This is one of the best-built, highest-quality Lotus ever; if Porsche made ultra-lightweight sports cars on a cost-controlled budget, they might feel like this.

Star of the show is the new exposed aluminium gearshift mechanism, not unlike that on a Pagani. People complained the Exige S’ shift was a bit loose, said Gales; cue an all-new mechanism made from aluminium that’s so beautiful, Lotus decided to showcase it. It’s not just for show either – it also saves 1.5kg…

But the sense of extra quality is everywhere. Trims are now hand-stitched leather, switches are more tactile, fit and finish are exemplary and even the old 1980s Vauxhall column stalks work more smoothly and positively than ever before.

It’s still tricky to get in and out of, mind, with its low roof and high, broad sill. The cabin is compact too – you sit intimately close to your passenger – but it’s surprisingly refined at the same time, even at higher speeds. Thank Gales’ focus again. There are even stowage slots for mobile phones.

Your mobile device will only have a stereo to Bluetooth with if you choose the optional audio pack, mind: to help you hear it better, this also comes with full carpet and extra sound insulation. Lotus expect most people to go for this, even if the tacky Clarion stereo is a bit too ‘old Lotus’ for our liking. Clarion does a great single-DIN touchscreen system, Lotus – AND it has sat nav…

Running costs

Lotus Exige Sport 350 2016

Because they haven’t been making all that many Lotus in recent years, retained values are sky-high. This means dealers can offer incredibly attractive finance deals on them; while the Exige Sport 350 is likely to be in much demand, the core financials should still be surprisingly decent.

Lotus’ quality revolution will also make the ownership proposition itself more welcoming. Reliability should be good, rattles few, fit and finish should remain as impressive after three years as they do now. This will also pay dividends for retained values.

More everyday running costs will be a bit higher. It averages a rather thirsty 28.0mpg (the auto does 30.1mpg) and CO2 of 235g/km means annual road tax costs almost £500 a year. Those Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres aren’t going to be cheap either.

Then there’s the fact it handles so well and drives so brilliantly, you’re likely to spend a fortune in track days and on visiting Lotus’ Hethel factory to get your various levels of Lotus Licence under the stewardship of chief instructor (and former F1 driver) Martin Donnelly…

Verdict

Lotus Exige Sport 350 2016

If you thought the V6-engine’d Lotus Exige S was good, you won’t believe what the firm’s done with the Exige Sport 350. It’s brilliant, both in all the ways you’d expect from a Lotus, but also in surprising new areas such as quality, interior tactility and robustness.

The handling is the star of the show, naturally. It gives so much to you and feels so natural doing it, you can’t help but feel like a hero. The engine is a forceful delight too, and the new manual gearshift an open-gate, click-tasatic triumph.

And although it’s pricey at £55,900, it’s also a bargain alongside cars such as the Porsche Cayman GT4. No, it’s not the newest of cars, and obvious hindrances such as the difficulty in getting in and out remain. But the effort is worth it, because the Exige Sport 350 is a truly great Lotus. We didn’t see this one coming, but boy, are we pleased it’s here.

Rivals

  • Porsche Cayman GT4
  • Alfa Romeo 4C
  • Caterham Seven
  • Jaguar F-Type Coupe
  • BMW M4 Coupe

2015 Lotus Exige Sport 350: specifications

Engine: 3.5-litre supercharged V6

Price: £55,900

Power: 345hp

Torque: 295lb-ft

0-62mph: 3.9secs

Top speed: 170mph

Fuel economy: 28.0mpg

CO2 emissions: 235gkm