Let’s get a few things out of the way. Here’s a list of what the 2017 Lotus Exige Sport 350 isn't and what it lacks.
It’s not comfortable, has no power steering, it’s not polite in the same way a quiet, inoffensive Camry is, it’s a bitch to park with almost no rearward visibility (rear-view camera? Pfft, whatever), and you can’t take it shopping, not if you want to buy more than a box of cereal and two tins of baked beans. It’s uncomfortable around town, absorbing bumps and sharp hits with a razor-sharp precision that leave your teeth a little sore. It has the ground clearance of an ant, meaning even the slightest bump will result in a heartbreaking scrape of the front splitter. And, infotainment? It has an old-skool stereo.
But, you know what? None of that matters, as I will explain.
So what exactly do you get for your $138,875 (before on-roads and any options) outlay? Simply, you get one of the quickest and funnest cars to drive this side of $200K.
Lotus is renowned for extracting more from less, often quite literally. This iteration of the brand’s popular sports car has been stripped-back in the weight department, every part carefully considered, reconfigured and redesigned, all to extract sometimes mere grams from its kerb weight.
The result is a 51kg lighter car than the Exige S it replaces, while also scooting a claimed 2.5 seconds quicker around the company’s famed Hethel test track in the UK.
It zips from zero to 100km/h in a claimed blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 3.9 seconds and enjoys a top speed of 274km/h.
To get there, the Lotus Exige Sport 350 calls upon its 3.5-litre supercharged V6 which generates a not inconsiderable 258kW and 400Nm of torque. Married to a lightweight body and chassis which tips the scales at just 1125kg (unladen) and you have the performance credentials of, well, a Lotus.
The car we have on test is finished in a gorgeous metallic black (a $1999 option), beautifully accented by yellow brake calipers ($799, tick). Nestled inside standard fit satin black 17-inch front and 18-inch rear alloy wheels, the effect is striking. The Exige looks a million bucks and as my eight-year-old neighbour pointed out, “It’s Batmobile!” I took him for a ride around the block, such was his enthusiasm for the Exige's kerb appeal.
Other options fitted to our car included leather trim ($4499), full carpets ($1099), sound insulation (yes, it’s an option at $1499), cruise control ($299), floor mats ($199) and a stereo system ($1199). It’s a basic stereo too, think late 1990s with a removable fascia.
All up, our test car came in at a smidge over $150,000 before on-road costs - a not inconsiderable bundle of cash for what is, essentially, a track car you can drive to the track.
Slipping inside the Exige is an oxymoron. There’s no elegant slipping, no graceful sliding inside. Instead, ingress is via a series of contortions that would challenge a world-class gymnast, let alone 50-year-old me. Exiting the Exige is even harder as your limbs struggle to find purchase anywhere. It is an inelegant exercise, clumsy and disorienting and just a little comical.
All of that is why I resisted the urge to drive it to my local restaurant strip, the fear of me and my inglorious exit witnessed by the denizens of my local village just a bridge too far. I have my dignity, after all.
Once inside though, the Exige is a snug and purposeful place to be. There is no pretension to this car. From the small steering wheel to the beautifully milled gear lever and exposed linkage, from the complete lack of storage to the rudimentary sound system, this is a car that screams purpose. That purpose is as a light-weight sports car.
Insert the key in the ignition, turn and then hit the starter button, and that wonderful supercharged V6 (sourced from Toyota!) thrums and rumbles into life right behind your ears. It’s glorious in a way a V6 Toyota Aurion could never be, an aural delight sending vibrations through your spine and into the tips of your fingers as they caress the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel that features exactly no functionality other than as a tiller.
For a bit of extra theatre, you can open the exhaust for a louder, gruffer and altogether more menacing sound. And it is menacing, burbling away and turning heads, even while standing still in traffic.
Once on the move, in an urban environment, the Exige isn’t the most comfortable ride going. Bumps and road imperfections are felt through your spine, and not in a good massaging kind of way. On the move, the steering is heavy, nicely so, providing oodles of feedback. Try reverse parking, though, and it’s another matter. Y’see, this Lotus, like all Lotuses, is about weight-saving. To that end, modern comforts such as power steering are an unnecessary evil. In short, parking is a bitch. And that’s before we get to talking about the lack of visibility and lack of rear-view camera.
But this is not a car to park and admire, this is a car begging to be driven. It pleads with its thrumming exhaust, it laments bruising city streets and crushing speed limits with the vigour of pilgrims to Israel’s Wailing Wall and it begs with the abandonment of a lovestruck and horny teenager. This car wants to be driven. Hard.
And when you do, oh boy. All the faults that make this car not a practical daily drive are forgotten. Unleashed from its chain, the Exige is in its element. It soaks up bumps effortlessly, the steering becomes beautifully weighted and precise, the engine sings a hummingbird chorus of performance.
And the six-speed manual gearbox, oh my. Aside from the aesthetics of the fully exposed gearshift linkage, it is a delight to use. With a deliciously short throw, the linkage is precise and satisfying. You can hear and feel the ‘snick’ with each change, a visceral pleasure that conspires to make you forget everything you don’t like about this car.
As for power, with 258kW on tap from its transverse-mounted supercharged 3.5-lite V6, the Exige is not left wanting. Nor is it lacking in grunt, with 400Nm of torque available at a peak of 4000rpm.
It’s responsive, too. Cruising on the freeway at 110km/h is effortless, as is stabbing the throttle for an overtake even while in sixth gear. The surge is instant. You could change down to fifth, or even fourth – and with the lovely gearshift linkage, who wouldn’t? – but the point is, you don’t need to.
Cornering is a dream, too. Low and sleek and with a centre-of-gravity seemingly mere inches from the ground, the Exige soaks up twists and turns without fuss, aided in part by the electronic diff lock as well as fully independent double wishbone suspension. If you do overcook it, or want to explore limits beyond your own, the Exige’s Lotus Dynamic Performance Management system is only too eager to help you sharpen your driving while also keeping a loose leash on your over-exuberance.
In terms of ownership, the Lotus Exige Sport 350 is pretty thrifty with a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. You also score three years of roadside assistance, while maintaining your pride-and-joy is straightforward with servicing required every 12 months or 15,000kms, whichever comes first - although if you track your Exige, expect those intervals to be shortened. And a basic scheduled service costs $325 plus GST and parts and consumables.
The Exige is an intimate car when driven, as it’s designed to be. You feel everything it does and it’s a lovely feeling. It caresses you as you caress it, your inputs into the steering wheel, the throttle, the gearbox all met with an instant responsiveness that excite and delight. This is driving, pure driving. I can only imagine what it would be like on a track, which is, really, what this car is designed for.
Sure it has its compromises, but most of those are in an environment not designed for this car, so I can forgive it somewhat. After all, any relationship requires compromise to be a successful partnership.
To be honest, while I’m on the relationship analogy, the Exige is like a mistress, kept secret until the time comes when you need a little bang for your buck while your slightly less exotic, frumpier long-term automotive partner sits patiently waiting for daily duties.
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