Driving the 2019 Lotus Exige Sport 410 is a visceral experience, raw and unadulterated. It’s immersive and unrefined. Unembellished. It’s a car that breathes you in, inhales you, and embraces you so you become part of it. It screams at you, with you, and howls in delight even as you laugh with unbridled joy during your tango with the tarmac. It’s a delightfully raucous driver's car that makes no sense at all.
Until it does.
The Exige Sport 410 sits second from the top in the Exige range, bested only by the hardcore and track-focussed Cup 430. Lotus calls the Exige an 80:20 car: 80 per cent track, 20 per cent road. And, having spent a week living with it, that’s about on the money.
Speaking of money, the Exige Sport 410 can be yours for $159,990 plus on-road costs. That places Hethel’s pocket rocket in the same ballpark as the Porsche 718 Cayman S ($145,100) or the slightly more hardcore sibling 718 Cayman GTS ($172,700). Buyers might also consider British compatriot, the Jaguar F-Type V6 R-Dynamic, with a $156,512 sticker on the window.
The reality is, though, while they might match closely on price, the similarities pretty much end there, with both the Porsche and Jag offering a grand touring experience the Exige simply isn't cut out for.
And, it’s a better car for it, because what you get with the Exige is a car that involves you, demands much of you, and then delivers for you in a way that should be, must be, celebrated.
Let’s get the Exige’s shortcomings out of the way, although calling them shortcomings is doing the Lotus a disservice. Let’s think of them as quirks, or better yet throwbacks to another time. Because that is what the Exige exudes – nostalgia for a time when cars like this were simple and made to be driven.
Yes, all Australian-delivered Exiges come with air-con as standard, and that’s pretty much where the list of creature comforts ends. There’s no power steering, no cruise control, no modern safety tech, no cupholders, no infotainment, not even a radio. You can option a two-speaker stereo for $1199, but really, why would you? The sound of that raucous V6 behind your ears is music enough. Rear-view camera? Yeah, right. Instead, there are four wheels, two seats, a steering wheel, seatbelts and a couple of airbags. Oh, and our test car was fitted with optional floormats ($229).
If you’ve ever tried to get into a Lotus Exige (or Elise for that matter), you’ll know what an undignified exercise it is. The Exige sits low to the ground, with a roofline that barely reaches past your waist. And then there’s a monstrously large sill to clamber over. It all adds up to an ungainly exercise; a contortion of body and limbs that defies physiology. And you know what? Once safely cocooned inside that oh-so-raw cabin, it doesn’t matter.
It’s visceral inside, a sea of exposed aluminium and the inner workings of the Exige. The steering wheel is small and unencumbered by any buttons. The instrument display comprises an analogue tacho and speedo. There is a small digital speed readout at the bottom of the tacho, but it’s in miles-per-hour – a quaint reminder of the Exige’s British origins.
There’s art to be found in Lotus’s open-gate manual shifter, its exposed inner workings adding to the raw ambience. There’s no electric adjustment for the wing mirrors. Instead, you’ll need to lower the window (at least they’re electric) and adjust them manually. Proper old school. Analogue.
Take a peek in the rear-view mirror and you’ll notice two things. One, there’s not a lot of visibility out back, thanks in part to the large carbon-fibre slatted tailgate. And two, the exposed engine just behind your head fills the mirror.
And what an engine it is. Underneath that lightweight tailgate lurks a Toyota-sourced 3.5-litre V6. It’s all aluminium and hanging off the side is a big fat Edelbrock supercharger. As a package, it’s good for 305kW (410hp on the old scale, hence the name) and 420Nm of torque. Considering the Exige has a kerb weight of just 1108kg, it’s no surprise the Lotus can sprint from 0–100km/h in just 3.4 seconds. It’s seriously quick.
Pressing the starter button elicits a low rumble just behind your ears. It’s not particularly loud at idle (thanks to some exhaust baffles), but it’s menacing all the same – a hint of what’s to come. The cabin heats up quickly too, certainly in the middle of a Sydney summer. Blessed be the gods of air-conditioning.
There’s a satisfying tactility to the gear shift, exposed mechanicals and all. The clutch is nicely weighted and the aluminium gear knob and lever are cool to the touch. There’s a mechanical heft to the action, all snicks and clicks so sorely lacking in many modern three-pedal cars. It just feels, and sounds, so good.
You’ll rarely get out of third gear around town; a canvas where the Exige isn’t at its best. It’s lumpy and firm, every tiny imperfection felt in the seat of your pants. The steering is on the heavy side (there’s no power steering) and the car clumps around city streets. It’s not uncomfortable, mind you, but it’s a reminder the Exige’s happiest hunting ground isn’t the urban jungle.
The growl from the V6 behind your head remains relatively muted at city speeds. There’s a Sport button that adds a bit of mongrel, but it’s not anti-social by any stretch, just a pleasing rumble.
To be clear, its around-town manners aren’t a criticism, because this isn’t a car intended to spend its life around tight urban confines, shopping centre carparks or the school run. It’s perfectly fine (the contortionist act required to get in and out notwithstanding), and it’s no harsher around town than some of the more hardcore German street brawlers.
But, its true reason for being can only be exploited on a quiet back road far away from the confines of societal norms.
Because it’s in this environment – a winding country road shadowed by tall trees, where the only sound you can hear is birdsong and the metallic ticking of the Exige as it cools down by the side of the road – where the Lotus begins to make sense. Complete and utter sense.
With an empty road in front of you, you can hustle the Exige with menace, and in return you receive pure, exhilarating fun. There’s no need to break the speed limit, because quite possibly the Exige is at its best at a spirited yet perfectly legal clip. Linking corners is a delight, the howl of the V6 behind your head as the tacho hits 4500rpm and the exhaust opens up in all its screaming, howling glory. It’s intoxicating, urging you to hold onto gears until the needle hits that spot halfway between 4000 and 5000 on the tachometer. Because when it erupts, it rips at your ears and ripples your spine in a visceral, emotional, and soulful chorus.
But the Exige isn’t just about sound. It’s no one-trick pony. The acceleration is blistering. Exit a corner and stare down the straight stretch of road ahead. The road entices and the Exige dares you to put that 0–100km/h claim of 3.4 seconds to the test. It’s no contest, the Lotus hurtling forward at a phenomenal rate, its wails of delight almost a match for your own.
The chassis remains beautifully balanced and agile, allowing you to push and push and push without breaking a sweat. It’s assured, confident. It’s as if the car laughs at you, knowing you’ll never be able to exploit its limits, because those limits are so far off the charts, you haven’t a hope of reaching them, certainly not on public roads.
What you do achieve is a feeling of oneness with the car as it hurtles from corner to corner. The Exige is unflappable, instead hugging the road with next to no body roll, no understeer, no oversteer. There is, frankly, a ridiculous amount of mechanical grip. Part of that can be attributed to the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber all ’round, staggered sizes and all to match the 17-inch alloys out front and 18s at rear.
But the rest of that phenomenal grip has to be credited to the chassis that remains poised and balanced no matter what’s asked of it. There’s also 150kg of downforce on offer, thanks in part (90kg) to that huge carbon-fibre rear wing sprouting like a chrysalis from the back of the Exige. But you need to be driving at maximum speed to enjoy that added grip, which again highlights just how good the chassis is.
The steering, so unwieldy around town, opens up beautifully once at speed. It’s still heavy, yes, but only so far as to provide perfectly weighted feedback from the wheels. It is oh so precise, with only minimal inputs needed to trace the curvature of the road, of the Earth itself. Again, like so many aspects of the Exige, it just makes sense in this environment.
And that firm suspension, once unshackled from city environs, works beautifully to keep the car on the road. You can, if you know what you’re doing, play around with the suspension (double-wishbone at all four corners) settings.
Lurking within that arrangement are Nitron three-way dampers, manually adjustable for rebound (24 clicks), low-speed compression (24 clicks), and high-speed compression (16 clicks). There are also adjustable Eibach tubular front and rear anti-roll bars. But unless you know what you’re doing, adjustments are probably best left to your Lotus mechanic.
Nestled inside those spunky 10-spoke satin-black alloys are some pretty hardcore, race-bred brakes. With AP Racing four-piston calipers on all four corners, the J-hook ventilated discs (332mm front and rear) work beautifully to retard speed. There’s a confidence in the brake pedal that inspires you to work the Exige a little bit harder. Your reward is a tantalising, and visceral (there’s that word again), driving experience.
Because that’s what this car does. And in spades. It inspires – inspires you to push harder, inspires you to hold on to gears longer, inspires you to hustle its svelte mass from corner to corner, all while howling at you even as you shriek back peals of delight. It’s that good in the right environment.
The comedown, inevitably, comes when you leave the open road behind, those twisting ribbons of pleasure no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. The comedown comes as you grind your way through peak-hour traffic, stop-starting from traffic light to traffic light as the Exige snarls and bumps its way through town.
But you know what? None of that matters, because the reward is something few cars can muster today. Sure, there are more practical cars on the market, cheaper too, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one with this much performance, this much grip, this much analogue fun. The Exige engages you and involves you in a way few cars can dream of. It inhales you until you are at one with the car and the road ahead.
It's a car that makes absolutely no sense. Until it does. And that should be celebrated, cherished even, because the days for cars like this (if you believe the autonomous hype) are decidedly numbered.