The Lotus Exige Sport 350 is a love-or-hate affair, with plenty to reward the keen driver
SINGAPORE — The Lotus Exige Sport 350 is heaven and hell wrapped up in one car. Which one applies to you depends on a number of things, but mostly has to do with how old you are and how much you love driving.
And I don’t mean enjoying a quick jaunt to the shops. I mean nursing a constant itch to climb behind the wheel even though you have nowhere to go, desperate to savour the sensations that come with operating a machine with a modicum of skill.
If that’s you, then the Exige is a car worth paying attention to.
The basic recipe is straight out of the modern Lotus playbook: the Exige built on an aluminium tub overlaid with glassfibre bodywork, with an engine behind the cabin’s two seats driving the rear wheels.
With a supercharger helping to wring 350 horsepower from a 3.5-litre Toyota V6, the Sport 350 is actually the tamest of Exiges; a higher state of tune gets you the Sport 410 (guess the power output) and then there’s the track-focused, hardcore Exige Cup 430.
It’s hard to imagine how you can get much more hardcore than even the basic Exige, however.
If you’ve driven a modern (meaning post-Elise) Lotus, you’ll know what sort of spinal contortions are needed to make it past the small doors and into the cabin (to say nothing of what it’s like to climb back out). Above the age of 40, if you can enter without groaning, you’re in good shape.
Made it? Good. Ahead of you is the most spartan interior you can imagine, although the Exige does have plenty of upholstered surfacing with contrast stitching, which is luxury by Lotus standards.
There’s no touchscreen, probably because such things subtract from driving pleasure instead of adding to it (also, other Lotus drivers would laugh at you for having one), and the instruments are simple analogue clocks.
Small, mysterious unmarked buttons do various things, the air-con is a simple three-speed, three-knob affair, and the sound system is a token single-DIN Sony head unit. It does offer Bluetooth smartphone pairing, but the only connectivity that matters here is the one that links your buttocks to the road.
Turn the key, press the starter button and you know you’re in for a jolly time just by the way the engine barks to life, sending vibrations through the cabin.
Because you’re meant to be involved in the proceedings, there are three pedals instead of two. You might think it old-fashioned to change gears yourself, but boy, does Lotus make it worth your while. For a start, the gear selector linkage’s naughty bits are out in the open, and watching how the parts all do their thing when you fondle that knob and move it around verges on mechanical porn.
The gearchange itself is wonderful, with slick throws and so much precision that you wonder if it’s possible to ever fluff a shift. On the contrary, blipping your way down the gearbox is a source of major satisfaction, and whenever you pull off a perfect double-declutch, there’s an off-the-charts sense of accomplishment.
350 is a healthy number of horses to keep in the paddock, but the Exige’s fighting weight is just 1,125kg, so it has a way of exploding into action when you prod the accelerator. You’re rewarded for letting the revs build, too, with things getting extra urgent as the engine nears its redline. Basically, the Exige goes from fast to ballistic when you wring the V6, and in the Sport driving mode the throttle is razor sharp.
Yet, it’s the handling that’s most rewarding about this car. It’s much heavier than Lotuses of the past, but the Exige still reacts with inertia-free immediacy to steering inputs. Just think about turning and the Lotus is already headed for the apex.
The steering itself is beautiful, with plenty of communication feeding through the deliciously small steering wheel. There’s no power assistance, so you need a bit of muscle at parking speeds, but once you’re on the move the Exige feels like a thing alive in your hands.
Contrary to expectation in such a raw car, the suspension is actually pretty spine-friendly. The springs are firm for sure, but the damping is well-sorted, so the car doesn’t jounce around on a bumpy road.
Meanwhile the brakes are stupendously effective, so in terms of all the things that contribute to driving pleasure, the Exige is remarkably complete.
What’s it like inside the hardcore, spartan Lotus Exige? Check out our little walkthrough!
But much of that comes with compromise. Keeping the weight low means leaving creature comforts out, which is why the passenger seat is completely fixed, and the driver’s chair only slides back and forth. You have to adjust the wing mirrors by hand, and the steering is fixed in place. There’s no glovebox to speak of, and barely any place to stow a phone.
Perhaps the most inconvenient thing about the Lotus is the limited view from the driver’s seat. It’s impossible to check your blind spot on your left, and the rearview mirror shows you much more of the Eton supercharger than of the traffic behind you. If you can parallel park this, you are a driving god.
A tiny, 112-litre boot only highlights this car’s impracticality, and if you’re taking it on a long drive up north, the racket from the engine and gearbox is going to knacker your ears.
Another potential deal-breaker is the build quality, which is on the iffy side. Some of the fibreglass panels on our test car looked hastily finished, and the panel gaps on the body were fairly haphazard. The interior smells faintly of glue, and the cabin plastics feel like something out of a cheap Eastern bloc car.
In terms of fit and finish, the Exige in no way feels like a S$300,000 car (and that’s without the certificate of entitlement).
Still, you’re meant to take all that in your stride if you drive a Lotus, because the brand puts driving pleasure above everything else. But that makes the Exige strictly a car for purists. Driving this means you’re the kind of person who not only puts up with a manual transmission, but could not put up with an auto.
That might make it a tough sell, especially since there are cars that are nearly as engaging to drive but not nearly as impractical or demanding — Porsche’s Cayman comes to mind.
The upshot of that is that you’ll signal your driving enthusiasm to the world by owning an Exige. This car may be both heaven and hell, but the kind of people who would buy one would probably consider it paradise.
Lotus Exige Sport 350
|Engine 3,456cc, V6, supercharged
|Power 350hp at 7,000rpm|
|Torque 400Nm at 4,500rpm|
|Gearbox 6-speed manual|
|0-100km/h 3.9 seconds|
|Top Speed 273km/h|
|Fuel Efficiency 10.3L/100km|
|Agent Wearnes Automotive|
|Price S$300,000 without Certificate of Entitlement|
|Verdict Still a thrilling drive and one of the most focused machines around – just don’t expect to carry more than a sandwich with you.