Lotus Exige Sport 380 (2016) review

Published: 29 November 2016

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Review

► Lighter, faster, angrier Exige V6 evolution
► 2.5sec a lap quicker than regular Exige 350
► Weighs 1100kg, does 178mph, costs £67,900

Only a few weeks ago we tested the Lotus Evora Sport 410, a car that squeezed yet more power, downforce and weight savings from a starting point that already appeared to have every last ounce of potential chiselled from it.

Now Lotus has performed the same magic trick on the lower, lither Exige – with predictably inspiring results. This is the Lotus Exige Sport 380, a faster, lighter, more powerful, and even more focused development of the Exige 350.

What’s happened to the Lotus Exige Sport 350? It only seems like yesterday that was launched

Yep, it’s only a year since the original-generation Exige V6 was transformed into the lighter, faster Exige Sport 350, and that car continues on sale unchanged. The Sport 380 takes yet another stride forwards in performance, and costs an extra £11,000. Lotus expects future Exige sales to be split evenly between the 350 and 380.

Which bits have changed?

As the 380’s name change suggests, power is up by 30bhp to a 375bhp total. That’s thanks mainly to higher supercharger pressure, an ECU upgrade, and the single-outlet exhaust originally developed for the Evora 400.

Bigger wins come from added aero and subtracted weight, however; those vicious-looking double canards protruding from the Exige’s cheekbones, together with other new spoilers, spats and splitters conjure as much as 60 percent more downforce than the Exige 350 at top speed (upped to 178mph, since drag has paradoxically, and impressively, decreased).

That new rear wing is made entirely from carbonfibre – as is the rear diffuser section, new front access panel and optional roof and tailgate on the car we tested (a soft top is standard).

Spidery forged aluminium wheels lose 10kg of unsprung mass, paper-thin carbon racing seats save 6kg each and various other shavings help cut a net 15kg from the kerb, despite heavier cooling systems and a bigger 48-litre fuel tank – in answer to customer demand.

Dry weight is 1066kg (1100kg with fluids, and with the lighter optional titanium exhaust fitted).

How fast is the new Exige Sport 380?

Zero to 60 is done with in 3.5sec, and around Lotus’s Hethel test circuit, chassis engineer and racing driver Gavan Kershaw can get the 380 around a lap a full 2.5sec faster than the 350.

That’s thanks in part to uprated brakes, grooved AP Racing discs borrowed from the 3-Eleven track car (they’re ‘expensive but efficient’, says Lotus), 140kg of downforce at top speed, and a switch to Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.

‘On a track [we believe] it can leave behind almost anything below £1m,’ says Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales. ‘We wanted it to be unbeatable point-to-point. You might find a car that is faster on the autobahn, but on a real road, you’d be hard-pushed to find anything that can beat it.’

And does it feel fast to drive?

It does, but more impressively it also feels confidence-inspiring and entirely un-scary, which is quite a feat for an uncompromising carbon-bodied flyweight.

Clambering in is still a challenge, despite optional new carbonfibre sills that are both thinner and lower, but once you’re in the view ahead feels like you’re in a miniaturised late ’90s-era Le Mans racer: bowled screen, single wiper, racing seats and a tiny (completely unassisted) steering wheel.

The sense of occasion is pretty special, enhanced by the same exposed machined aluminium gearshift mechanism as found in the Exige 350. It feels good, with a much tighter, more precise action than Lotus shifts of recent history, although it’s still easy to miss a gear in the heat of battle on the track – more on which in a bit.

There’s plenty of road noise – as you’d expect of a car minus most of its sound deadening, and with a polycarbonate rear screen; otherwise, the Exige is really quite easy to live with on the road, entirely tractable and with a very supple ride – more so, in fact, than the Evora 410.

And it doesn’t half sound good. The car we drove had the optional titanium exhaust (10kg lighter, and not cheap at £5000). It chimes in with a real shriek when the exhaust bypass valve opens at mid to high revs, and sounds like few other cars on the road. Porsche 718 it ain’t…

You mentioned driving on track?

Most manufacturer launches that involve a test track allow maybe a handful of laps behind a pace car; it says everything about Lotus as a company, and about their faith in the car, that chassis engineer Gavan Kershaw tossed me the keys, and told me I had the Hethel test circuit for 45 minutes.

The brake pedal didn’t go soft, the tyres didn’t overheat, and the Exige felt as fit and strong at the end as it did on lap one. There are very few road cars with similar stamina.

With a lower centre of gravity than the Evora 410, it feels far more stable under heavy braking – and the lack of power steering leaves you in no doubt what the front tyres are up to. The chassis is very chatty in letting you know what’s going on too, and for a mid-engined car the Exige is unusually friendly at the limit. The brakes in particular have superb feel, and the ABS is admirably unobtrusive.

Unlike the Evora 400 and 410. the Exige retains a standard open differential rather than a limited-slip diff, and on a patchily damp circuit it did spin its inside rear occasionally at the exit of a hairpin – and in the middle of the bus-stop chicane that punctuates Hethel’s back straight. An LSD would have weighed 5kg extra, says Gales, and cost more too.

The now-standard Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres are a popular tyre choice across many performance cars at the moment (911 GT3, Golf Clubsport and many more), and Kershaw suggests that although the previous Pirelli Trofeos perhaps offered more ultimate grip over a single lap, the Cup 2s can hang on for longer over sustained lapping.

Verdict

Yes, £67,900 is a sizeable amount of money. But there’s not much out there occupying the same space as the Exige 380. Naked track stuff from Caterham, Ariel and co. are too extreme to live with on a regular basis, most traditional supercars start from around £40k more, and the new Porsche 718, although still brilliant, is more road-biased and less tactile.

Arguably one of the closest cars in ethos is Porsche’s 911 GT3, which is slightly slower and considerably more expensive - but more practical and comfortable.

Think of the Exige 380 as a budget McLaren 675LT, with a nicer exhaust note, and it sounds almost affordable.

Read more Lotus reviews

Specifications

Price when new: £67,900
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 3456cc 24v supercharged V6, 375bhp @ 6700rpm, 302lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 3.7sec 0-62mph, 178mph, 28mpg, 242g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1100kg
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4084/1802/1129mm

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By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, automotive design graduate, Radical champ