Driving the Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition on road and track

We say goodbye to the Exige and find out if it really was a bit underrated

10w ago

Unless you inhabit some UK-centric internet forums full of Angry Men Who Like TVRs, chances are the dinky Lotus Exige is crowded out of your subconscious when you're asked to recommend a £64,000 sports car for that annoying uncle who never seems to run out of money. Names such as Porsche, Jaguar and BMW probably spring from your lips way before you get to the lightweight number from the easternmost corner of England.

And it's a shame – because the Exige will soon be no more. It will be sent to the great pricelist archive in the sky, never to be sold again. With that in mind, we spent a morning on the roads around the Lotus factory and an afternoon on the company's own test track to see if we've been doing the Exige a colossal disservice all this time.

What is it?

It's a two-seat lightweight sports car powered by a supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine. We were driving the 'entry-level' Exige, with 390hp and 420Nm of torque. We say entry-level, because with only 1,138kg to shove around, that 'basic' engine will still get you from 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds and on to 172mph. That's ridiculously quick – and it makes the price tag of £64,000 seem reasonable.

Visibility out the back is actually pretty good – the louvres line up well with the rear-view mirror

Visibility out the back is actually pretty good – the louvres line up well with the rear-view mirror

Is it fast?

Are you kidding? The Exige accelerates with a shocking immediacy from the second you tap the heavily sprung gas pedal. The clutch is even heavier, requiring a proper leg recalibration if you're stepping out of any modern mass-produced motor. The gearshift is beautifully crisp, and the Exige's cramped cockpit means the gear lever is less than a hand's width away from the dinky Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. From the moment you move off, you feel in complete control.

Which is good, because for the 30 seconds before firing the engine up, you'll be wondering what the hell you've got yourself into. The Exige is a tiny car that sits very low to the ground. Getting into it is a fairly intimidating exercise if you're much over six-feet tall.

That gear shift feels as good as it looks

That gear shift feels as good as it looks

My approach was to slide the driver's seat back, stick my left leg in, then my bum, then collapse panting into the lightweight bucket seat before physically pulling my right leg in after me using my hands. It's a mark of how brilliant the rest of the car is that I wouldn't let this put me off buying one with my own money.

On the road

Being the entry-level Exige, the Sport 390 is set up with suspension that's balanced for road and track use. You can go for a more expensive Sport 420 or Cup 430 if you want less body roll and an even stiffer ride – but I wouldn't bother. We'll get on to how the Sport 390 copes on track, but on the road it's firm but beautifully damped over bumps and yumps.

The unassisted steering puts you so directly in touch with the road you could swear you can feel the latent body heat of roadkill through your fingertips – and it weights up so naturally in bends you can physically lean on it to support yourself as the Michelin Pilot Sport 4s warm up and give almost unending grip. There's no doubt the Exige's chassis has so much mechanical grip and, importantly – confidence – that it can demolish any country road at very, very illegal speeds.

The brakes are astonishingly effective too, not so much scrubbing off speed as putting it in a WW2 railway gun and firing it at the sun. Get your seatbelt/collarbone position wrong when standing on the middle pedal and you'll be able to hear your clavicle snapping even over the considerable cabin noise.

Final Edition cars get a modern-looking digital dashboard – the tacho changes between Tour, Sport and Race modes

Final Edition cars get a modern-looking digital dashboard – the tacho changes between Tour, Sport and Race modes

Mid-corner, the Exige is rolling slightly, giving you a wired-in sense of how much faster you can push before the front tyres start to understeer slightly. Lift the throttle and there's an immediate change in how tight the nose is turning. You can fiddle endlessly with your cornering line like a toddler exploring its nostrils.

Corner exit, however, is where the Exige really earns its keep. The rear axle's so tied down under power you can pretty much stamp on the accelerator at the apex, and you sense through the seat how well the the rear rubber is gripping the Tarmac. And gripping it will be.

From there it's a case of the engine spooling up in a fairly linear and entirely predictable fashion, hitting the magic 4,500rpm where the exhaust valve opens and the Exige leaves its final smile on your face – an exhaust note so blaring, musical and unique that you'll remember it far after your sweat's dried on the Alcantara steering wheel. It's a hell of a noise – it's brassy and trumpety and addictive – and only ever a neat heel-and-toe away from happening, even at a cruise. God knows how it's legal – it's delightfully anti-social.

What's it like on track?

We had 20 minutes on Lotus' own in-house test-track following one of the company's development engineers to learn the track before getting 10 minutes or so left to our own devices.

The first thing you'll notice in an Exige on track is how it reacts to accelerator and brake inputs. Some cars will adjust their noses depending on what you're doing with the pedals, but the Exige does it to a huge degree – and fairly instantly. When you're properly going for it, it's easy to get the Exige to push into understeer as the front tyres lose grip, but it's equally easy to lift your right foot a fraction of a centimetre to get back into the grip zone and hold huge corner speed.

It is a very small car

It is a very small car

Through direction changes you have a good half-second to either get on the gas or the brake before the mid-engined layout starts to hint at doing something mischievous – it's not a snappy car, even when you're driving quickly. The slight built-in body roll in the suspension no doubt helps with this.

Likewise, you can carry a lot of brake into a corner without the back end stepping out – purely because you're completely aware of what the Exige's mass is doing. Which, handily, means you can also very easily get it completely sideways by getting the car unbalanced at the apex and using the mass of the engine to skid you sideways. It's puerile, but a huge part of the Exige's carte-blanche of cornering options – though you'll want to be in Race mode to get it to move about, or hold the Race mode button to turn all the systems off.

We'll miss you, Exige

We'll miss you, Exige

You might read this and think what a load of elitist irrelevant driving nonsense, but bear in mind that we were doing this within 10 minutes of being on track – and we're absolutely not driving heroes or serial trackday fiends who take their Red Bull with a side-order of tyre smoke.

And that's the Exige's most enduring trait – it brings the bare-bones physics of driving to an accessible level, and through its lightweight construction and nigh-on perfect chassis, can give just about anyone the confidence to play around with it. It's a massively underrated car – and Lotus has set itself a huge challenge when it comes to a replacement Exige.

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Comments (6)

  • Thanks Tim, there's just no telling folk what it feels like to drive a car like this. It's bare bones lightness and playfulness needs to be experienced.

    0-60 is really nice too, but not where it's at. Cornering with a perfectly balanced mid-engined lightweight car like this is. it brings out the hooligan in you (well, it does with me), get it just right going in the corner, steer in, little bit of throttle and it's like a puppy thatonly wants to play and go even quicker in the next one, and the next, and...

    It's essentially the absence of weight, which always tries to push you out of the corner, this just dives in with all of its heart and soul, nothing comes close to driving a Lotus. It's even more fun than a Porsche in the twisties. It's a toy for big girls and boys, and it's also totally unfit to be a daily driver.

      2 months ago
  • I test drove an Elise a few years back, when they were still a decent price.

    I absolutely loved it, but practicality made me change my mind and get something a bit sensible.

    I’m 6’3” and it was interesting getting in and out. Fortunately I was a slim, fit bloke and could manage.

    Exhilarating is the best way to describe them. Totally in touch with everything around them, you very quickly get the feel for them and start pushing harder than you probably should.

    Biggest mistake of my life not buying it

      2 months ago
  • We will miss you Exige - hope Lotus replace it with something special

      2 months ago
  • Great review ! I particularly enjoyed that one. More so I think because this is genuinely an exciting car which I would honestly like. I almost bought an Evora instead of the Porsche 911 last time I changed. Lotus are light, raw and fun. A lot of the cars you review are fine and very nice I'm sure, but whether it's a high performance BMW or a luxury Aston Martin SUV, they'll never give you the same 'fizz' as something as unique and raw as a Lotus. I remember getting a passenger lap of Donnington Park GP circuit in an Elise that had a 200 BHP Honda Integra Type R engine fitted some two decades ago. It was a riot and I can imagine this would simply be more of the same. As for the getting in and out issue - that's something the Exige is legendary for. I'm told the skill is akin to slotting yourself through a letterbox in the side of the car. They say the removeable steering wheel helps. Personally I'm only 5'11 and quite glad of that. For some bizarre reason it seems a good chunk of motoring journalists are ridiculously tall, meaning almost everywhere you watch a review, the action is regularly interrupted with complains about having to have the seat all the way back and there not being much head room. If someone in the motoring media industry would take a change and get me on the payroll - all those shenanigans could be avoided. I could drive all the small awkward to get into stuff and you 6 foot plussers could relax, wiling away your days wafting around in luxury SUVs and dull-as-wallpapering people carriers?

      2 months ago
  • It sounds amazing! You will be sorely missed, Exige and Elise.

      2 months ago