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First drive: the new and improved Lotus Exige Sport 350

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What’s this?

A Lotus Exige with very brilliant tartan seats.

Right. Why?

It’s a nod to the 1976 Esprit, which offered an array of tartan upholstery way back when. If you don’t like the look, you can have a leather or suede cabin instead. A cabin with some truly Pagani-spec attention to detail.

Like what?

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Like ripping out the handbrake lever from the old Exige, and fitting the Evora’s instead, to save 26 grammes. Joining the old handbrake in the bin are the sun visors (minus 900g), the passenger footrest (minus 300g) and the air-con and radio. Though, as with Porsche’s GT cars, all that can be optioned back in.

Don’t confuse the Exige Sport 350 as some kind of cut-price Ferrari Speciale or Lambo Superleggera. This car replaces the existing Exige. It’s basically Lotus on its A-game: saving weight.

To create it, the story goes Lotus collected together every component used to make an Exige S (some 4000 bits, all told) then critiqued every one. If it could be done without, it was binned. What remained was then studied to see if it could be redesigned, or made out of something lighter.

Lotus discovered 120 areas where weight could be saved: overall, 51kg has been cut out. If you opt for the optional forged wheels (inspired by the McLaren P1’s, no less) and the two-piece brake rotors, you save a further 10kg. With 345 supercharged ponies pushing along 1115kg, the new Exige has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Porsche 911 GT3.

The rest of the diet comes from lighter resin panels (-12kg), a slatted retro engine cover (-3kg), a new heater system (-5kg), a lighter battery (-3.5kg), less soundproofing (-2.7kg) and lots more fiddling. The engine’s plastic cover is junked, saving a kilo. Making brackets do two jobs instead of one, and fitting door cards out of the Elise. That sort of thing.

So it’s fast, then?

Very much so, thanks to the V6’s lag-free, gutsy delivery. And yet straight-line speed is the least of what this car’s about. If you insist, it’ll do 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds (a tenth quicker than the outgoing Exige) and hit 170mph.

You’re going to tell me it’s all about the handling, aren’t you?

Yes, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. We need to talk about the gearchange.

Is it rubbish?

It isn’t. The Exige Sport 350 has an all-new, all-bespoke gear linkage. And it is, quite simply, world-class.

The old cable-operated linkage has gone, replaced by an exquisite collection of milled aluminium clickety-clackety bits. And it’s not just the sound of each gear being selected, it’s the sensation: the cool, weighty metal lever in the palm of your hand, the short, direct throw, and the precision between the gears.

It’s a gearshift to relish, rather than allow for, as you used to in the old Exige. Oh, and it’s 1.5kg lighter than before. Obviously. Good enough reason to avoid the lazy six-speed automatic.

It’s so good that when Lotus test driver Gavan Kershaw was choosing an Exige Sport 350 to set the official Hethel factory test track lap time, he picked the manual over the now remapped (and still 6kg heavier), six-speed paddleshifter. The result was a 1min 29.8 sec lap – a new record for Lotus, and 2.5sec quicker than the old Exige. And it was set wearing regular P Zero Corsa tyres, because the stickier Trofeos once offered as an option are now illegal.

So, tell me about this brilliant handling then.

My word, this car is good to drive. On the road it retains suppleness, despite using racecar-spec dampers from the Exige Cup car. You can feel them dealing with every pothole and bump hyper-quickly, without getting flustered and pinging £55k’s worth of tartan-infested Lotus into a tree.

Traction is mighty, and the unassisted steering can’t tell you enough about how much grip you’ve got, what the road surface is like, and where the cambers are. It makes an Alfa Romeo 4C look very, very silly indeed. No Porsche offers this level of feedback either – it’s much closer to an Ariel or Caterham. Then again, the Exige is also closer to those for refinement and soothability than say, a Cayman GT4.

On track, there’s a wonderful balance to the Exige. We tested it on a cold, greasy morning at Hethel, but the nasty conditions merely worked as a lie-detector for the Exige’s friendly manners. You can adjust the car’s balance mid-corner, from speed-greedy turn-in understeer to kicking the tail out into a little slide to get the car straight on exit. It’s an endlessly satisfying way to get about a track.

What don’t you like?

The noise, which is too hoarse for a supercharged V6. No maniacal whine, nor much music from the rather tuneless motor. But the rest of the car is so fun to immerse yourself in, it’s probably not a dealbreaker.

And, while the attention to detail is off the scale, no-one who didn’t already buy into the Lotus myth is going to leap out of their Porsche or Corvette and buy one of these instead. It’s a great car, but not one that’ll take Lotus off the ‘endangered species’ list overnight. It looks like an SUV will be needed for that.

In the meantime, this new Exige is Lotus at its absolute best. £55,900 for one of the world’s best handling cars? Bargain.

What do you think?

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