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Review: the Lotus 3-Eleven, Norfolk’s fastest car ever

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What is it?

Lotus’s fastest production car ever. One of the very quickest road cars ever around the Nürburgring A product of Hethel’s motorsport wing, not its automotive department.

Yep, it’s the 3-Eleven and all the above statements are true. The base underpinnings are from a road car, though: the Exige donates its bonded aluminium chassis and supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine. You can pick up a hint of the family resemblance from the front intakes and lights, but in a drastic bid to cut weight, the body panels are carbon fibre.

There’s not many panels, either…

Yep, it’s another lightweight British sports car with no doors, roof or windscreen. Two versions are available, Road or Race. Road has 410bhp, a six-speed manual gearbox, and weighs 925kg, while Race receives a full suite of motorsport parts: adjustable Ohlins dampers, carbon seat, removable steering wheel, front canards and a six-speed Xtrac gearbox nabbed from Lotus’ GT3 racer. You can have an FIA-complaint cage fitted, full datalogging, and you can even take it racing. It’s a very serious bit of kit, even by track day standards.

Quite an upgrade from Road to Race…

It is, but you do have to pay for it. While the Road version costs £82,500, the Race is £116,500, a step up of £34,000. Painful, but it’s also worth mentioning it weighs 35kg less and has another 50bhp, yielding a power to weight ratio of 517bhp/ton. Like a Veyron…

Tell me some more numbers.

Besides the one beginning with the pound sign? OK, 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds, 0-100mph in six flat, 1.5g through corners, a Nürburgring lap time of smack on seven minutes. That’s Porsche 918 Spyder and McLaren P1 fast. Pretty hectic. 

So what’s it like?

The speed is the first thing that catches you. Because there’s so much of it, and it’s so vicious and relentless. All the sensations are ramped up because of your exposure, as you sit, head poked out of this covered bathtub into a world that’s fast-forwarding around you.

With 64 per cent of the weight on the back axle there are no traction issues, and the gearing is short so the combined effects of 460bhp and 387lb ft means the 3-Eleven pummels gears two through six into submission so each becomes a brief, barely punctuated explosion of momentum, to the accompaniment of shrill supercharger and rasping exhaust. It sounds like a very large, very angry swarm of wasps.

Scary or just exciting?

Addictive. Because it pulls off the trick of feeling massless, like there’s no inertia to overcome. The supercharger’s pulley response is incredible – it’s like the best naturally aspirated engine you can imagine, but with the instant hit of a sledgehammer. The initial kick forces the air from your lungs, which is instantly thrust back in due to the fact you’re now doing 100mph and your mouth and eyes are still big, shocked circles in your face.

I’m not sure I’ve felt acceleration quite like it in any other car I’ve driven. Partially this is down to the open cockpit experience, but more to the fact the 3-Eleven occupies an unusual position. It’s not as light as other lightweights such as the Caterham R620 or BAC Mono, but compensates with way more power and torque. And at the other end it’s so much more visceral and immediate than anything with a windscreen and roof, be it the McLaren P1 or Ferrari LaFerrari. Really.

There is something about supercharging a low mass car. A supercharged Ariel Atom, that comes close. It’s the utter instantaneousness of what happens the exact moment your foot comes in contact with the throttle pedal. It’s alarming, and, yes, addictive.

 

I assume the rest of the car is every bit as frantic?

Sort of. It changes direction like a bolt of lightning, has dazzling steering feel and staggering cornering grip. It’s actually quite a dizzying car to drive fast because even if you’ve driven a lot of properly fast cars, your brain will have to recalibrate.

This much you probably expected.

However, what makes the car so manageable, the speed achieveable by ordinary mortals, is the remarkable suspension compliance. You always have time and the car never feels edgy. It’s amazingly magnanimous to drive and the chassis has a sweet spot like you wouldn’t believe. I thought it would be an utter handful as soon as the back stepped out of line, but no, it drifts like an M3. That’s preposterous.

What about drawbacks? You haven’t mentioned the brakes yet.

I’ll get on to those, but what makes the 3-Eleven’s skid friendliness even more remarkable is that, as I mentioned earlier, 64 per cent of the mass is over the rear wheels. The fronts only have to cope with 36 per cent – or to put it another way, have just 320kg pushing them into the road. 

Which means it pushes a bit through corners. You’d barely term it understeer, because the grip levels are outstanding and the car pivots and turns in so convincingly. But through long, fast corners it’s the nose that gives up first. No biggie because the signals are so clear and the chassis gives you the time to sort it out.  

However, if the brakes were more manageable, you’d probably be able to dial it out. As it is, in the car I drove, they were massively overservoed. This is of course completely curable, but light brushes of the pedal resulted in mosh-pit head snaps. It did at least give you confidence that the car was going to stop, followed by the realisation you’d braked far too early. The AP Racing brakes don’t lack for stopping power, that’s for sure.

Does it have ABS?

It does, and traction control. Both are controlled by rotary knobs in the cockpit – just twist the dial for more or less. Simple motorsport solution that works masterfully. The traction is great actually – I often put it back on for the sake of it, because it sounds good.

You know the noise an F1 car makes with the pit limiter engaged? There you go. It’s that staccato crackle, the exhaust signaling high speed Morse Code. You never get out of shape because the electronic parameters detect things before you ever can and cut the throttle. Seemingly hundreds of times per second. You have this awareness that the car is currently doing everything it can to sort things out, and it’s doing it at a rate you can’t conceive.

And that’s the 3-Eleven all over. It’s better than you are. It seared around Dunsfold like a jolt of pure energy. It made my nerves jangle and my body tingle. It felt good.

Did you drive it on the road as well?

Yep, and if anything, it was even more impressive there. Okay, only once you’ve got used to the savage clutch and long first gear.

But it rides with such dexterity and panache that confidence breeds. It’s hyper-alert and yet never snatchy. That’s the Lotus magic; they are the kings of one touch damping. It dances and weaves, is occasionally deviated by cambers and ruts, but otherwise is far more obedient and composed than I expected.

So you’d have the Race version?

I’m not sure. It’s mesmerising on track alright, but I’d really like to drive the Road version and play with the manual gearbox. It’s good in the new Exige, after all. I suspect that – as the name suggests – it would be the one to have if you plan on doing more road miles than track miles. But you probably aren’t in a car as stripped out as this. Hopefully Lotus will develop a proper windscreen to cut down on the risk of a stones/teeth interface. That would make me happy.

Anything else?

The experience justifies the money more than I thought it would. And I really didn’t expect that the engine would shine so bright alongside the chassis – the supercharged 3.5 feels a very different beast here to any other Lotus with it fitted. A genuine race engine, in fact – but then it does have a lot of carryover parts from the Evora GT4.

Overall it’s mind-boggling. The combination of speed, grip, precision and adjustability put it in a different realm entirely from conventional supercars and hypercars. 

Photos: Justin Leighton

Buy this month’s issue of Top Gear magazine to see how the 3-Eleven fared against the BMW M4 GTS

What do you think?

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