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First Drive

Lotus Exige Sport 380 review: fastest Lotus hard top ever

Published: 29 Nov 2016

What’s this month’s harder, better, faster Lotus?

Coming thick and fast right now, aren’t they? This time we’re in Hethel to review the new Lotus Exige Sport 380.

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Based on last year’s revised Exige Sport 350, the 380 has another 30bhp, race-spec aero and somehow, a weight saving. That’s like making a superleggera F1 car. Or diet celery. It shouldn’t be possible.

How much lighter are we talking?

Ready to go with fuel, fluids, no pesky driver (and lightweight options), the Sport 380 is 1,100kg. Yes, Exiges have gone lighter before, but that was in the old four-cylinder days. This one’s got a whacking great supercharged V6 with 375bhp (or 380PS).

Some weight has actually been added with a bigger carbon wing from the Elise Cup, an Evora’s diffuser, twin front dive planes, wider tyres and an extended front splitter.

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But then a valuable 10kg is saved with ultra-lightweight forged wheels. There are lighter two-piece brakes, a lithium-ion battery, carbon seats, plus an optional titanium exhaust.

There’s lightness everywhere, but the extra aero bits add back 15kg when the car’s sat still. At top speed, they add further 140kg…

So it’s very much a track car then?

It’s actually lovely on the road. Freakishly comfortable. This becomes plain about 300 yards after pulling out the factory gates, as the Exige cruises down a roughshod lane impeccably.

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Out onto main roads, the uncanny comfiness continues. Sure, you feel a bump or pothole go under the car’s wheels, but the steering’s undistracted, traction unbroken. You just carry on getting stuck in.

I asked Lotus how it made the Sport 380 ride more comfortably than the old Exige Sport 350, (not to mention the new, busy-feeling Evora Sport 410). Turns out it’s new tyres; a wider, off-the-shelf Michelin Pilot Sport Cup. Together with the ultra-lightweight forged wheels and two-piece brakes doing favours for unsprung mass, they add a layer of comfort to the Exige’s superb damping.

So there you go. Grippier and plusher. Less punishing than the Exige Sport 350, which remains on sale, £11,000 lower down the pecking order.

Okay, it’s better to ‘use’. But is it any better to ‘drive’?

It’s pretty stellar – and so damn fast. Lotus claims 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 178mph, but it’s so tractable you won’t have to actively thrash it to start racking up big numbers. At town speeds the V6 is docile and the majority of the noise is whoosh from the supercharger that proudly pokes up into your field of rear-view mirror vision.

Prod the delightful extruded aluminum pedal and it builds into a broad, angry howl until just below 7,000rpm. There’s a button on the steering column for keeping the exhaust pipe flaps open, which must be pressed at every start-up for your own good, and the enjoyment of anyone in the same postcode. Why they've bothered fitting a new Bluetooth capable head unit is anyone's guess.

And boy does it stroll on. Take it on at your ego’s peril. It’s the most accelerative Lotus I’ve ever driven by some margin: down the back straight at the Hethel test circuit, you turn into the ballsy Windsock corner at 80mph (if you’re a bit chicken like me), or 90mph if you’re trying, and don’t brake for the second-gear chicane until you’re knocking on the door of 140mph.

At which point, in fairness, the aero stabilising effect is so powerful you can stop the Exige with the accuracy of the Queen’s chauffer arriving at Buckingham Palace.

The brakes are unassailably strong and perfectly modulated. It just feels so tough, the Exige. Like you could abuse it to the point of violence on a trackday and you’d stagger into the pit lane exhausted before its temperature gauge woke up.

So is it a bit of a Terminator? Too fast and focused for mere humans?

Nope. There’s loads to enjoy when you’re not trying for a new lap record. The unassisted steering is the king of feel almost to the point of hyperactivity.

There’s quite a lot of effort to it – a quarter-hour’s circuit lapping left me with the claw-hand as a morning’s karting from gripping the Alcantara wheel tightly in the low-speed stuff, but if you like your driving alive and tactile – and we really do – this is where to find it.

The exposed gearshift as much a delight for its noise as its tactility. It's not a dainty, light shift like an Elise; you can feel there are sizeable chunks of metal clacking together in the mechanism, and if you try to fingertip a shift home, you'll miss it. Or bash the punishing rev limiter.

You've got to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to get the best from it. In traffic, you can just ogle the mechanism.

Would you spend £67,900 on one?

I would, because it’s how I like my fast driving – involving, a bit brutal at times but ultimately forgiving if there’s a sudden and catastrophic blockage in the talent department. I like the Lotus way of fine-tuning a fundamentally good set-up car to make it a bit lighter, a bit louder, faster, angrier. How something this furious came out of sleepy Norfolk is beyond me.

No, it’s still not as everyday useable as what Germany will sell you for £68k – even with the freakish ride comfort, it’s still loud, still single-minded. It’s a Lotus.

And many folks weened onto a diet of DAB radio, squishy dashboards and, err, useable rear visibility would be mortified by the Exige. But let this be a lesson to anyone who says all modern cars are anaesthetised. A novice could learn to drive this car fast, but it’d leave an F1 pilot giggling like a lunatic too.

When’s Lotus going to do a brand new car, though?

True, there’s a whiff of McLaren-itus going on here, using a familiar platform and recipe to create a range of fabulously talented but very similar sports cars.

Happily, Lotus is now selling enough cars that it can afford to build a new Elise in 2020, and keep little crackers like this coming in the meantime.

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