Speed of light #2017 #Lotus
Exige Sport 380. Is this stripped-out supercharged Lotus the best drivers’ car you can buy new? Richard Meaden heads to Yorkshire to find out. Lotus has chipped away more weight from the Exige to create the Sport 380. No mere track warrior, it’s one of the most enthralling road cars we’ve ever driven by Richard Meaden and photography by Aston Parrott.
The joy of the Sport 380 begins long before you drive it. If you’re a geek – and you will be if the idea of this ultimate Exige floats your boat – your juices start flowing when you read the specification, the best bits of which reveal an array of detail improvements and an obsessive pursuit of weight saving.
The original V6-engined Exige S was always a mouthwatering machine. The step to the lighter Sport 350 was a delight, so it’s no wonder the evolution to the even lighter, even faster Sport 380 instinctively seems like the best thing Lotus has done in years. Excess mass has been hunted down with dogged determination, to the point where the quartet of rear lights has been pared down to a pair, with the inner duo replaced by small reversing lights. Weight saving? 300g. Geek value? Priceless…
The whole car is peppered with such changes. Big wins are scored with a lithium-ion battery that saves 10.3kg. Pared-back carbonfibre seats slice another 6kg from the kerb weight. Carbonfibre has also been used in place of glassfibre on key body panels to save weight and lower the centre of gravity. Forged wheels save 2.5kg per corner. A polycarbonate rear window saves another 900g. The list goes on (and on) until more than 30kg is saved over the Sport 350, and closer to 45kg if you go for the optional titanium exhaust and carbonfibre sill covers.
Being Lotus, the tweaks don’t stop there. Gallingly, some of those hard-won savings are undone by aero-improving barge boards along the sills, a new fuel pump, a larger fuel tank and a more effective transmission-oil cooler to ready the Sport 380 for track work. Together they put 15kg back on the car, bringing the kerb weight to 1110kg, or 1100kg with all the lightweight options. For comparison, the original #V6
Exige S (now discontinued) was 1176kg.
It’s easy to immerse yourself in the minutiae, but like any great car the Sport 380 is all about the driving. No matter how keen you are to get going, you can’t just saunter up to the Exige, jump in and drive it. Partly because there’s the small matter of folding yourself up and posting your body through the door aperture, but also because it looks so good. Small, squat and bristling with aerodynamic devices from nose to tail (a package that increases maximum downforce from 88kg to 140kg with no penalty in drag), there’s a delightful, toy-like quality about this pocket-sized supercar that makes you feel good just being in its company.
Once you’ve slid across the sill and wriggled down into the driver’s seat, it’s time to pause once more to enjoy the cockpit, driving position and view out through the windscreen. It’s sparse in here, but what fixtures and fittings there are create a fantastic ambience. Precisely stitched leather and Alcantara trim, neat alloy fixings, the bare aluminium tub and that intriguing exposed gear linkage are all spot-on, both in terms of aesthetics and tactility. It looks and feels the part.
Sounds it, too. The Toyota-supplied 3.5-litre V6 might be of relatively humble stock, but the crisp, brassy soundtrack is a long way from a Camry. Especially when breathing through the optional titanium exhaust, as fitted here. With outputs increased via a supercharger pulley change and ECU remap, the motor gives an honest 375bhp (380 PS) and 302lb ft of torque, which is plenty in a car of this weight.
The bald performance figures are impressive enough – 0-60mph in 3.5sec and a top speed of 178mph – but there’s much more to the Sport 380 than straight lines. For starters it laps Lotus’s Hethel test track in 1:26.5, which is just 1.5sec slower than the road-legal 3-Eleven. That’s mighty impressive, believe me.
This might create the impression that the Sport 380 is an all-or-nothing, track-obsessed, road-compromised machine, yet that impression is confounded the moment you select first gear and pull away. The clutch bites smoothly and the engine pulls lustily without a hint of histrionics, leaving you free to surge along on a wonderfully elastic reserve of readily accessed torque.
If you’re used to more mainstream metal the Exige’s unassisted steering will come as a bit of a shock. Initially for its weight at parking speeds (be warned, it’s hefty), but mostly for its level of feel and connection once above walking pace. There’s no slack, no filtration, no sense of driving with a pair of oven mitts on your hands. Instead the road surface tingles through your palms and fingers to create a high-definition picture of what’s going on where tyres and tarmac meet.
Which is just as well, for the Yorkshire Dales is treating us to a wet and wintry day. Mercifully the temperature is hovering around 8C, so the standard-issue Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s stand some chance of waking up, but the roads are saturated, with plenty of standing water waiting to trip us up. Not exactly ideal conditions for a quick, light, torquey mid-engined sports car, which accounts for the tension spreading up my arms from wrists to shoulders as we splash our way towards the Buttertubs Pass.
Given the conditions, I’m expecting the Exige to be flighty and skittish, but it’s actually behaving impeccably, even when slimy fallen leaves enter the equation. If there’s a slip or slither it’s well telegraphed. Better still, the car catches itself before any electronics need to intervene, which helps to build a strong level of trust. So long as you drive with respect for the weather and work the throttle with equal consideration, the Exige copes remarkably well, even when you increase the pace.
If that comes as a pleasant surprise, so too does the fact there’s so much to enjoy about the Exige at moderate speeds. Thanks to the engine note, cockpit environment and connection you feel to the car, it’s never less than an event to be in. Simply to feel it working is enough. The way it remains utterly taut, yet compliant enough to work with what are demanding roads even by UK standards.
The way you’re drawn into the process. The detailed feel and measured immediacy with which the Exige responds to your inputs. Far from isolating you from what’s going on, the Exige does all it can to involve you. For instance, I love the fact you feel and hear water and grit splash and clatter in the wheelarches when you power through puddles. That’s not for everyone, and indeed you can spec additional sound-deadening and carpets if you want to feel more cosseted, but for me it’s what makes the Exige uniquely involving. This is driving.
Just as we’re beginning to wonder whether the promised afternoon sunshine was a cruel lie, the clouds part and sunlight bursts out across the Dales. It’s a spectacular sight, the road spooling out irresistibly towards the horizon. With ‘glory shots’ in the bag we head back out, taking advantage of drying roads to explore the Sport 380’s abilities that bit further.
Using the torque in the higher gears has been fun and highly effective, but the Sport 380 takes on a whole new demeanour when you slot a low ratio and pin the throttle. Gone is the mellow, muscular delivery, replaced with genuine ferocity that builds as you work to the red line. It’s a fabulous feeling. One of being picked up and thrown towards the next corner.
The gearshift is the sweetest I’ve felt in a modern Lotus. I’m not sure if it’s directly related to the exposed linkage, or simply the result of the continual fettling a car manufacturer makes to improve its products. Whatever, the shift quality is quick, clean and precise. It feels engineered, and encourages you to punch the lever up, down and across the gate as rapidly as your wrist can move it.
If there’s a downside, it’s that the motor is so tractable and the car so light compared with the effort required to propel it that there’s a reduced need to actually change gear. However, you feel a strong desire to work the gearbox, so you end up making shifts just for the sake of it. The pedal spacing is okay for heel-and-toe downshifts, but much like in the Evora Sport 410, there’s a dead zone in the throttle response that makes measured, sweetly timed blips trickier than they should be.
The brakes are sensational, as they should be given they hail from the 3-Eleven. The pedal is firm, the response smooth and measured even at low speeds. Work them harder and they give you a supreme feeling of confidence in their outright potency and stamina, and also in the way they can work right up to the ABS threshold, even in difficult conditions. Few road cars in my experience have brakes as good as this.
The truly special thing about the Sport 380 is that all these stand-out qualities come together seamlessly to create a car that’s completely intuitive to drive. The way it combines such detailed feel with such high levels of grip and traction is exceptional. So too is the way you can deploy such performance, even on roads apparently more suited to something like a Focus RS.
Across the Dales it crystallises into an experience that I genuinely can’t get enough of. Point-to-point there are few cars that can carry more speed; fewer that wrap you up in the process so completely. Your senses feel heightened, but not through the fight-or-flight fear response some fast, mid-engined cars can induce on tricky roads in dicey conditions. In the Exige you look further ahead, reading the road and plotting your line. On fast, flowing stretches you slice from one corner to the next, charting the path of least resistance, steering almost by squeezing the steering wheel rather than actually making a perceptible input. At these speeds it’s surgical, but never clinical.
Over the more gnarly sections, where dips and crests lie unseen and the road jinks evasively, you drive more on your wits, relying on the Exige’s poise, balance and consistency to keep things in check. It’s fun to work the intermediate gears, wringing it out in second and third before calling on those stonking AP brakes to set you up for the next corner. Driven thus it’s an intense, absorbing and truly exciting experience.
You have a choice of dynamic settings, from Normal, through Sport and Race to Race+ (which completely disables the traction and stability systems). In the worst of the rain I’ve run in Normal and Sport, for they offer plenty of reassurance without getting in the way of your enjoyment. Race mode allows you to work up to and far enough beyond the limits of grip and traction to feel the car slip and slide beneath you. Hard acceleration over crests on wet tarmac sends the revs flaring and the tail shimmying, but even then there’s a layer of control.
Very occasionally the Sport 380 betrays its lack of a limited-slip differential, but these moments are generally in tight, uphill corners in Race or Race+. Clearly the rain doesn’t help, but when the inside rear submits to the supercharged V6’s generous torque, the resulting flurry of wheelspin feels at odds with the Exige’s polish and finely honed abilities. Of course, a diff would come with a weight penalty (approximately 5kg), and might make the car a bit twitchier in wet conditions, so simply sticking one in isn’t an instant cure-all. And Lotus reckons it wouldn’t appreciably improve lap times, either. It’s an interesting conundrum, particularly as the Evora Sport 410 now features an LSD, but while the occasional scrabble of wheelspin is unseemly, it’s far from a deal-breaker.
The Sport 380 is not as everyday useable as something like a Porsche 911 – or indeed a Cayman GT4, arguably its closest rival. It takes more commitment to buy a Lotus and live with it, but that’s always been the case; I’m sure Lotus owners wouldn’t have it any other way. Ultimately the Sport 380 is brilliantly capable and truly covetable – drivers’ cars don’t come much better at any price.
TECHNICAL DATA SPECIFICATIONS #2017-Lotus-Exige-Sport-380
Engine V6, 3456cc, #supercharged-V6
Power 375bhp @ 6700rpm DIN
Torque 302lb ft @ 5000rpm DIN
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Wheels 7.5 x 18in front, 10 x 18in rear
Tyres 215/45 ZR17 front, 265/35 ZR18 rear, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2
0-60mph 3.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 178mph (claimed)
Above: weight-saving regime for the Exige included removing the inner pair of tail lights and replacing them with smaller reversing lights, thus lopping a whole 300g from the kerb weight…
Above: a removable soft-top is standard, while a carbon roof and louvred tailgate are an option, but they offer no weight saving. Right: cabin is a paragon of minimalism, yet strangely stylish, particularly the exposed gear linkage (below right).
Above: canard wings at the front corners and the fixed carbonfibre rear wing contribute to downforce of 140kg at the Sport 380’s 178mph top speed, though drag remains unchanged from the Sport 350.
‘THE TRULY SPECIAL THING ABOUT THE SPORT 380 IS THAT IT’S STAND-OUT QUALITIES COME TOGETHER TO CREATE A CAR THAT’S COMPLETELY INTUITIVETO DRIVE’
‘IT’S FUN TO WORK THE INTERMEDIATE GEARS, WRINGING IT OUT IN SECOND AND THIRD: DRIVEN THUS IT’S AN INTENSE, ABSORBING EXPERIENCE’
‘IT’S EASY TO IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE MINUTIAE, BUT LIKE ANY GREAT CAR THE EXIGE SPORT 380 IS ALL ABOUT THE DRIVING’