The name Exige Sport 350 may suggest another special edition. It may also closely resemble the recent Exige Club Racer. No doubt certain quarters of the internet are dusting off their ‘rolling eyes’ emoticons already so let’s clear-up a few misconceptions straight off the bat.
- It is not a special edition. It is a replacement for the Exige S Coupe and Roadster, so effectively the new ‘entry’ point to the Exige range.
- It is a lightweight evolution of the Exige S and replaces all other models, including the Club Racer edition. From next March onwards your choice of Exige will be the Sport 350 (Coupe or Roadster) or 360 Cup.
- Tartan seats are very cool (subjective). Also optional (fact).
- It can lap the Hethel test track in 1:29.8. – 2.5 seconds quicker than the Exige S. That is a lot for a car with the same 345bhp and Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres.
- It’s the first Lotus production road car to lap the test track in under 1 min 30 seconds.
- Cup performance now comes with an Exige S price. £55,900 basic spec (UK) and still under £60k fully loaded.
- The interior aircon buttons are now easy to see & the indicators tick!
- Time to park speculation about the ‘Exige 400’. This is the new Exige and it’s brilliant.
There are lots of welcome new additions. Forged wheels make a very smart appearance for the first time on an Exige. Made by Rimstock, they are stronger and lighter by 5kg and in combination with the 2-piece discs you can save 10kg of unsprung weight. It will be disappointing for some to read that these forged wheels are not easily retro-fitted to the older cars as they are wider at the rear at 10J and have a different offset. The new rear louvred panel looks great, saves 3kg and helps to lower the centre of gravity. Removing the glass panel from the back of the car must have been top of the list when it came to weight reduction and engine bay cooling is also improved. File under ‘no brainer’! No-one will ever complain about hard-to-read heating controls again as these have been lifted straight from the Evora 400 and are very effective. The indicators tick quietly too. Someone at Lotus has been reading our ‘Notes for the next Exige’ thread. I am also pleased to see the sills remain high, maintaining the Exige’s exceptional side-impact protection and race car sense of occasion. This will not change as per the Evora 400 as to retain the torsional rigidity in the Exige chassis it would require an extra 20kgs of bracing, not going to happen.
Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales said that they had the options of increasing power or reducing weight. Quoting Colin Chapman: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights; subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere” the Sport 350 has had it’s time in the Lotus Lightweight Laboratory with every component inspected and evaluated for renewal, redesign or removal. Here’s a breakdown of the weight reductions which go towards the 51kg lost from the car which take the power to weight ratio from a previous 293bhp/ton to 307bhp/ton (compared, for example to a 997 911 GT3-RS – 302bhp/ton):
- Rear louvred engine cover -3kg
- Lighter body panels -12kg
- A/C delete (no cost option) -7.5kg
- Gearshift mechanism -1.5kg
- Simplified heater system (now one pipe less but quicker to heat and more effective) -3kg
- New rear subframe -3kg
- Lightweight battery and bracket -3.5kg
- New 1 piece rear diffuser -1kg
- Optimised NVH package -2.7kg
- Lighter engine air intake duct -1kg
- Removal of sun visors and passenger footrest -1.2kg
- Removal of engine vanity cover -1kg
- 2 piece brakes -5kg
- Forged wheels -5kg
I think we were all hoping the Exige would get the Evora 400 gear linkage, I don’t think anyone thought it would happen so soon. Made by Lotus Lightweight Structures in Worcestershire, the exposed anodised aluminium front mechanism is a stroke of genius and so very ‘Lotus’, saving 1.5kgs. It’s perfectly in keeping with the Exige ethos and like all great ideas, you have to wonder why it wasn’t done before. Speaking to Ross Restell (Lotus’s Head of Vehicle Dynamics) about it in some detail, Lotus have really put some time and effort into the whole gear linkage. A dedicated team was set up to re-engineer it just for this model. It’s very similar to the Evora 400 set-up but differs by being bolted directly to the chassis whereas the 400 mechanism has extra bracketry to raise it to a usable height (due to the higher seating position). The cables are also shorter due to the Exige’s shorter wheelbase. The tolerances allowed for the previous Exige linkage were scrapped which means the whole assembly and mounting process has to be much more precise and perfectly aligned, ensuring not only a better shift action but also more consistency between individual cars too. It explains why some examples of the previous gearshift were better than others and also why every new Sport 350 will enjoy the same, much improved shift from now on. The press cars were all straight off the production line, not specially prepared for the journalists. Ross checked all their gear changes, they needed no adjustment. I can say the shift is shorter throw and firmer and where the previous stick could be moved around the gate with your fingertips, the new one takes the whole hand. It makes the car a little more physical to drive on the track but that is a good thing overall. I wouldn’t call it a ‘work out’ but you really feel involved in the process of driving an Exige Sport 350 fast. OK, so it still might not be quite up to Honda Type-R levels of mechanical delight but, seriously, all credit to Lotus for doing so much to counter criticism of what many thought was the previous car’s Achilles heel.
So putting all the revisions together, what’s it like to drive on the road and around the Hethel test track? Being honest (and 95kg) it was hard to notice the 50kg weight reduction, in a straight line at least. 295lbs/ft of torque has the habit of hurling 1176kg down the road with similar enthusiasm to 1125kg. Overall it feels similar to a race pack equipped Exige S on the road. That means richly detailed communication, muscular torque, insatiable appetite for corners, indefatigable brakes and a soundtrack that goads you to venture into the upper reaches of the rev range. Mechanical grip, response and composure are straight out of the top drawer. Aside from the optional tartan interior, the things you notice most about the Sport 350 are the gearshift and the steering response. With twice as much camber (up from -0.4 to -0.8) and toe (-0.12 from -0.60) you get a clearly more responsive front end with small initial steering inputs met with instant, clean response. The car doesn’t dive or lurch into corners, it never loses its trademark composure but understeer is not something you’ll encounter often on the road. It’s still a light, mid-engined car with not much weight over the front tyres, so physics will have a word with you if you ignore it, but there’s definitely more front-end bite than before. It feels like smaller steering inputs are required to make progress down a winding road now, as if the steering’s higher geared (it isn’t). You really ‘think’ it into corners using the power of mere suggestion. When using larger amounts of steering lock it becomes more familiar for those used to the Exige S, it’s the initial response just off centre that feels quicker. As with the Evora 400, the steering rack is mounted 2mm higher to reduce bump steer (12deg/m from 8deg/m) and to work better with the extra camber. If the Exige S was hungry for corners, the Sport 350 is ravenous. I can say the car responds more quickly but I can’t say that the steering itself is qualitatively better. The sweetest, most perfect steering available on any Lotus, (or any car on sale for that matter) still belongs to the Elise Cup 220.
The dampers are the same as the old ‘race pack’ and feel undeniably firm but never crashy on the road. It gives the car a sense of intent to match its compact supercar presence. The dainty delicacy of the Elise has been replaced by something more serious, more predatorial which in turn feels harder, chunkier, more solid – ready to take on the world from behind the wheel. It laughs at your idea of cornering fast on the road and will soon be giving you ideas about booking a trackday. Just as well, it’s the kind of car that feels invincible on the road and makes you grow horns. While a natural trackday car at heart, it can still cover motorway miles like no Exige before it. I didn’t try the stereo, I forgot that it had one. But I doubt there was much on the radio to compare with the V6 doing it’s angry bear (roar) chasing a small mouse (faint supercharger whine) routine. Overtaking is a fait accompli. The revisions to the interior do give it a lift. There’s more leatherette now and less dark grey plastic. It’s closer to the more quality feel of the LF1 inside. But the tartan cloth steals the show with its nod to the S1 Esprit, to go with your early eighties Turbo Esprit inspired louvred tailgate. While it may look quite ‘full-on’ in pictures, once inside the car you only see flashes inside like the door cards so it’s not ‘in your face’ when you’re sitting on it. So to speak! I really liked the yellow car we tried and the yellow tartan is a big statement for a small interior but it’s very compact and basic in there, may as well make it bright and cheerful.
So to the track for a chance to let the 350 off the leash. It was as bombastic, composed and beautifully balanced as ever. The car we had on track had the excellent optional two piece disc set-up and they were utterly tireless, immensely powerful, progressive, great pedal feel. Four straight-A students in the science of deceleration. The track was as cold and slippery as only race tracks in December can be (literally turning green in places) yet we didn’t trouble the ABS system at all. Running standard Pirelli P-Zero Corsas you could feel some understeer going through the Graham Hill complex but elsewhere there was none to report unless provoked. For the record though, it’s good to have some understeer on the menu. With only oversteer to manage you miss out on the neutral four-wheel-drift sweet spot in the middle. However, there was oversteer aplenty. I wouldn’t say more than before, we weren’t catching unexpected or unwanted slides and it still takes determined provocation for large angles of oversteer (with DPM off) but you can really revel in the car’s balance and useful steering lock when you do. The balance point is somewhere out towards full lock but that’s where you can do something mid-engined cars without LSDs aren’t supposed to be good at – drifting for Britain.
Make no mistake, the Sport 350 is a thorough and very convincing update. But don’t panic if you’ve just bought a Exige S or Club Racer. They are no less special as a result. If you’ve got one with a well set-up gearshift it will feel slicker than the new firmer shift. If you’ve got one that doesn’t shift nicely, get it adjusted. You will also have ever-so slightly sweeter steering to go with your shade more understeer. But for those who are thinking about getting an Exige, I’d get a Sport 350 ordered before Lotus come to their senses and increase the price. At £55,900 the Exige Sport 350 looks simply untouchable.
[table caption=”Price List”]
,Sport 350,Sport 350 Roadster
Base price including VAT and excluding on the road costs,£55900,£55900
Alcantara® Trim Pack – Sport seats and door panels in black with silver stitching or red with silver stitching,£1500,£1500
Leather Trim Pack – Sport seats and door panels in black with silver stitching or red with silver stitching or tan with silver stitching,£1500,£1500
Tartan Trim Pack – Sport seats and door panels in red or yellow,£1500,£1500
CD/MP3/WMA receiver with integrated iPod® connectivity plus black carpet and sound insulation,£1000,£1000
Two-piece high performance brake discs,£1500,£1500
Metallic & Signature Paint,£750,£750
Yellow or black brake calipers (Red Standard),£250,£250
Lightweight satin black forged alloy wheels (17” front and 18” rear),£1500,£1500
Silver cast alloy wheels (17” front and 18” rear),NCO,NCO