April 30, 2017

Driven: Lotus Exige Sport 380

In the damp gloom of a British winter you have to wonder why all the cars built here aren’t permanent four-wheel drive. Even more so, how one British manufacturer thought it was a good idea to put a 375bhp V6 in the middle of a diminutive, flyweight, rear wheel drive sports car. We’re getting so blasé about power now but 375bhp is Ferrari F355 horsepower and here it is in an Elise chassis. Speaking from personal experience, that much power could be quite a handful in a car with a dry weight of 1350kg. The Exige Sport 380’s dry weight is a King Harold-slaying 1066kg. Then there’s the issue of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 trackday tyres that are never going to get up to temperature. 375bhp, in a 1110kg, mid-engined, rear wheel drive car on unsuitable tyres – it wasn’t long ago that you could expect some butterflies of trepidation when the keys are dangled in front of you. Indeed, I can remember the anxiety surrounding any attempt to take a Lotus Carlton for a test drive back in the day. The conditions had to be perfect, the car pre-checked, a detailed safety briefing, calls to the insurance company, emergency services notified and a priest on hand to administer the last rights. That was for 377bhp in a 1660kg saloon. Thanks to huge advances in safety electronics there is no longer fear, only the tingle of anticipation. I won’t be getting the best out of the car on the perma-slime that covers our roads at this time of year but, in reality, no road drive is going to reveal this car’s true potential. On the flip side, if the car is good to drive in the UK in January then it’ll be good to drive pretty much anywhere. It made sense to make the journey to Bell&Colvill in the V6 Cup for direct comparison, in isolation any Exige V6 is going to feel amazing to drive. I didn’t much enjoy getting the car covered in hideous black grime but I didn’t want the new Sport 380 to have it too easy.

There were so many questions to answer. Will it feel faster? Will it feel lighter? Will it turn-in better? Will I be trading-in my V6 Cup at the first available opportunity?

If I’m being honest I arrived with a bit of cynicism and wasn’t entirely sure why it was getting such rave reviews. Frankly, I thought the press would be alarmed by the £67,900 starting price and would be declaring the Sport 350 as the better value car – the ‘sweet spot’ in the range. Having driven it now, I have a better idea of why they didn’t. I don’t much care for this whole ‘supercar killer’ thing either but I can also see what they’re getting at there too.

Walking up to the car, keys in hand, it’s hard not to admire the new carbon panels. The way the weave is perfectly aligned to meet in the middle is an OCD delight but the total weight saving of 2.7kg seems surprisingly modest. I would have expected the roof panel to save at least that much on its own, particularly when you can now flex it with your fingers. The reason is that the ‘carbon pack’ is really just a carbon roof and engine cover. The fully lined carbon roof panel is actually slightly heavier than the soft top so most of the weight saving comes from the engine cover. This does therefore mean that you get a carbon front access panel and carbon rear wing as standard. One of the advantages of reviewing a car a few months after its release is having time to get used to some of the changes. I was not keen on the single rear tail light look at first, but it has grown on me. Even more so when I found out that the lights they removed were just reflectors. It’s a big change for the sake of just 300 grams but I love that there are people at Lotus who couldn’t wait to get rid of two redundant rear plastic mouldings. Much like Porsche’s use of a sticker instead of a metal badge on their RS models, it’s not so much a weight saving as a statement of intent. So I love what the new rear stands for, even if I don’t prefer the way it looks. We’re into purely subjective territory here but I still wouldn’t bother with the ‘eyeliner’ decals and I think the inconsistent mix of gloss and matt finishes makes the car look busy. A Sport 350 looks immediately better integrated, more ‘factory’. The extra barge boards add visual weight to the car too, depriving it of a little of its natural sleekness and as much as I love it on the Elise Cup cars, that rear wing continues to look a bit awkward on an Exige. However, if it’s contributing to a 60% increase in downforce without any increase in drag then its benefits extend far beyond its looks.

The first surprise comes before you even start the engine. I had dismissed the new carbon fibre sill covers as pointless over-priced bling but they genuinely do make getting in and out easier. Not dramatically, but noticeably. This is partly because they are lower in the right places also because they are smooth and slippery so you can just slide in. Just as well they have some benefit beyond looking nice for the eye-watering £1200 cost. They are also going to get easily scratched so it would be wise to get some PPF applied to them while you’re at it.

Once inside, all is very familiar. Or downright identical if you own a Sport 350. All the good stuff is there, the terrific new gear linkage, more brightly lit HVAC controls. I still prefer the original ‘mannetino’ switch for the DPM system but the new buttons are at least simple and easy to operate. What they may lack in form, they make up for in function. The carbon shelled seats deserve a mention, they’re simply superb. Saving 6kg, they are more supportive, harness ready and appear to have no downsides in terms of long distance comfort. For the price I’d like to have seen a few more changes inside, the 311’s TFT dash would have been a nice addition. However, the Exige has never been about the interior, it doesn’t really have one. I’m glad Lotus prioritized driving dynamics over interior fittings, though this theory gets tested when you first use the indicators. It would appear that Lotus are still working their way through a warehouse full of 1990’s General Motors indicators – they have been using them since the 1993 Esprit S4! I try to be very tolerant of stuff like this when the car drives so well. The best thing I can say about them is that it’s another thing the Sport 380 has in common with the Lotus Carlton. But the more Lotus charge for the Exige, the less acceptable things like this become. They do not sit well next to exquisite carbon sills. This car was equipped with the cruise control option and it doesn’t do the stalks any favours, making them feel even more cheap and clunky than usual. But never let the quality of an indicator stalk get in the way of a good drive because the Sport 380 oozes quality in other, far more important areas. The damping, the gearchange, the carbon panels, the pedal feel, the brakes and, as always, the steering. The Sport 380 delivers on all the really important stuff, at least for those who’s primary concern is the business of driving.

With a prod of the starter button the 380 clears its throat with a familiar snort but the obligatory start-up rev flare does nothing to prepare for what is about to come. Pulling smoothly away, everything is all Sport 350. Only the view back through the louvred engine cover has changed, with the new wing mounted higher, rear visibility is marginally improved. The next surprise is that the steering is actually slightly lighter and requires less effort at low speed. I was expecting the opposite with wider 215 section front tyres. I didn’t notice this before when driving the Sport 350 but back then I only had a Jeep for direct comparison. This time I had the V6 Cup, so perhaps this is not something a Sport 350 owner would notice. It might be the forged wheels which contribute to a 10kg reduction in unsprung weight overall. I have read that every kilo of unsprung weight is worth 4kg elsewhere but I didn’t think I be able to notice it from behind the wheel. Perhaps you can.

The damping is beautifully judged as you would expect. At first it feels undeniably firm by Lotus standards. This gives the car a meaty, solid feel that’s unusual for such a small, light car. It feels muscular and athletic. It’s never crashy or harsh, it always feels just compliant enough, unlike the Evora S which has compliance to spare. The pay-off is stunning poise and body control. It falls so naturally into a corner, there is no slack whatsoever yet there isn’t any nervousness either. Just complete composure. Even in this weather the car inspires confidence. There’s real fluidity to the way it corners, plus delicacy and precision beneath the hard-as-nails stance. However, this feeling of solidity is easily confused with weight. You’d swear the V6 Cup was the lighter car from behind the wheel. You expect a lighter car to skip around and get more easily deflected, whereas this moves around less than the Cup car. Most would say it was the more ‘planted’ of the two but the V6 Cup remains the peak V6 Exige experience for feel and communication. This particular Sport 380 has air con, sound deadening and a stereo so would likely weigh slightly more than the 1125kg of a V6 Cup with air con.

But you won’t notice a kilo here or there, nor what day it is, the first time you reach the end of the throttle travel in 2nd gear. Sweet Christmas, this thing goes. The power to weight ratio has shot-up from the Sport 350’s 306bhp/ton to somewhere over 330bhp/ton in this spec and you can feel it. Snap the gear lever into 3rd and the wave of torque gushes forth once more, hurling the car forward with a boosty surge, sucking air and fuel greedily like a ravenous wolf (of Wall Street). This car feels insatiable. The engine unburstable. It’s almost surprised by the limiter’s staccato bark, wondering, like you, why Lotus won’t let it have more than 6800rpm. I rarely trouble the cut-out in the V6 Cup. I reckon Sport 380 owners will be doing so on a regular basis. It’s a great cut-out as far as these things go. It sounds brutal (in a good way) but it’s not a sharp cut in power. You don’t jerk forward into your seat belt. It’s more like an urgent plea for another gear. A tap on the shoulder. Tak! Tak! Tak! More importantly, I don’t think it would unsettle the car in a corner. Power delivery is still smooth and nicely calibrated once you’re charging but there’s now a greater difference between small and large throttle openings. Throttle response itself is no better than the 350 in any of the modes but it feels, if anything, worse because of the difference between being on and off the power. Having more power concentrated into a shorter rev range means that there’s now a more obvious powerband. As a result, even greater respect for slippery conditions will be needed. The 345bhp car’s measured, linear surge of power does have its uses in bad conditions and wet trackdays. When it’s really slippery, it sometimes requires tiny throttle openings to keep it balanced. I’m not convinced the Sport 380 will be as easy to balance in these conditions but it would be fun finding out. The first time I gave it full throttle it resulted in very obvious wheelspin, something my V6 Cup would not allow in ‘tour’ mode. This was a clear indication that Lotus have relaxed the point at which their DPM system intervenes to allow more slip. Overall this means more fun and ultimately more feedback for the driver but it might catch the more leaden-of-foot by surprise.

When the Sport 350 is your starting point, another 30bhp and 7lbs/ft is enough to take a very light car from ‘seriously fast’ to the edge of ‘silly fast’. Just for reference, the Cup 360 didn’t feel noticeably faster than the V6 Cup. The 380 does. You and your friends will be laughing out loud on a regular basis. Your wife will be getting more angry with you. Your kids will be more frightened. Despite the mechanical fury going on behind you, it’s converted to forward motion with assured ease and little drama, even when it does break traction. The chassis remains uncorrupted, the car tracks arrow-straight. The Sport 380 maintains the Sport 350’s superb balance between power, grip and braking and just ramps everything up a notch, in equal proportion.

But Dear Lord, the noise! Once you’ve recovered from the shock of the quantity of it you can begin to appreciate the quality of it. The car erupts into life at anything over 4,000rpm with an apocalyptic scream. It’s a truly addictive howl – one that I would love to hear ricochet across the Alps. Again and again. In fact, I would love to stand at the top of a pass and just listen to the car ascend. It is outrageously loud from outside. When revving for the video I was just waiting for the owners of nearby houses to come out and start waving pitchforks around. But from inside the car, the exhaust it is like some sort of sonic flavour enhancer. However fast the car is, it feels even faster, more urgent, more intense, just because of the noise. As with the Evora 400, it has a transformative effect and places the Sport 380 in a different category. There will be people buying one just for the noise alone. It combines some of the drama, adrenaline and intoxication of something like a Lamborghini Gallardo with the precision, delicacy, poise and communication of a Lotus. That is one heck of a combination. The experience stays with you for days afterwards. On a road trip to the Alps in a Sport 350 you will marvel at the response, involvement and dynamic prowess. In the Sport 380 you will be laughing your head off. I think this is really what the car magazines have picked up on. It feels even more like a compact, concentrated exotic than ever. To go much faster and surpass this level of entertainment you have to spend a huge amount more. Does a McLaren 570S really sound better? An Audi R8 V10 might, but does that offer the same intimate connection between driver, car and road? As a car it’s a significant step. As an experience it’s a giant leap.

However, all this aural excitement does come at a price and I’m not just talking about the £5500 titanium exhaust option. You can pretty much forget about any trackday that has a noise limit of anything under 105db. This would be a real shame in an Evora. In an Exige it’s almost a tragedy. It goes against the very purpose of the car. There are still noisy trackdays, even a few unlimited ones that you could attend but it limits your choice of place and date pretty drastically. The bottom line is, if you ever want to lap places like Goodwood or Bedford on a regular basis you would be better off with a Sport 350. Fortunately Bell&Colvill, among others, are working on a solution but trackday noise limits are only going one way, such is the reality of enjoying an internal combustion engine in 2017.

The other reality that we are having to adjust to is Lotus’s pricing strategy. I’m used to moaning about the options prices with other sports car makers but not with Lotus. The only options added to my V6 Cup were air con and Motorsport paint. The options for the Sport 380 vary from surprisingly reasonable (£100 cruise control) to alarmingly extortionate (£3000 for the exterior colour pack). The £4000 carbon pack is pretty punchy but bear in mind that you’ll have to pay £1250 for a regular hard top anyway and Nissan will charge you £4k just for a carbon rear wing on its own. I know JMG has to deliver better margins, I get the business case, but I do think the cost to change will be a deal breaker for some. If you’re going to take away items like a hard top, sound deadening and air con as standard, I think you need to take another look at your base price. To option those back in, you’re looking at another £3000 and I consider them to be essentials for an Exige. At over £70k on the road it will mean getting very creative with the man maths for most of us. For perspective though, the Ferrari F355 was over £100k with options 20 years ago, a 488 can easily go past £250,000 today and the mighty Esprit Sport 300 was £65k back in 1993. Air con was another £1495 at the time too which I hope will make ticking the same box for the Sport 380, for £250 less, that little bit easier.

Besides all that, sports cars are all about living for the moment, amplifying your life, living the life less ordinary. Buying a sports car has never been a rational thing to do. That’s why it makes sense that the Sport 380 delivers on an emotional level, probably more so than any Exige before it.

It turns out the Sport 380 is just the thing for the bleak British mid-winter. It’s a total blast. A tonic for the senses. Like a dose of winter sun, you climb out revived, re-invigorated, refreshed. It has enough speed and fire and zest and riotous energy to outrun anything. Even the January blues.

My thanks again to Bell & Colvill for the time in the car which is available to test drive now.

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