2020 Lotus Exige 410 Sport On-Track Review: The Hell-Raiser from Hethel Conquers Mount Panorama
One of the world’s best sports cars meets one of its most challenging road courses.
The Lotus Exige has been around in its current form since 2012. It’s the British marque's most hardcore car (not counting the roof-less 3-Eleven track special), designed for people who want both lightweight and a big dollop of power to play with. Sadly, this latest generation isn't available in the United States, depriving Americans of one of the purest driving experiences out there—a mid-engine, stick-shift sports car with no stereo and a power-to-weight ratio on par with a Porsche 911 GT3.
Depending on spec (from 345 hp to 430), the Exige is either "quite angry" or "incredibly miffed", with various wing and spring configurations to suit pretty much any driver from the road-going enthusiasts to the track types. There’s a sweet spot in the range, though: the 410 Sport. Producing 410 hp (thank you for making a numeric name matter, Lotus) from its mid-mounted, supercharged 3.5-liter V6, it’ll crack a 0-60 mph run in 3.3 seconds if you’re quick enough with its six-speed stick on its way to 174 mph.
Oh, and being a Lotus it’s light—only 2,425 pounds, actually the lightest V6 car it's ever made. Pretty much a bag of chips in automotive terms. If Ruffles could corner on rails, that is.
The Sport is set up to be something of a ‘best of both’ car, not too harsh for the road even without basics like power steering, and brutally effective on track. That latter fact, incidentally, is what lead me to Bathurst’s legendary Mount Panorama track in Australia. If you’re gonna be presented with a track-friendly car, you need to test it on a proper stage, and few are as demanding as this one.
The 2020 Lotus Exige 410 Sport, By the Numbers
- Base Price: $107,373 (if you could actually buy it here)
- Powertrain: Supercharged 3.5-liter V6 | six-speed manual transmission | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 410 hp @ 7,000 RPM
- Torque: 310 lb-ft @ 3,500 RPM
- 0-60 mph: 3.3 seconds
- Top Speed: 174 mph
- Curb Weight: 2,425 pounds
- The Promise: Lightweight, high-speed fun that Colin Chapman himself would love
- The Delivery: The Exige is alarmingly good, legitimately track-capable and approachable all the same.
Mount Panorama is 3.9 miles long, with a 571-foot elevation change from top to bottom owing to the fact it’s built on a mountain. All of its 23 corners are blind, and every straight has some form of crest to keep you on your toes at high speed. It's not a stretch to say it's more like a paved roller coaster than a proper track. But the Exige, designed, engineered, and built around Lotus’ own challenging test facility at its Hethel base, should be able to lap up Bathurst’s twists, turns, lumps, and bumps easily.
The 410 Sport on loan from Lotus Cars Australia comes with little by way of creature comforts and lots of performance parts nabbed from the crazy Exige Cup 430. There's no infotainment screen, no USB this or Bluetooth that, not even a radio. You get thin (yet supportive) sports seats, and... that’s about it. Small relief can be found in its optional air conditioning, a must when air temperatures at the circuit tip 110 degrees. It may sap some engine power to get it going, but losing a few horses to stop the driver passing out is a sacrifice most would be willing to make.
Leaving the pits to join Mountain Straight, you immediately notice how easy the controls are—its decently weighted clutch, ensuring your left leg won't take a kicking during the many shifts the mountain has in store for you. The light and airy unassisted steering, requiring little effort to make small course corrections to avoid people and things in the pits. The surprisingly comfortable three-mode suspension, coddling your tortured spine. The car wants to put you at ease before you even cross 25 mph.
Nosing out on to the track, a gentle prod of the gas pedal fires the car forward. Even at a quarter throttle, the supercharged Toyota V6 has some go to it. Flatten the pedal to the floor and the acceleration will knock the breath out of you. All the while the tailpipes shoot out a wonderful noise that fills the cabin with its rich, rounded tone. You may need a moment to compose yourself, but the track simply won’t give it to you.
Numbers climb on the speedo alarmingly quickly, and not just because I'm looking at kilometers per hour in this Australian market car. First sixty, then 120 mph are breached in short order. But rather than an experience of brutal force, acceleration in the Lotus Exige is like riding a gust of wind. Thanks to the car weighing naff all and its motor having 310 lb-ft of supercharged torque to play with, it doesn’t so much push you up the track but float its way along. A heavier, more powerful, and inevitably more expensive supercar will be quicker—though not by much—and you’ll sense the weight more keenly there than you do in a featherweight like the Exige.
Mountain Straight may look smooth as glass, but in reality it’s a little bumpy. Push the car as hard as you dare, and the steering somewhat alarmingly starts to choose its own adventure. Thankfully it’s easy to correct, but it keeps you busy at speed.
Approaching turn 2 at Griffin’s Bend, a smooth but steep right hander, means serious braking is required. Again, the Exige’s low weight comes in to play. Its AP Racing stoppers react quickly to a prod on the pedal, the car leaning ever so slightly on its nose as you shed speed. Turn in is easy and communicative, balancing the gas a breeze, and hitting the apex and powering out will elicit a little, involuntary giggle every time.
Powering up the hill to The Cutting, a steep uphill left hander surrounded by some nasty looking walls, again the car’s low weight works in its favor. Heavier cars would put strain on their motors and feel labored climbing so high in such short order, but the Exige simply flies up the slope.
On top of the mountain, a level of trust is required—trust that you know what comes next after the blind corner, trust that the car will grip at your chosen entry speed, and trust that the bloke in front of you hasn’t tried to outwit physics and ended up facing the wrong way. The complex from Quarry to McPhillamy Park is long, technical, and can be a little rough in places, but the Exige takes it in its stride, and its inherent agility makes it easier to feel comfortable with the unknown. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and all that.
Reaching Skyline, so named because the moment you get there all you can see is sky, means you're entering the downhill, super-technical section Mount Panorama. It’s here the Exige’s chassis, having already proved itself, gets a real work out. Its suspension—adjustable Nitron dampers and Eibach anti-roll bars—keeps you level and strangely comfortable with each direction shift. The rear stays pretty much planted no matter how you push it. Lotus designed it to go round corners properly, not sideways. Few ‘hardcore’ motors feel as comfortable as this on a hard run too.
Getting down to Conrod Straight, a mashed throttle once again reveals just how quick the Sport 410 can be. But it’s when you get to The Chase and Murray’s Corner, the track's final turns, that you feel how awesome its gearbox can be. At the top of the hill, with busy, frantic eyes, you're mostly throwing the lever around on autopilot. But braking to go through The Chase, a left-right chicane, the stick happily notches down the ratios, the gas within easy reach of a heel to rev match for surgically clean shifts. Each time, that glorious cacophony accompanies you.
The sheer speed you can confidently take bends is staggering. Turn in, trust the car, and off you fly, your outer cheek gently peeling away from your skull.
Lotus has been making lightweight cars go fast for over 70 years, and of its current model lineup, the track rat Exige might be the one that feels most directly bolted to that heritage. Bathurst is a bit hairy, no question, but the Exige happily hacks it in a place like this. Of course, you'd expect that from something with its on-paper brilliance.
But what all the glossy presentations and marketing brochures can't convey is just how much the car's basic competence boosted my confidence as I went along, and how remarkable it is that Lotus made a track car this capable without making it feel like it wants to tear off your head. There is a sublime ease to it at both extremes of the driving experience. I'd say it's the most accessible high-performance car out there—just not in America.