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First drive: Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition. Image by Lotus.

First drive: Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition
The emotional sign-off for the Exige is sensational, through and through. But then, this car always has been.

   



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Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition

5 5 5 5 5

After 21 years, the Lotus Exige is sailing off into the automotive sunset. The last-of-the-line run-out models will all go under the Final Edition banner, bringing in heritage colours, unique badging, interior plaques and an upgraded cabin, but while the ultimate Cup 430 model is unchanged otherwise, and the erstwhile-Sport 410 gets a minor power upgrade to become the Sport 420, it's what was the 'base' Sport 350 which benefits from the nicest leaving present of all, as it gains another 43hp to become the exceptional Sport 390 Final Edition.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition
Pricing: Exige range from 64,000 for Sport 390 Final Edition as tested
Engine: 3.5-litre supercharged V6 petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: two-door mid-engined high-performance coupe
CO2 emissions: 230g/km (VED Band 226-255: 1,910 first 12 months, then 490 per annum years two-six of ownership, then 155 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 27.7mpg
Top speed: 172mph
0-62mph: 3.8 seconds
Power: 402hp at 7,000rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 3,000-6,700rpm
Boot space: 112 litres

What's this?

A sentimental moment in the Lotus Exige story. Originally spun off the smaller Elise in 2000, following the latter's launch in 1996, the Exige has always been a more track-focused model but by 2012 and its Series 3 (S3) derivation, it became a wholly different machine to the Elise. Longer, lower and wider, its full-on aggressive styling left you in no doubt as to its sole purpose in life and it also stopped using a highly developed version of whatever 1.8-litre engine the Elise was employing at the time, instead switching to a mighty Toyota-sourced 3.5-litre supercharged V6.

But now, the bell has tolled for the S3 as well, which remains one of our favourite driving experiences of any car on sale today. Or pretty much any other day, come to mention it. Anyway, to mark this auspicious occasion, Lotus announced a series of Final Editions for all Elise and Exige models, but whereas the Cup versions of the roadster and this car were left alone - meaning FE specification confers nothing more upon them than fresh colours, a new steering wheel and TFT instrument cluster, some extra kit and a plaque inside denoting their special valedictory status - all the Sport derivatives of these two models got a bit more power. For the Elise Sport 220, it was 23hp, to result in the Elise Sport 240 Final Edition (and we have a review of that car coming your way soon); for the Exige Sport 410, as we've already outlined in the intro, a modest 10hp increase created the Sport 420 Final Edition.

So it's this variant, what was and remains the 'basic' Exige, which has seen the biggest change as a Final Edition. It not only gains the Alcantara-and-leather-clad, flat-bottomed steering wheel (which supposedly makes ingress and egress to the car easier, but let this larger-boned correspondent tell you that getting in and out of an Exige FE with its roof on remains one of the most humiliating and exhausting experiences in the automotive world) and that natty digital pod in the instrument binnacle (looks really nice, guys; could've done with it earlier in the Exige's life, really), but changes to its Edelbrock supercharger and attendant charge-cooling system takes it from its former 359hp to a lovely 402hp number now.

Yes, yes, you're wondering why Lotus didn't therefore call it the Sport 400 Final Edition then, aren't you? Well, that's because the Norfolk concern is populated by traditionalists and the company therefore prefers to use bhp rather than PS, in which case this Final Edition's output is 397bhp. Admittedly, Lotus could still 'round up' from there and legitimately call it the Sport 400, but we suspect it wanted to keep a little more subliminal distance in the minds of prospective customers between this car and the even-more-track-focused Sport 420, which costs an extra 19,900 over and above this 64,000 Sport 390 FE. Having said that, with the 43hp power hike, the Sport 390 is now almost every bit as quick as both the Sport 420 and the Cup 430 models, with a sub-four-second 0-62mph sprint and a top speed of 172mph. That's particularly alarming for the Exige Cup FE, which costs a colossal 100,600. So, as blinding as the drive is in an Exige Cup 430, could you save yourself a chunky 36,600 and simply enjoy this Sport 390 FE for the rest of your born days instead?

How does it drive?

Walking up to the Sport 390 with the Lotus' archaic key fob in your hand (you have to plip an immobiliser before you can get it to start, which is proper 1990s motoring revived for the modern era), your heart still beats faster. Its lithe shape is no less dramatic nor pleasing on the eye in 2021 than it ever has been, the Final Edition changes amounting to little graphics on the front wings and a big logo to the right of the rear bumper. In the case of this particular test car, the Metallic Orange paint also has some symbolism: the first-ever Exige S1 press demonstrator of 2000 was finished in exactly the same hue. It really suits the S3, although it's a shame the standard ten-spoke silver alloys of this Sport 390 specification have been replaced here with black-finished rims. We'd have liked to have seen a sports car on wheels that aren't dark for once.

Nevertheless, the visual excitement of the exterior isn't let down by the cabin... once you're in there, that is. After you've sworn a lot, bruised all your fleshy extremities (steady...) and given yourself a hernia by folding yourself in half and collapsing back into the Lotus' driving seat, you are at least greeted with one of the all-time great automotive interior ambiences. There's no less a cliched nor hackneyed way to say this, but being at the Exige's wheel is as close as we mere mortals will ever get to sitting in a Le Mans front-runner. You sit way down low in the chassis, your legs sticking straight out in front of you, wheel up in your chest, and you're hemmed in by the chunky side sills of the Lotus' fabled extruded and bonded aluminium tub. There's next to no room to move, so if you're carrying a passenger you'd better know them well, possibly intimately, and you peer out through a veritable slit of a windscreen. Visibility behind is non-existent within the cabin; all you can see in the mirror is the V6 engine and a few bars of light peeping through the slats on the Exige's back. Perhaps the centrepiece, both literally and figuratively speaking, of all of this is the exposed-linkage gearshift, which is nothing short of a work of art.

If you've worked out the baffling sequence of blips and button presses to fire the big V6 into life, it's this ensconcing embrace of the cockpit which ensures the Exige always feels special, whether you're doing 5mph or 105mph (on a track for the latter, obvs). Because when you're driving it, you'll be revelling in precisely how Lotus can make such a laser-focused car that sits on standard, non-adjustable springs and dampers ride in the way the Exige Sport 390 does. Sure, it's not quite as otherworldly and magical as its stablemate, the Evora GT410, but then few cars can match that Lotus for comfort. However, aside from elevated tyre roar and the chuntering from the mid-mounted V6, the Exige is surprisingly supple and forgiving. We're not saying it's the sort of car you'd actively choose for a 300-mile journey, of course, but if you were asked to drive to, say, Spa-Francorchamps and then do a few laps in the vehicle you'd arrived in, we can't think of anything that would tackle this task better than the Sport 390 Final Edition.

Thankfully, when you open the taps on it and start pushing it harder into corners, all the usual Exige dynamic excellence comes to the fore. It may not be quite as hardcore as its Sport 420 and Cup 430 siblings, but the entry Exige remains a vivid, adrenaline-pumping drive that few other cars can ever hope to match. The unassisted steering is from another realm entirely compared to modern EPAS systems - if you want to know what feel and feedback are, then try an Exige out for size. That click-clack gearbox is as much of a delight to use as it is to simply gawp at going through its motions, and the spread of ratios provided is perfectly matched to the power delivery of the 3.5-litre supercharged engine.

And then there's the noise. And the speed. Below 4,500rpm, an Exige sounds interesting and feels reasonably urgent, if not anything that's going to reorder your appreciation of what a fast car is truly all about. But then you venture beyond 4,500rpm, a flap in the exhaust opens up and the whole cabin erupts in an ear-searing, jagged yowl of V6 fury, the induction barking wildly at you and overlaying a beautiful, metallic backdrop of sound from the exhausts. This wonderful opera from the Lotus only serves to accentuate the linear, insistent and magnificent way the engine pulls around to 7,000rpm. You slot home another gear on that exquisite 'box and BAM! Off you go again. There's also no doubt that the strength of this Sport 390's top-end responsiveness has been improved by the increase to 402hp. It feels every bit as rabidly fast on the roads as the more extreme models further up the Exige tree.

Yep, 21 years old it may be and there's absolutely nothing new to report in terms of the Exige Sport 390 Final Edition's dynamics. But, given what an Exige has proven it can do time and time again over the decades, this is very, very good news indeed.

Verdict

We won't miss having to try and cram ourselves into and lever ourselves out of the cabin of a Lotus Exige. Apart from that, everything else about this car is sublime and we're distraught that legislation means it has to go away for good. If you've got the money, folks, go and buy a Sport 390 Final Edition. It's a slice of automotive history, and a quite spectacularly brilliant one at that.

5 5 5 5 5 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

2.5 2.5 2.5 2.5 2.5 Passenger Space

1 1 1 1 1 Luggage Space

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

5 5 5 5 5 Driving Dynamics

5 5 5 5 5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 17 May 2021



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2021 Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition UK test. Image by Lotus.2021 Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition UK test. Image by Lotus.2021 Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition UK test. Image by Lotus.2021 Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition UK test. Image by Lotus.2021 Lotus Exige Sport 390 Final Edition UK test. Image by Lotus.







 

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