It's as simple as this: Lotus fought the law, and the law won. Over a decade ago, the company requested, and received, a series of exemptions to American auto-safety regulations. These exemptions, which covered areas as diverse as the front bumper and the airbag system, were granted in recognition of the fact that Lotus is a very small company that sells very small quantities of enthusiast automobiles to people who are perfectly aware of what they are getting for their money. This was an eminently sensible policy, and it permitted the men from Hethel to bring us certain versions of the Elise, Exige, and Evora sports cars.
In recent years, however, the unelected bureaucrats tucked deep within the bowels of the federal government have decided that the public needs to be protected from low-volume sports cars and consequently the exemptions have not been renewed. Lotus was not the only manufacturer to be affected; the for the five or so Huyara supercars it wanted to import every year. Presumably this was to prevent all of the secondhand Pagani purchasers out there from accidentally spending a million dollars on a car without a "smart" airbag.
To overcome the problem posed by this moronic and stubborn legislative recalcitrance, Lotus re-engineered its Evora from the chassis on up for US-market compliance. The Evora 400 and Evora Sport 410 that resulted were very much worth the wait and are, in this author's opinion, the purest and most involving road-legal automobiles sold in this country. That's the good news. The bad news is that Lotus could not muster the resources to apply a similar transformation to its Elise and Exige. Not yet, anyway.
As a result, the utterly spectacular new Exige Cup 380 that I drove around the Lotus test track earlier this week will not be coming to the United States. The company had plans to make it available to American customers as an off-road (meaning racetrack, not the Rubicon Trail) special, but before they could do so, another law intervened: the law of supply and demand. The Cup 380 was announced as a limited edition of sixty cars. Lotus put a few photos up on social media to whet customer appetites, expecting that it would take a few months to sell out the run. Instead, more than half of the available allocation was sold within hours of the announcement. The rest were gone within the week.
"We didn't have time," Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales laughs, "to come up with a USA price list. They were all gone before we could settle on a price. But this showed us how much interest there was, so we are already working on a successor for our American customers." If that successor is anything like the Cup 380, it might be worth putting in a call to your local Lotus dealer right now. You won't be able to drive it on the street, but in a country where people often trailer their bone-stock Corvette Z51s or Shelby Mustangs to and from the racetrack there will certainly be some buyers who don't care that the car isn't eligible for a license plate.
In truth, the Exige Cup 380 makes a perfectly reasonable case for itself as a track-only prospect. The phrase "race car for the road" is much abused in the automotive media, applied to vehicles as thoroughly domesticated as the Subaru STi and the Audi R8, but as we settle behind the wheel and prepare for our session at the Hethel track it's tempting to disinter the old cliche and plaster it all over this review. A Lotus is never about the spec sheet; however, in this case the numbers should satisfy everyone who does not already have a deposit placed for a Dodge Demon. The familiar supercharged Toyota V6 makes a relatively modest 375hp at 6700rpm and 302 lb-ft of torque at 5,000, but it has just 2,325 pounds to push, resulting in a power-to-weight ratio in the neighborhood of the McLaren 570S.
This curb weight is achieved the new-fashioned way: through the liberal application of advanced materials. The roof and decklid are stunning works of carbon fiber art, laid up in a perfect chevron pattern. Lotus has some nontrivial capacity to produce carbon fiber in-house now, and during a factory tour I saw enormous rolls of the material being used for all sorts of different bits of interior trim. In fact, the only robot in the Hethel factory is the CNC waterjet machine that cuts the one-piece carbon-fiber buckets into shape. (They just call it "the robot," because it has no peers.) In the case of the massively complex (and astoundingly light) decklid, however, the production is handled by Prodrive in the UK. (Yes, race fans: that Prodrive.)
The Exige absolutely bristles with carbon fiber both inside and out. One of the more interesting pieces is the ultra-thin trim piece that covers the aluminum doorsills. "Makes it easier to get in and out," Gales notes, although for your oft-injured author the process is still more than a bit awkward and I managed to scar the doorsill with the nails in the heel of my shoe. During the press presentation, Gales refers frequently to hundred-gram weight savings in various parts. Even the shifter linkage came in for review; it is now made of aluminum forgings and is left exposed to the eye by empty spaces in the console that, of course, also save weight. The brake discs are two-piece, steel friction surfaces bolted to an aluminum "top hat." My experience with the consciously oversized AP Racing system as fitted to the Exige and Evora is that fade is nonexistent and feel is outstanding. It combines the right-now stopping power of the carbon-disc systems used elsewhere with service costs that won't cause spontaneous heart attacks. It's only possible, of course, because the cars are light compared to their competition.
In some places, a conscious decision has been made to add weight. The rear diffuser, which is an important part of the aero package that supplies 440 pounds of downforce at the Exige's max speed of 175mph, uses aluminum instead of plastic for durability. The rollbar that hides beneath that carbon-fiber roof is a T45 seamless chrome-manganese steel tube; there's a two-pound weight penalty involved but if you ever experience a sudden lack of grip or even talent you'll appreciate the choice.
All of this is very well and good but it's not until I floor the throttle through the first set of S-bends on the Hethel track that I understand the real-world implications. The sound through the titanium exhaust is raw, insistent, and loud enough to make me wish I'd put in my earplugs before setting out. There appears to be no flywheel whatsoever in the engine and the acceleration is almost shocking. The single wiper, which parks in the vertical position familiar to anybody who watches prototype racers, divides the windshield panorama neatly in two.
In no time at all, the first hairpin appears. The Exige has remote-reservoir Nitron shocks, adjustable for rebound and damping across eleven positions, and adjustable Eibach swaybars. This is good solid higher-end club-racing stuff and it allows you to tune the car for pretty much any handling balance you would want. In this case of the press demonstrator, it's been set up to push the nose a bit under power, but as you became better acquainted with your own Cup 380 you could set it up any way you liked. At Daytona or Indianapolis, you could "stagger" the settings if you really understood what you were doing.
This philosophy of making the car fully adjustable for an experienced driver is expressed in another utterly fascinating feature: in addition to the industry-usual stability-control levels of Drive, Sport, Race, and Off, there is a six-position aluminum knob on the left side of the steering column that can be used to adjust the traction control. If you have driven a GT-class Porsche or a prototype that has been equipped with Racelogic TC, then you'll know how it works, but for everybody else I will explain. You turn off ESC by pressing the "Race" button twice in a row, at which time the tiny (and mostly unreadable) LCD display will show you a traction control slip percentage between 1 percent and 12 percent across five clicks. The sixth click is "Off."
I spent five laps twisting the knob around and porpoise-throttling the Exige to see how well the traction control works. The answer is: very well. Maybe too well for the conditions of my test, which more closely resembled a sunny September afternoon at Laguna Seca than they did any sort of English weather. The truth is that the Exige's rear end feels absolutely planted even with the TC turned all the way off, courtesy of the big wing, the 285-width, 180-treadwear rear tires, and the suspension's remarkable ability to swallow pavement waves. You would need another two hundred horsepower to seriously trouble this car's stability.
On a wet track, however, this adjustability would be a godsend. You could fiddle with it every lap depending on whether the surface was drying out or getting worse. If you've been to the Nordschliefe lately, you know that V6-powered Exiges in Cup trim are absolutely omnipresent. This traction-control feature will probably justify the cost of trading up for many of those Ring rats. The best part is that it's totally separate from ESP, so if you want to slide the car around on corner entry but have it squat-and-sprint out of a corner it's possible to do that with the electronics. Look for this feature to be widely copied in the years to come.
There is nothing to criticize about the way the Exige Cup 380 goes around a track. It's game for anything that the driver wants to try, and it communicates through the wheel and the seat in a manner that shames pretty much every supercar on the market. If your experience with top-shelf performance cars is limited to Corvettes or even Ferraris, your first few laps in this Lotus will be your own personal road to Damascus. The scales will fall from your eyes and you will embrace the true faith of lightness.
Which is not to say that the Exige is perfect, because it is not. The driving position is unnecessarily punitive for taller drivers and there is limited steering wheel clearance for crossed-arms hairpins. I would very much like to see front tires of maybe 235 or 245 width; the seventy-millimeter stagger between the rear 285s and 215s seems too conservative. The position of the ignition key lends itself to surprise shutoffs if your right knee brushes it–if you have a 32 inseam or greater, it's bound to happen at least once. Last but not least, there is the unfortunate fact that the Exige, like all modern Lotus cars, has hugely expensive front and rear "clamshell" one-piece nose and tail body pieces that are extremely averse to impact with track barriers or fellow drivers. The kind of nose hit that would run you a thousand bucks in a Miata will be far more expensive in a Lotus. This sort of thing really matters in a car that is billed as track-focused. In a perfect world, you would be able to get a set of low-cost primered clamshells for those days when you want to run up the Climbing Esses at VIR "flat out." During my time behind the wheel of the Exige, I was never quite able to forget the massive potential cost of rubbing a barrier or nosing into a wall, even at low speeds.
On the other hand, it seems very easy now to forget those dark days when Lotus was led by Dany Behar and the company had plans to build everything from a V8 supercar to a luxury sedan. In just three short years, Jean-Marc Gales has thoroughly, almost fanatically, refocused the brand on what it does best. The improvements have come thick and fast. Each new Lotus is quicker, purer, and more satisfying than the one before it. The books have been balanced. A profit has been turned. There is new investment coming from Geely, the Chinese automaker that gave Volvo the funds it needed to develop a new generation of cars.
For Americans, the best news is yet to come. "We have a few years left to refine this Exige," Gales notes, "and then the new one will be ready. That car will be available in the United States, for road use." The prospect of a USA-legal Exige with this level of capability should strike fear into the established supercar vendors. Adjusted for tax and exchange rate, the current car is priced at about $85,000. There are cars that offer the same pace for the same money–the Corvette Z06 is the most obvious contender–but there is nothing that offers this level of driver involvement short of a McLaren 675LT. Add in the fact that the Exige performs all of its dynamic feats with a clutch pedal firmly attached, and the desirability ratchets even higher. It's too much fun to be legal, sadly. Let's hope that its successor does a better job of fighting the (import) law and winning.