The Lotus Exige Cup 430 Is a Manic Hornets' Nest Posing as a Car

That's not a bad thing. This is a brilliant, angry, insane beast of a tiny car.

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Lotus

You can't buy a Lotus Exige to drive on the road in the United States.

Since 2011, when the model was redesigned and moved to Toyota V6 power, it's been relegated to the track. Airbag, headlight, and other regulations ensure the manic sports car stays off our roads.

But that's not the case in Europe, where you aren't committing a crime by driving your hornet-nest-posing-as-a-car on the road. Earlier this year, we did just that when we drove the Exige Cup 380, a car that we deemed "too much fun to be street legal." All 60 examples were sold before Lotus was even able to quote a price to track day fiends in the US.

So the company came up with a new version, one that would be a regular production model, not a limited edition. And one that would be sold in America, but still just for track duty. Dubbed the Exige Cup 430, it's a 430-horsepower bonkers maniac of a car, not to mention the quickest car that Lotus has ever built.

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Lotus

Lotus doesn't typically build cars with impressive numbers; it relies on an unparalleled experience. The Cup 430 is just such an experience, but the numbers are even more ridiculous. It weighs 2,328 pounds dry and has 430 horsepower. It gets to 6o in 3.2 seconds, generates 485 pounds of downforce at its top speed of 180 mph, and is the quickest road car ever at Lotus's Hethel test track, 1.2 seconds quicker than the 3-Eleven, a car which barely has a body, and one second quicker than the Evora GT430, a car with the same engine and power, but carrying 400 more pounds of weight. And it's a car that's already light.

Lotus is also eager to point out that this is not just a rejiggered version of the Cup 380, but a new car. Even though the engine is 33 pounds heavier and stronger brakes and clutch add another 4.4 pounds, the car is 26 pounds lighter than the 380 overall. That's thanks to a titanium exhaust, a liberal use of carbon fiber all over the exterior, a lighter interior, and various other lightweighting tidbits.

Compared to the Exige, the Evora GT430 feels like a luxury barge. Just getting in the Exige is a contortionist's gambit, your body bending in ways that you've only seen in the Kama Sutra to get over the expansive door sills. Steering wheel position doesn't feel right? Too bad, it's fixed, you can't adjust it. A radio is an option; our car was fitted with an engine cut off and fire extinguisher instead. The cockpit is tight; you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your passenger, so you better like them. The windshield is cut in half, motorsport style, by a single wiper blade. Even the leather shift boot has been removed in the quest for weight savings, leaving all the beautiful inner workings of the shifter exposed.

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Lotus

Then there's the way it sounds. It's powered by a 3.5 liter Toyota V6 with an Edelbrock supercharger attached, the same engine in the Evora GT430. But with so much less weight to carry around and less separating the driver from the sound, it feels totally different. That's linked to the same six-speed manual as the Evora with the same ratios, but smaller wheels effectively give it shorter gearing.

On the road, there is nothing that can keep up with the Exige. I don't care what you're driving or what road you're on, the Exige Cup 430 is miles quicker. There is no lag, no delay, this is immediacy in its purest form. It has grip for days and feels unapologetically stiff, but isn't injury-inducing. If you're in a Cup 430, you know what you're expecting.

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Lotus

The Elise and Exige share the same steering rack with no power assist. Alfa Romeo's 4C is a similar car that also has manual steering, but unlike in the Alfa, the steering in the Lotus is excellent. Not overly heavy when going slow and communicative at any speed, it's the only rack for a car like this. It also makes the Alfa's steering feel worse by comparison.

But if you live in North America, you can't drive the Exige Cup 430 on a road, so you likely don't care how it is there. You want to know what it's like on a track. It has three-way adjustable Nitron springs and dampers, an adjustable Eibach roll bar, bigger AP racing brakes, a heavy duty clutch, and Lotus's incredible six-way traction control that allow one, three, six, nine, or 12 percent of slip from the rear wheels, or can be turned totally off. It certainly seems like it'd be very good.

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Lotus

It is.

At first, on Lotus's cold, wet track, I'm hesitant. I'm told that the Exige's short wheelbase will make it snap quicker and be more unpredictable than an Evora, particularly in the soaking conditions. So I take it easy. Then I take it less easy. Then I start pushing. It's brilliant.

When we drove the Cup 380 earlier this year, we noted that the variable traction control system would be most useful in the wet, where it could be adjusted on the fly from corner to corner, depending on how wet it is. Instead of using the brakes, Lotus's traction control cuts spark when it senses slip from the rear wheels, the perfect way to get a reliable, controllable reaction from the car. It won't cut in abruptly like brake controlled TC and will still allow slip. I spent the better part of an hour on track with the Cup 430, flicking the rotary dial every few laps to see how the car would react.

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Lotus

If you know what you're doing and don't just expect the TC to save your ass, then the Exige is a sweetheart. On an unfamiliar track in the wet, the TC works to build confidence, letting you play with the throttle in corners without the immediate worry of spinning wildly out of control into a wall. Over the course dozens of laps, I used the traction control as a guide, dialing it down as I got used to the car and the conditions. It helps you learn what the Exige does and doesn't like on a wet course, how it reacts under braking, how the front end feels in every situation. Once you're comfortable, you can totally remove the safety net and fly solo.

I have to admit, I didn't realize I turned it all the way off; the knob was likely hit by my knee in the cramped cabin. But thanks to lap after lap after lap of practice with less intervention, it wasn't shocking when the Exige broke away under power.

On the wet Hethel course, the Exige still had grip, but it needed a gentle touch to get the most out of it. The suspension was left in its already aggressive road settings; if it was in its track settings the conditions would have made the car worse. Not that it mattered. Even though I couldn't go flat out in the soaking conditions, it was still brilliant.

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Lotus

Every time I told myself I'd do "one more lap," I'd then ignore myself and run another. And another. And another. I only came in because fuel was getting low, the sun was going down, and Lotus's manufacturing staff needed to test some road cars. I could have been out there all night.

That's the intent. The Cup 430 is supposed to go to a lapping event and run all day. But it's also supposed to drive home, which we can't take advantage of. That's the real shame, since it's the perfect car for someone who loves to go to the track but doesn't have room for a trailer. The good news is that the Exige Cup 430 is quicker on track than the 3-Eleven, Lotus's other track-only offering in the US. Plus, you have a roof, so you won't get soaked if it's too wet outside. Lotus Cars North America will gladly sell you an Exige for track duty, with pricing to be released. We recommend you take them up on the opportunity.

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Lotus
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