Driving naked is ill-advised, and possibly illegal, but taking a spin in the Lotus Exige 350 Sport is as close as you'd ever want to get. It's not so much that you feel you've left your clothes at home, but that the car has shed its accoutrements, and indeed its very flesh, leaving you with a kind of skeletal vehicle; just bare bones and muscle.
What this punishingly hard and fiercely focused machine does to your bones and flesh is best described as extreme chiropractry - in particular the stress of ingress and egress - but fortunately it makes up for the moans, bangs and bruises by fizzing your adrenal glands in a big way.
The question is whether the fun is worth the suffering, and the $138,782.85 price tag.
It's rare to find a car that is such an improbable mix of furious fun and infuriating annoyance. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
looks a bit like Darth Vader's helmet strapped to a skateboard. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
In terms of features, you get four wheels, an engine, a steering wheel and some seats. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
The Lotus philosophy is summed by this slightly absurd mission statement: "Simplify, then add lightness". In the words of the great Barnaby Joyce "you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud" to work out that lightness is not something you can 'add', but you get the idea.
Everything about a Lotus is focused on the power-to-weight ratio, and this 350 Sport version takes the Exige to the ultimate degree, weighing in a full 51kg lighter than the S version, at just 1125kg, and with its hefty 3.5-litre supercharged V6 it is capable of lapping the company’s Hethel, UK test circuit a full 2.5 seconds faster.
Lap times, rather than road manners, are what this car is all about, and as such there are no creature comforts of any kind.
The Exige is an eye-catching beast, though, looking a bit like Darth Vader's helmet strapped to a skateboard. Everything about it is a statement of intent, and while the interior is as bare as Barnaby's brain, the gear lever, with its exposed workings and shiny silver knob, is a thing of strange beauty.
The Exige is an eye-catching beast. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
Both the words 'practical' and 'space' have no place in a road test of this Lotus, so shall we just move on?
Oh, all right. There is no shoulder room to speak of and to change gears you have to fondle your passenger's leg. You're also in danger of breathing into each other’s mouths accidentally, you’re sitting that close.
Speaking of impractical, the door apertures are so small, and the whole car so low, that getting in or out is about as much fun as attempting to hide in a child's suitcase.
Cupholders? Forget it, nor is there anywhere to put your phone. There are two tiny oddment storage holes just near each well-hidden door handle, and a kind of slidey, slick shelf where a glove box might be, on which it’s not safe to leave anything.
Put things on the floor and they will slide under the super low seats and never be seen again.
The Lotus people pointed out a parcel shelf behind the seats, but I think they imagined it, and there is a tiny boot at the rear, behind the engine, which is smaller than some actual boots.
Both the words 'practical' and 'space' have no place in this road test. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?
The question of 'value' is a tricky one when you’re looking at a $138,782.85 car that’s about as useful in day-to-day life as a matchbox-sized handbag. But you have to consider what people buy a Lotus for, and the answer has absolutely nothing to do with practicality.
A car like this Exige 350 Sport is purely purchased as a toy, a track-day special that you can, in theory, drive to the circuit via public roads. Franky, if I was rich enough to have one I’d still transport it there on the back of a truck.
In terms of features, you get four wheels, an engine, a steering wheel, some seats, and that’s about it. You can buy a circa 1993 removable-face two-speaker stereo, which you can't really hear over the engine and road noise, for $1199. Oh, and they do throw in air conditioning, which is also noisy.
Our slick-looking metallic black paint was also $1999, the 'full carpets' another $1099 (expensive floor mats, basically), the Alcantara trim pack $4499, cruise control (really?) $299 and the hilarious optional 'Sound Insulation' $1499 (I think they actually forgot to fit it). All up, our press car’s price climbed to $157,846, which, I have to say, is no one’s idea of good value.
On the plus side, the local Lotus people - Simply Sports Cars - do offer features a buyer would love, like regular Lotus Only Track Days, a chance to take part in the Phillip Island 6 Hour and the Targa High Country event, and various other racy experiences.
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?
In the past, Lotus engineers were satisfied with the power they got from tiny four-cylinder Toyota engines, but this Exige 350 Sport is a Very Serious Car and thus has a relatively whopping 3.5-litre, supercharged V6 shoehorned into its backside, which makes 258kW and 400Nm, and that's enough to fire this tiny machine from 0-100km/h in just 3.9 seconds, although it feels, and sounds, a lot faster.
There's a supercharged V6 shoehorned into its backside. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
The six-speed gearbox feels like it's been stolen from an old racing car and is an absolute joy to snick shift at speed.
Lotus claims a combined fuel economy figure of 10.1L/100km. We don't believe that would be easy to achieve, because the temptation to rev the hell out of it and hear it roar would be too great, and too constant.
It's rare to find a car that is such an improbable mix of furious fun and infuriating annoyance. The Lotus is rattly, noisy, hugely firm to the point of punishing, with seats that offer encouragement but not support.
It is the opposite of comfortable and so hard to see out of that driving it around town, in any sort of traffic, feels borderline dangerous. There’s also the distinct sensation that you’re so low and so little that all those people in their SUVs won't see you.
Throw in the fact that it's so painfully, stupidly difficult to get in and out of and it's definitely not the sort of car you take if you're heading to the shops. I got so sick of its hard-edged annoyances at one stage that I became too grumpy to even take people for joy rides in it. I just couldn’t be bothered with the hassle, but then an inner-city suburb with high kerbs and even higher speed humps is not the Exige's natural environment.
The gearbox is a thrill a minute, as is the engine.
Making it even more of a challenge around town, at low speeds or in parking situations is the steering, which isn't so much heavy as wilfully obtuse. Doing a three-point turn is the equivalent of 20 minutes of bench pressing your own body weight. At least.
Out on a winding bit of country road, however, the steering becomes one of the best things about the car, because its pure, unassisted weighting feels so alive in your hands. There’s a sense of actually wrestling, or finessing it around corners that makes you feel a bit Ayrton Senna.
Indeed, the whole car comes alive, and starts to make some kind of sense, once you're on a smooth, perfect piece of tarmac. It is fast, noisy, thrilling, utterly and overtly involving, stiff of chassis and firm of ride, with brakes capable of pulling you up with indecent haste. It’s also, thanks to its low centre of gravity and mid-engined layout, beautifully balanced.
The gearbox is a thrill a minute, as is the engine, particularly once you explore the upper rev ranges, at which point the scenery really does become a scary blur out the ridiculously small windscreen.
The six-speed gearbox feels like it's been stolen from an old racing car. (Image credit: Stephen Corby)
Sure, you can't see anything behind you other than the engine, but what a lovely sight that is, and nothing is going to catch you anyway.
It does feel edgy, of course, and sharp, and it’s not as easy or refined to drive as some cheaper sports cars; an MX-5 makes for a far more pleasant companion. But this is an extreme Exige, a machine built by and for genuine enthusiasts.
And, above all, for the sort of people who will take it to a race track, which is where it both looks and feels completely at home.
Unfortunately, on public roads, it would be annoying more often than it would be thrilling, but the truly hardcore Lotus aficionados would never admit such a thing.
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?
Unsurprisingly, considering it will sell fewer than 100 cars in Australia, Lotus has not had the Exige ADR crash tested, so there's no star rating. You do get two airbags, passenger and driver, as well as ABS, 'Hydraulic Brake Assist', 'Lotus Dynamic Performance Management', driver-selectable ESP with three modes, cornering brake control and EBD.
To say the Lotus Exige 350 Sport exists at the very pointy end of motoring is a sharp understatement. It is, in essence, a track car that you’re somehow allowed to drive on the road, which means it's hugely compromised in various ways as a vehicle for day-to-day use, yet it's not really fair to criticise it for those failings, because commuting was never its intended purpose.
While it would obviously shine in its natural environment of a race circuit, the fact is you could also enjoy it enormously between track days if you pointed it at a suitably smooth and winding bit of country blacktop.
The performance, handling, steering and stopping are all fantastic, in the right conditions, and you can see how someone might justify it to themselves as a far cheaper version of a ($327,100) Porsche 911 GT3. The difference being that a Porsche doesn't make you fold yourself up like a pocket knife every time you get in.
The Lotus, then, is a car for the extreme enthusiast, only. And possibly for nudists, too.
Would you put up with the Lotus's hard edges for the thrill rides? Tell us what you think in the comments below.