Lotus may have never set any sales records, but for decades, founder Colin Chapman’s mantra was accepted as gospel truth in the sports car world. “Simplify, then add lightness,” he said, and for generations, automakers listened. But slowly, things began to change. Safety and emissions regulations dealt an early blow to the mantra back in the ’70s. Then came the advent of traction control, infotainment systems, hybrid powertrains, and even stricter safety regulations. It’s why the 2015 LaFerrari has over 400 pounds on an ’87 Ferrari F40, or why the Tesla Model S P90D weighs nearly as much as a ’60s Lincoln Continental.
But who cares about weight? We’re living in a golden age of performance, and cars today are categorically faster than ever before. With the notable exception of the 2016 Mazda Miata, which appropriately took them to heart, Chapman’s words seem quaint now; they remind us of a simpler, purer, and yes, maybe better time, but one we can never go back to.
Or could we?
Lotus may have left the U.S. market with a whimper in 2014, but it’s still fighting the good fight from its small factory in Hethel, England, and still building cars that would make Chapman proud. It offers just four models, but they’re some of the lightest, quick in the corners, exhilarating cars being made today. And now, they’ve just outdone themselves with the Exige Sport 350, a 2,480 pound 340 horsepower mid-engined rocket that can scramble from zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds. And to show off its true Britishness, it even comes with an available tartan plaid interior.
An Audi R8 V10 can scramble from zero to 60 in about 3.4 seconds. A Jaguar F-Type R can do the job in 3.5. But the Audi has a massive 5.2 liter V10 borrowed from a Lamborghini pushing it along, and the Jag has a big supercharged V8 under its long hood. The Lotus wills itself into the sub-four second club with a mid-mounted 3.5 liter V6 with its basic architecture borrowed from a Toyota Camry. The already flyweight Exige S shed 112 pounds to become the Sport 350, thanks to a new tailgate, lighter engine mounts, smaller battery, and deleting some sound deadening. Lotus may not have the resources to build a ground-up sports car right now, but they’ve become experts at revising what they already have to outrun nearly anything in the corners and still top out at over 170 miles per hour.
Both a six-speed manual with beautifully exposed linkage, and automatic are available, though the automatic does slow the car down a small amount, and adds a dozen pounds to the curb weight. The interior looks great, though plaid seats aside, you do begin to see Lotus’s shallow pockets in the outdated dashboard and switchgear. No word on price yet, but both a roadster and hardtop model will go on sale in March. And therein lies the rub: It still ain’t coming here. Lotus doesn’t plan on reentering the U.S. market until at least 2020, which means we probably won’t see Lotus’s current crop of sports cars.
On sale now for 15 years now, the Exige is no spring chicken. In fact, it may have achieved its greatest fame in the U.S. as the basis for Tesla’s original car, the Roadster, back in 2008. But that doesn’t mean that doesn’t still have some life left in it. It may have been largely ignored stateside, but with sports cars getting heavier, crossovers boxing out sedans on the highways, and SUVs growing again, Colin Chapman’s mantra is sounding pretty good to us right about now.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS