Lotus Exige Final Edition vs. 718 Cayman GT4

The Exige is exiting stage left. Fallen hero or scintillating near-miss?

By Matt Bird / Friday, March 19, 2021 / Loading comments

That PH dedicating a lot of time to Lotus over the next few months should come as no surprise. The company is surging into a new era with the gloves off. The cars which have underpinned its lean years are being cast aside, with new ones in the pipeline. Proper ones, not a Paris 2010 rerun. So we get to do two things: wave off the previous generation with a tear-sodden hanky, and then welcome the future with open arms. It is extremely exciting.

Right now, it's the turn of the Exige. This 390 Final Edition is part of a three-car range for 2021 that will see the V6 bow out after almost a decade on sale. It was Frankfurt 2011 that it was revealed, in fact, with first drives early in 2012. Back then, before the onslaught of new derivatives in the Gales era, the Exige range was simple: it was just the 350hp S. And the verdict? "For the money, I can't see anything to touch this as road/track device other than a used 997 GT3. It's fast, capable and very desirable… At last, from within the madness, Lotus has produced a world-class sports car." It sometimes became easy to lose sight of that with all that has followed, but the Exige has always been a gem of a sports car.

Certainly, there's nothing to be confused about when presented with an Exige the same Metallic Orange as the original S1 – it looks absolutely superb. The S3 has surely always been the best looking Lotus in the line-up, and nothing about the Final Edition makeover – the paint and the forged wheels, primarily – has done anything to harm that. It boasts both real presence as well as real stop-and-stare prettiness, which are seldom found together in one car. You're stood there, without having moved an inch, wondering again why on earth anyone who's ever wanted a sports car has bought anything else.

Then the door is opened, and you start to remember why not everyone has a Lotus. In case you haven't had the pleasure, getting in an Exige and getting comfortable is not the work of a moment. Truth be told if you're much over six foot the feeling of being hemmed in never really fades. Of course, that's the compromise in a car so tiny and so slender, though a better balance for usability really needs to be struck in future. Something like an Alpine doesn't impose this sort of palaver on drivers. While we're on things to change, let's all pray that nothing as low-rent as this car's Sony head unit is found in a Lotus ever again.

Even at low speed, even without the exhaust roused and well within its limits, the Exige is vivid and alive and effervescent like nothing else. The torrent of feedback from everywhere possible serves to make anything else with numberplates seem as engaging as a self-service checkout. As the car warms through, so the experience gets better and better: the V6 howls from about 4,750rpm, the gears shift positively and decisively and the steering weights beautifully through bends. There's nothing else with a roof that makes the driver feel such an integral part of what's going on.

Which is all well and good when the situation suits, though there are just as many others where the little Lotus can frustrate as well. Like being canted left the whole time by those enormous sills and getting a sore back as result; like inconsistent throttle response; and like not having a great view out – particularly if you like to know what's going on behind you. Obviously it's not meant to be an everyday proposition – but that's part of the ownership problem. It's never anything less than hard work. And you're not always in the mood for hard work.

Which brings us neatly to the GT4. By the time of meeting up with the Cayman, the Exige has beguiled and bemused in equal measure. When it all comes together – when those J-hooked brake discs are turning back time, the V6 is screaming, and the car is changing direction like the Golden Snitch – the Exige is nothing short of breathtaking. But the real world impinges on the fleeting moments all over the place. The Lotus doesn't want for character; it wants for more supportive seats and some assistance in the steering under high loads and less fidget in the chassis.

The GT4 has never seem so large. Or so accommodating. Of course in isolation the car is brimmed with motorsport intent – but it seems a tad apologetic with the Lotus and its 'honey-I-shrunk-the-Group-C-car' aesthetic. Still, it's nice after two hours in the Exige's company to just open a door, get in a supportive seat and set a driving position that suits. The quarter of a tonne weight difference (give or take) could all be around the dashboard for how much more secure and inviting the Porsche's cabin feels.

On the road, the GT4 is the model of sports car sophistication and finesse that it's always been. Though performance can't match the rabid Lotus, it's more than fast enough, and the 4.0-litre flat-six responds and revs with an urgency that isn't repeatable in the Exige. The engine feels rich and meticulously honed, an impression heightened by the exquisite manual gearbox; the change is good in the Lotus, overflowing with supercar click-clack drama, but the Porsche's six-speed reveals slack you didn't notice before. Plainly it possesses the superior powertrain, though nobody should expect anything less given the price premium.

To drive, the GT4 remains nothing less than a masterclass, each component seamlessly and harmoniously working with the others for a cohesive, absorbing, joyous sports car experience. Not only is outright ability up compared to non-GT car, so is involvement, with a sense of connection through pedals, seat and wheel – plus more noise accompanying the experience – than any comparable Cayman. It'll reward as both an everyday sports car or purely as a weekend toy, which is probably why they're so in demand – whatever a sports car is required to do, a GT4 is emphatically capable of it.

If anything, the Porsche feels the slightly better balanced of the two, like the mass of the engine is closer and lower down; its impression of consummate control is reinforced here by having so much more rubber on the road and extra grip, the GT4's Cup 2s 30mm wider at each corner than the Exige's Pilot Sport 4s. With such narrow 205-section front tyres, that is the axle that will eventually yield in the Lotus, though obviously the driver is made aware of any grip fluctuations through the steering. And Sport works a treat as drive mode, the very clever traction control on a slightly looser leash. Managing everything in the Lotus – the formidable performance, tremendous brakes, huge grip and traction – makes it an exhilarating drive, though the feeling never quite subsides that the Porsche is dealing with the challenge just a bit better, despite carrying an awful lot more weight.

More often than not – and this is meant as a compliment – the Exige feels like the sort of old school supercar largely abandoned by the manufacturers that used to make them. Think about it. There's a truly outrageous noise matched to very senior performance, a manual gearbox that needs a bit of patience, attention grabbing looks, few concessions to practicality and a drive that demands the very best from you at all times. And no power steering, of course, for a real test. Which may well sound like manna from heaven to those who see a lot of performance cars as too easy and forgiving. If you're one of those people, someone who wants a car to challenge at almost every opportunity, then the Lotus will be a tonic. Trouble is, however, that the Porsche proves that excitement and refinement needn't be mutually exclusive traits.

Ultimately, that's the reason why the GT4 is nothing less than the best sports on sale at less than £100,000. It delivers as complete a driving experience as you'll find anywhere. The final Exige, on the other hand, is a great deal less perfect, a whole lot more irksome at points – and indisputably more memorable as a result. This is not to sell its flaws short as 'charm' or similar, because there are real issues, and you can be sure that Lotus is seeing to most of them as we speak. But as a celebration of what these V6 Exiges have been all about since 2012 – the speed, the noise, the almost overwhelming thrill – this Final Edition is still glorious. And very good value, too, given the extra power over a 350, which certainly isn't in keeping with the tradition of run-out specials.

The Porsche impresses everywhere and is so rounded that it sates its owner like a large meal. The Exige is more like doing shots: it will make you yelp with joy, scream in frustration, gurn in approval – and occasionally grimace in disappointment. Realistically, the new-era Lotus will never build another sports car so obviously enthralled with delivering highs while blithely ignoring the sacrifices required to get you there. The Exige departs production with its reputation as an uncompromising, knowingly flawed masterpiece intact. It is the epitome of, and a lasting testimony to, its manufacturer's memorable way of doing things. Accolades don't come any higher – or shadows any longer.


SPECIFICATION | PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN GT4

Engine: 3,995cc, flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],600rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000-6,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.4 secs
Top speed: 189mph
Weight: 1,420kg
MPG: 25.9
CO2: 249g/km
Price: £75,348 (as standard; price as tested £94,506 comprised of Black leather interior with extensive items in Alcantara and decorative stitching in yellow contrast for £1,242, Headlight cleaning system covers painted for £143, Door handles painted in black for £84, Chrono Package and preparation for lap trigger for £336, Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake for £5,597, Wheels painted in satin black for £387, LED main headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus for £1,397, Auto dimming mirrors with integrated rain sensor for £345, Cruise control for £228, Park Assist (rear) with reversing camera for £825, Speed limit indicator for £236, Clubsport Package for £2,778, Steering wheel rim with top centre marking in yellow for £168, Full bucket seats for £3,788, Fire extinguisher for £105, Racing Yellow seat belts for £194, Decorative stitching in contrast colour for £834 and Carbon interior package (with leather interior) for £471. And breathe.)

SPECIFICATION | LOTUS EXIGE SPORT 390 FINAL EDITION

Engine: 3,456cc V6, supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000-6,700rpm
0-62mph: 3.8secs
Top speed: 172mph
Weight: 1,138kg (unladen)
MPG: 27.7
CO2: 230g/km
Price: £64,000

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Image credit | Harry Rudd

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