We don’t always mourn the passing of truly unique cars.
When the Audi A2 slipped away, nobody really noticed (wrongly), and journalists weren’t exactly queuing up to pen an obituary for the drop-top Range Rover Evoque in 2018 (more understandable, that). But the Lotus Exige? This one hurts.
After 21 years and three iterations, production is ending, along with that of the ultra-lightweight Elise and the GT-flavoured Evora. Come winter 2021, the final Exige will have left the factory, which is now gearing up for production of the altogether more rounded, Porsche-911-rivalling Emira coupé. That has got a new assembly hall with autonomous pallets that move chassis between stations and an improved paintshop. Even the facility constructing the extruded-aluminium core is new and now sits near Hethel, having outgrown Lotus’s Worcester site.
But here’s the big one, for anyone who has been living underneath a rock in outer space: the Emira is expected to be the final combustion-engined Lotus ever. It will blend attributes from the Evora and the Exige and package it all underneath bodywork strongly reminiscent of the £2.04 million Evija electric supercar – yet it’s only a stepping stone.
Owner Geely wants to make Lotus an EV-only brand by 2028, as well as increasing production from around 1500 cars annually to a figure in the tens of thousands. Plans are in place to make many of these extra cars in Wuhan, China, and to branch out into crossovers in the process, although Lotus will also grow its very healthy engineering consultancy further, notably with the development of an electric sports car platform with Alpine. In short, change is afoot.
Given the Emira will be heavier and everything thereafter electrified, you could describe the fat-free Exige Sport 390 Final Edition tested here as the last of the Lotus old guard, Colin Chapman-style. Essentially, it’s the one-last-gasp replacement for the Sport 350, which has been the entry-level S3 Exige since 2015, when it replaced the Exige S.
In temperament, the 390 is split roughly 60:40 road to track, according to senior dynamics engineer Dan Peck, who says it has “all the best parts from the Sport 420 with the suppleness of the Sport 350”. Anyone craving more track-day attitude can escalate matters, as Lotus is also offering Final Edition versions of the Exige Sport 420 and the Cup 430.
Assuming you’re not the one paying (the 390 costs £64,000, while the 420 is £82,675 and the 430 is a plump £100,600), you can quickly tell the three apart by looking at the rear wing. The 390’s is the smallest but also the most stylised, artfully folding over on itself, whereas the 420’s is wickedly bowed with meaty endplates and the 430’s is bigger still, mounted higher and arrow-straight above the rear deck. Not that any of the three wants for presence. Even as the light of its life force begins to flicker, any Exige crams more visual impact in its Renault Clio-sized footprint than even the Lamborghini Aventador manages. Nearly.