If you want a driving experience that sacrifices some civility in favour of maximum reward and insane thrills, then nothing road-going is likely to top the extraordinary Lotus Exige 410 Sport.
In the Metal:
You don't have to know a lot about cars to take one look at the Lotus Exige 410 Sport and be aware that it's going to be stupendously quick. It oozes menace that's almost palpable at a distance of 50 metres, what with its dominant fixed rear wing, the slatted back screen, the honking great diffuser lurking in the area surrounding the exhaust and a wealth of carbon-fibre parts slung across its long, low, lithe bodywork. Our test car was a coupe with the matte-black hard-top and, with a kerb weight of just 1,110kg, it becomes practically impossible not to make the mental connection that the Exige is some sort of GT3 racer that is masquerading as a road car with number plates. Especially as it still has the evocative single-wiper configuration that makes you think 'Mulsanne, Tertre Rouge, Indianapolis'. It is, quite simply, utterly superb to behold.
It's nigh-on as wonderful within too, although you have to accept that it's wonderful in a pared-back, focused way. Clambering into an Exige from practically any other modern-day sports car, no matter how intense you think said car might be, will be an enormous shock to the system - the interior is sparse to the point of spartan. There's also the whole indignity of folding yourself in through the slot presented by the open door, because with its roof on you've got a very narrow gap between the lid and the high sill of the Exige's aluminium chassis. But once you're in, you sit in exquisite carbon-fibre Sport 410 bucket seats trimmed in leather and Alcantara, mounted so low to the floor that you'll think speed bumps will physically skim your backside. A tiny, majestically plain steering wheel sits exactly where you need it to be, the exposed gear linkage is just to die for and while the column stalks are from a 1990s Opel, you simply won't care. It's exciting to just sit in an Exige, going precisely nowhere, so imagine what it will be like on the move...
Wow. Good grief, wow. The caveat to throw into the mix here is that we drove the Exige on a typical British summer's day - which, much like the weather over here at the same time of year, meant torrential rain and cool temperatures. And the Exige, all 410 supercharged horses of it, rides on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Rubber that is not optimised for rain. In the slightest.
And yet, even in conditions not favourable to this demented Lotus, there are two shining reasons why the Exige is so undeniably brilliant, and they are its steering and its damping - two of the marque's long-held hallmarks of engineering quality. On the first score, the Exige has an unassisted set-up. This means that, despite it being a light car, when you're first manoeuvring it out of a parking space and through a couple of tight, very-low-speed turns, it'll feel monstrously heavy. But don't panic; as speeds build, and we're only talking to like 50km/h or so, the steering frees up and comes alive. It positively bellows feedback at you, the tiny wheel writhing and fidgeting in your hands as you traverse the road surface. Yet the Exige isn't nervous. It isn't a car that needs eight million minor corrections just to keep it on the straight and narrow. It is instead a car blessed with the greatest steering set-up on sale right now - weighted to perfection, fizzing with feel, utterly majestic. Glorious.
This is an engineering masterpiece only matched by the Exige's shock absorption capabilities. For something so low and angry and festooned with expensive carbon fibre splitters and diffusers, the Lotus grounds out... never. You might wince as you go through some high-speed compressions, waiting for the painful graunch of expensive components meeting asphalt, but if you can filter through the considerable interior cabin noise and the obviously firm spring rates (which bless the car with body control straight from the world of motorsport) then you'll notice that vertical movements of its lissom shell are actually mesmerisingly fluid and elegant. It doesn't spike up and down on the dampers, instead having just enough squidge to make it planted, secure and even reasonably comfortable.
These two things together are what allow the driver to exploit the Lotus' amazing chassis skills, even when the weather won't play ball. You've got such confidence in the capability of the underpinnings and such sparkling clarity of information from the steering, that you know exactly how much grip you're playing with and how the front wheels are hooked up to the tarmac and when the rear Michelins are about to be overwhelmed by the V6's enormous thump of torque. Which is not that often, truth be told. The immense traction the Exige found in sogginess akin to marshland was frankly outrageous.
Link it all together, and the results are electrifying. The Exige is monumentally good to drive. Backing up the steering and dampers is a supercharged V6 that makes a tremendous din, becoming serrated and furious as the rev counter passes 5,000rpm. Even better, you can see the throttle actuator for the 3.5-litre Toyota-sourced motor in your rear-view mirror (it's about all you can see behind you, mind), so you feel totally engrossed in the process of eliciting pace from the Exige. The brakes are race-derived J-hook two-piece items with Brembo four-pot callipers, so they have the sort of stopping power that would reign in a freight train, never mind a 1,100kg sports car. The magnificent exposed gear linkage click-clacks through the gate with a precision and heft that's heavenly. In short, everything bar cabin finishing on this Lotus is close to perfection.
What you get for your Money:
The Exige comes in a three-model range that starts with the 350 Sport, with the 410 Sport sitting in the middle and the 430 Cup out on its own at the top. The last of these is even more focused and stripped-back than the 410 Sport, so it's definitely more of a track machine, while the 350 is a (slightly) comfier proposition. Beyond these, there are very few toys on the Exige - you can option in air conditioning and cruise control if you must, but this Lotus is not about driver assist systems and comfort equipment; it's about driving fun. Therefore, it might almost be better to write this section as 'What You DON'T Get For Your Money', because the fewer gewgaws fitted to the Lotus, the lighter it is and the better to drive as a consequence.
The Lotus Exige 410 Sport is a divine vehicle. It might not be the first thing you'd ever buy if you needed interior practicality, or if you merely want a car where it is easy to get in and out of the thing, and of course, while it's acceptably comfortable for what it is, doing long distances in the Exige 410 Sport might become something of a chore. But for injecting life and vitality and excitement and reward into every single kilometre of every single drive you ever do, there is nothing to surpass this mid-engined masterpiece.