After a debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015, the Lotus 3-Eleven has been with us for less than three years. Now, with the 311-car production run coming to an end, Lotus has saved what should be the very best until last: the 3-Eleven 430.
If you’re familiar with Lotus nomenclature – it would be understandable if you weren’t, given the proliferation of recent models – then you will recognise the ‘430’ tag from the Exige and Evora. It denotes a maximum power output of 430bhp, making all three models with this version of the supercharged 3.5-litre Toyota V6 the fastest of their respective ranges.
For the 3-Eleven, it makes for the quickest Lotus produced yet. Its 1min 24sec lap time around the Hethel test track is nearly a second faster than the equivalent Exige, which held the record not so long ago. That power gain – plus a torque increase from 302lb ft to 325lb ft – tells only part of the story, though. The weight reduction for this 3-Eleven 430 is just a bit-part player, because it only loses 5kg (thanks to new brakes and wheels).
The key advantage that this 3-Eleven holds, over both the ‘standard’ car and many others, is in aerodynamics. With the rear wing now mounted 50mm higher than before and including reprofiled end plates, plus the addition of a more aggressive front splitter, maximum downforce at the 180mph top speed is up 44kg to 265kg. Given that the vast majority of road cars actually generate lift at high speed rather than meaningful downforce, having more than a quarter of a tonne of it is some achievement.
So there would be no better place to test Lotus’s claims, including a peak cornering force of 1.5g, than its own Hethel test track. There are fast corners, slow corners, safe corners and really damn scary corners. Really, it’s where the 3-Eleven 430 should shine. Because the whole point of forgoing a heater, a roof and even a windscreen is for circuit superiority, right?
Absolutely, but on the day we tested the 3-Eleven 430, Norfolk turned Nordic. Cold, wet and with a bitter breeze, it offered no opportunity to test the car’s dry handling limits. Frankly, it felt more like a survival course than a test drive and was about as far from ideal 3-Eleven conditions as it’s possible to find. But who doesn’t enjoy a challenge now and then?
Putting the Lotus 3-Eleven's power down
The first hurdle is just getting in. Because the 3-Eleven 430 lacks doors, you need to vault over the wings to gain entry (avoiding the precarious mirrors), get your feet on the treacherously slippery floor (without carpet but with a lot of rain, it soon feels like ice) and drop yourself in without standing on the seat because, well, it’s someone else’s and it’s worth £102,000.
However, once inside, the 3-Eleven 430 is decently accommodating because it shares its architecture with the Exige. So size 12s can easily fit on the pedals without the need for race slippers. The sense of space is eerie, too, mostly from the obvious lack of roof but also because of the entirely barren interior. All that features inside is there purely for the process of driving: switches, sticks, a screen and, well, very little else. No chance of getting distracted, at least…
Because, let’s face it, with a good chunk of more than 400bhp per tonne, semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, no stability control and a manual gearbox, you’ll want to be concentrating. Especially in the rain. And although the handling is far more benign than you might expect – we’ll deal with that in a second – it’s the ferocious, unrelenting, slightly terrifying speed that takes your breath away to start with. Quite literally, too, if you forget to pull your helmet visor all the way down.
A big engine in a small car has always been a recipe for mayhem and, taken to extremes, it remains an addictively berserk way to create an automobile. With a supercharger and decent swept capacity, the 3-Eleven 430 lacks the peakiness typically associated with these track lightweights, pulling tremendously hard from pretty much idle.
Yet it loves revs, too, with the power building to a thrilling climax at 7000rpm, so you really have the best of both worlds. The noise is as we’ve come to expect from these V6 Lotuses – savage and naughty, yet musical – but with the volume at compellingly outrageous levels.
But the speed, the speed. Even with a timid entry to the corner before, the 3-Eleven 430 romps beyond 130mph down Hethel’s main straight. It pulls at middling revs in fifth gear like quick cars do at their peak in third. It really is supremely rapid. Perhaps someone else can attempt 180mph without a roof, though.
Furthermore, even though the conditions suited the Lotus like Barbados suits a penguin, it proved surprisingly adept, approachable and – whisper it – fun in the deluge. As with the performance, the 3-Eleven 430 feels dynamically similar to other Lotuses, only taken to another plane of intensity, immersion and enjoyment. So because the steering relays so much information, you feel confident to push the (admirably high) levels of front-end grip.
Because the masses are so fantastically controlled by the Öhlins dampers, you take a bit more kerb and work the car harder. And because the AP Racing brakes feel so positive underfoot, even once the anti-lock braking system has been triggered, you push that braking point just a little further down the track. And miss the chicane. But that’s hardly the car’s fault. The point is that there’s confidence, even in these conditions.
The 3-Eleven 430 also benefits from a limited-slip differential (denied to the Exige), which gives the process of exiting a corner a level of precision and poise that never seemed absent from the Exige. Traction is excellent if not unimpeachable, yet because the driver is so keyed into the experience – and the diff so effective – dealing with oversteer becomes instinctive rather than unnerving.
The variable traction control, allowing everything from 1% wheel slip to all the way off, is so expertly calibrated that it’s a wonder so many other systems still feel so heavy-handed.
Is the Lotus 3-Eleven a true track star?
As a track-day toy, the 3-Eleven 430 is utterly sensational, to a point beyond even that already established by Lotus. It’s totally exhilarating, challenging yet just about accommodating enough and huge fun, as well as extremely fast.
You’ll want to live close to the circuit, though. Sure, it works on the road, and in some respects very well; it’s small, forward visibility is obviously very good and the torque means it’s easy to pootle along at a few thousand revs. The dampers’ adjustability means they can be softened to your liking too. But there’s no escaping the battering impact of the wind, the noise from all around you and the cold. Plus the histrionics of ingress and egress.
As a result, there’s little doubt that the similarly priced Exige Cup 430 offers a more rounded track-day package. But in the same way that you don’t always pick your life partner or your holiday destination because of how well rounded and accommodating they are, there’s something undeniably exciting about the 3-Eleven’s focus and rawness.
There will be times when you curse it, but there will also be times when you won’t want to be driving any other road car than a 3-Eleven 430. It really is that good. For 20 customers, it promises to be incredibly memorable at the very least.