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Three generations later, the Exige bows out – but not before one last hurrah

So inimitable is the Exige proposition that you might wonder how it came to be. The textbook answer is ‘via the Elise’.

The Exige was conceived simply to be the hard-top, hardcore version of the tiny roadster that transformed Lotus in the 1990s. But the less obvious answer is Ducati motorcycles.

Rear wing is carried over from the old Exige S of 2015 and rests on aluminium stanchions. It’s an elegant device, although smaller and less effective than the motorsport-inspired designs seen on the Sport 420 and Cup 430

After the sales disappointment of the front-driven Elan, it was the pared-back beauty, jewel-like componentry and bone-deep purity of these Bolognese motorbikes that inspired chassis designer Richard Rackham and stylist Julian Thomson during the conception of the seminal S1 Elise. Four years later, the Exige arrived and, if anything, its uncompromising approach made it even more Ducati-esque.

The Elise and Exige shared Lotus’s unique extruded-aluminium structure but the Exige gained adjustable Koni dampers, thicker anti-roll bars, throttle bodies for Rover’s 1.8-litre K-series engine, scoops and wings, plus track-specific Yokohama tyres. All in, it was 49kg heavier than the Elise but, at 780kg, the Exige was still deliciously lightweight and spectacularly engaging to drive.

That was 21 years and three generations ago. Since then, the Exige has put on some weight (as an interesting reference point, it now weighs 75% of what a contemporary Porsche 911 weighs, rather than 60%, as was the case in 2000), but some of that can be chalked up to the fact that the third-generation car carries not an atmospheric four-pot but a supercharged V6.

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But why have we invited the S3 Exige back for another road test when it’s now eight years old and retirement beckons? Because this Sport 390 Final Edition has, in Lotus’s own words, “been launched to celebrate the Exige’s final year of production”. And not just S3 production but Exige production, full stop.

With the new Emira waiting in the wings, the Exige and Elise are being permanently relieved of duties. You’re therefore looking at the very last iteration of one of the great sports cars of the modern era, so just how badly will it be missed? Time to find out.

The Exige line-up at a glance

There has been a confusing multitude of Exige derivatives in recent times, but for this final year of production, the line-up has been trimmed to three models.

At the base of the range sits the Sport 390, which is road biased and touts only modest tyres and a limited aerodynamic package. The Sport 420 is an evolution of the recent Sport 410 and, in character, is probably marginally happier on track than road.

At the top of the tree sits the Cup 430, which is the most extreme Exige in every way and intended predominantly for track days. In the past, the Exige could be optioned with an automatic gearbox, but only the manual is now available.