Lotus Exige Sport 410 In Tokyo: The Rare Example Of Driving A Fast Car Slow And Having Fun
Starting at the airport; chronically unadjusted watch reading nearly a full day behind local time; sleep-deprived eyes seared by ultrabright screens that blink and chirp with cartoon characters issuing familiar warnings in an unfamiliar language about unattended luggage with saccharine levels of cuteness possessed by exactly zero TSA agents back home at LAX. This foreigner’s feeling is only compounded in Haneda’s ground transport rotunda, where I reflexively try to hop in the passenger’s side of the overtly grille-faced Alphard, only to be reminded by the presence of man and steering wheel that this is in fact the driver’s side over here.
Thanks to some very good friends, I visited Tokyo this fall to drive a car that isn’t sold in the United States, but despite it fitting into Japan’s capital like a native, this pocket rocket sports car is only tangentially related to any of the big JDMs. It has a Toyota-sourced V6, but thanks to extensive tweaks from Hethel (and I would assume Hangzhou sooner or later), and a supercharger that’s almost the size of the engine block, it pulls decidedly unlike any Camry. It has kei car dimensions but the stats of a supercar—0-60 in 3.3, to start.
Which means you really don’t need me to tell you what this car is capable of. It seems like it’s capable of whatever you’re capable of. I for one, didn’t find out what that was and wasn’t really trying to—it’s a tricky and financially scary endeavor to look for the limits of something with this power-to-weight in a metropolis this dense where one overcooked corner can send you into an overcrowded noodle shop. Even after I found some space to stretch it out on the way out of the city en route to Fuji Speedway, describing the Exige became a frustrating exercise in unavoidable cliches and hyperboles that aren’t really hyperboles in this case. On the other hand, driving it—even well below its peak ability—is just about the most satisfying experience possible in a modern sports car. It’s a grown up go-kart with a steroid problem. An analog machine that can run rings around modern techno-tanks. A pretty pared-down car that makes the rest of them feel frivolous. I warned you there would be some cliches.
Little Lotus In A Big City
During the weekend of my visit, Tokyo was a balmy 95 degrees with about as much humidity as one can get without being rained on. But even in that weather and with an unassisted rack and pinion and a back-cracker of an aluminum chassis, the Exige Sport 410 is pretty livable. It’s not what you would call comfortable on rough roads, but Tokyo’s travel infrastructure and the general care taken by it’s public works departments have made it easy to stay on the smooth stuff for hours on end. Potholes exist, but every one that I saw was surrounded by blinking traffic cones and a construction crew with freshly pressed shirts taking care of business.
And to that end, you can take the Exige just about anywhere in the city and still have room to wiggle liberally. Narrow alleyways are no problem, parking spaces seem to swell as you pull into them, and speed bumps are magically navigable despite what looks like a sliver of ground clearance under the carbon fiber barge boards. It’s not just the dimensions that make this possible. The clutch connects to a single-mass lightweight flywheel, but it’s simple to putt around with at rush hour pace. The steering is unassisted as mentioned, but the short wheelbase goes a long way when parallel parking. The Eibach springs and Nitron dampers are linked by Eibach anti-roll bars in the front and rear for a suspension setup that’s stiff and prone to conversation, but most of the time there’s not much to say about whatever pavement you’re driving over.
This is all relative of course, and even though Lotus considers the Sport 410 a sort of softened version of the most extreme Exige—the Cup 430—it’s hard to imagine anyone buying this car without plans to hot lap it. Even if you don’t buy one for that purpose, I think you’d change your mind after your first drive on any stretch of public road with the contours of a race track. In Japan, there’s plenty of both.
Having Fun At Fifty Percent
Part of the weekend in the Exige involved taking it up to Fuji Speedway for Lotus Day. Just like getting out of the car isn’t a graceful or fluid motion, getting the car out of Tokyo during rush hour isn’t one either. It’s not so much stop and go as it is stoppppppp and go, so once we finally did untangle ourselves the chance to bring the tach past 4000—which is where the exhaust goes from purr to bark and your sense of speed goes from fast to Fast and Furious—being able to surge ahead at will was water in a desert.
Highway driving in something this small and rigid shouldn’t be much fun, but with over 350 horsepower per ton, how could it not be? The V6 behind your back produces 410 ponies and 350 pound-feet, which when moving a package that weighs just about 2325 pounds, loosely translates into as much acceleration as you can hang onto up to any speed you dare. Did I find a fraction of its top speed? No way. That’s not the point of this car. (But with that said, I’m sure I didn’t find a fraction of its lateral G potential either.)
Half the effort and speed lets you pay more attention to how the Lotus handles. Not because it doesn’t feel even better the more you push it (I didn’t get any driving time on Fuji Speedway, but I had the pleasure of riding along with a touring and GT race car driver in the exact Sky Blue Exige I drove up in the previous night, and chasing other cars down in the rain at 100mph plus felt better than gadding around town at 60mph max).
You might think—I definitely did—that something this quick on paper would be boring in practice unless you’re caning it all the time. But you can drive it like a momentum car. It’s just fun at any speed because of how effortlessly it keeps any speed you ask of it through a corner. Do you remember those toy airplanes that you’d attach to a string and centrifugal force yourself dizzy with?
Once we got off the highway and into the real elevation around Fuji, it was raining and dark, and the serpentine climb was bordered exclusively by two-foot concrete ditches (past which were either stone walls or pitch black pitches back down the mountain). Put differently, not a forgiving place for F-ups. But my god did it feel like I was starring in one of those old togue VHSes. I drove as fast as I dared, sweeping back and forth across a road that never straightened or planed off (I don’t have pictures of this because it was 11 at night and raining and I was shaking a decent amount).
Only in cars like this one can surprise decreasing radius turns be so entertaining. Moving quickly through those corners in the Exige was one of the more unique experiences I’ve had in a car—there are contrasting sensations at work here. Mainly, that you feel like a hero because of how the thing handles, but also like a wuss because of how much more you can tell it can take. Put that out of mind though, and you’re left with the tactile joy of shifting gears (the exposed linkage and cool aluminum lever make gear changes feel like operating a well kept bolt-action rifle), the aural pleasures of the supercharger whir, the wriggling of the steering wheel, and the—one last cliche—bonafide sensation that you’ve put on the car instead of gotten into it.
Extract yourself from the fixed-back, prehistoric beetle-like seats and look at what you’ve been looking out of. The third generation Exige has a mid-pounce look to it, and it lives up to that and then some if you’ll let it. It’s just too bad we can’t let any of them into America.