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    Lotus Exige Sport 410 Quick Spin Review | An unobtainable gem previews an American future

    HETHEL, England — You can get the measure of a car brand by the environment in which its products are built. The narrow, bumpy, hedge-lined lanes of eastern England explain a lot about the way a Lotus goes. The character of a company's chief speaks to the brand's intentions as well. Jean-Marc Gales has been portrayed unflatteringly as a Eurocrat bean counter, but his approach has been to strip weight and cost out of the product to the benefit of performance on both track and bottom line, defining brand attributes that Chinese money can hopefully bring to a wider audience.

    He drives fast, thinks quickly and acts without hesitation. You sense he likes people who do the same, and the speed with which Autoblog posted the story announcing the new Exige Sport 410 is something he commented upon in flattering terms. Despite the fact that it'll never appear on American dealer lots, Gales made us very welcome at the factory to drive it.

    A quick update on where the Exige is at since it was last seen on American shores in 2011. Though it's still based around what's fundamentally the same extruded and bonded aluminum tub as every other Elise and Exige of the past 20 years, it's gained pounds, cylinders and performance to the point where it shows circuit pace that'll have 911 GT3 owners watching their mirrors.

    Since going from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder to the Evora-derived 3.5-liter supercharged V6, the Exige has evolved into a proper hot-rod, some way removed from its dainty roots and punching harder with each iteration. And there have been a few. Currently you can buy a Sport 350 or Cup 430 with the uprated, intercooled Evora engine and 430 horsepower, this new Sport 410 related to the latter and benefiting from many of its upgrades but tuned to be more road compliant. And a little cheaper. Unlike the Cup, you can also have it as a roadster, which, in an extreme example of the famed "add lightness" policy, basically equates to removing the roof panel.

    It's now arguably too much for the local roads, punching hard in angry bursts of acceleration between corners rather than dancing through them. With no power assistance to the steering and fat, grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, an Exige is a surprisingly physical car to drive, bearing in mind it weighs less than 2,500 pounds.

    A test track built on runways that once hosted U.S. Air Force B-24 Liberators is a better place to appreciate the Exige's talents. The Cup 430's trick three-way Nitron dampers may have been dialled back a tad for the 410, but Lotus has a famous talent for combining compliance and composure, and the Exige is as happy cornering flat and hard as it is floating over lumps and bumps. There's a meaningful 330 pounds of downforce at the 170 mph top speed, every ounce of which is welcome at the butt-clenching 120 mph Windsock Corner into the long back straight.

    Suffice to say the Toyota engine shows a wilder side than is permitted in an Avalon or Highlander. The angry snarl through the optional titanium exhaust drowns out the shriek of the Edelbrock supercharger, the exposed gear linkage promoting gear changes into a fetishized exhibitionism of sorts. The gears are closely stacked too, Gales is unable to resist a dig at Porsche's long-ratios. More impressively, for all the weight and cost hacked out of it, the Exige shows not a hint of squeaks, rattles or protest even when deliberately rattled across race track curbs. It's still no Cayman, but it feels better made than at any time in its 20-year history.

    Its character has changed though, the Exige carving chunks out of a circuit rather than making neat incisions, the previous precision now augmented with a degree of brute force. But that balance and lack of weight remain core, an Exige Sport 410 with all the lightweight options showing a near-identical dry weight to an all-carbon Alfa Romeo 4C— but with an engine sporting twice the capacity and another 170 hp to enjoy.

    The contortions required to climb over those burly sills and proximity to your passenger are two reasons the old tub doesn't translate to American tastes. The regulations that the federalized Evora complies with, but the Elise and Exige do not, are the other. In previous conversation Gales has confirmed the eventual replacement for the existing Elise and Exige will have to be U.S. compliant, and that inevitably means it'll be bigger and heavier. If that means it needs power steering, fatter tires, and more power, there's a danger the true spirit of Lotus will be lost in translation.

    The challenge he therefore faces is maintaining the purity that makes cars like the Exige so special while hitting global safety regulations and other benchmarks. Thankfully, a bean counter with a need for speed would seem to be the exact qualities Lotus requires in its boss.

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