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‘The elusive thrill of driving is more readily accessed with the roof down’

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 17:26
Perhaps more evidence of his advancing years, Meaden confesses to a growing passion for convertible motoring.

Caterham Seven review - the iconic British track car is still going strong

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 13:52
For  The absolute definition of a sports car Against  Can be pricey; not the last word in usability

Put simply, the Caterham Seven is one of evo's favourite cars.

The Caterham Seven is about as close as you’ll find to a car that represents what evo is all about - the thrill of driving. From the moment you squeeze yourself into its racecar-like form to the point you climb out, windswept and possibly a little uncomfortable but grinning like a Cheshire cat, you’ll have experienced one of the most exciting cars on the road.

> Best track cars

That the Caterham Seven is still almost identical in concept to the Lotus Seven launched in 1957 is a testament both to Colin Chapman’s original idea and to the constant, small but important tweaks that Lotus and later Caterham have made. Engines have changed over time, different variants have improved the car’s appeal and there have been improvements to quality and reliability, but broadly the idea itself has remained constant - maximum driver interaction.

In a world where every car has traction control, stability control, airbags, electric power steering and an infotainment screen the Seven is an anachronism, but what it sacrifices in usability it will always retain in the kind of driving purity that very few other modern cars can offer.

The Seven is far from perfect and it’s not a car many are likely to use every day thanks to some fairly glaring limitations, but as a vehicle to squirrel away in your garage to enjoy on a sunny weekend, there’s little better. Choosing a favourite model is very difficult indeed too, thanks to Caterham’s wide range of options. Whether you want to blast along B-roads or dominate at trackdays, you’ll probably find something to suit.

Caterham Seven in detail

Performance and 0-60 time - Light weight means all Caterhams are quick, but the most powerful examples are terrifyingly so. Top speed of all models is limited by 1950s aerodynamics.

Engine and gearbox - Plenty of choice here, from the entry-level 3-cylinder Suzuki with its notchy manual shift, to highly-strung Ford four-pots on individual throttle bodies paired with racing-style sequentials.

Ride and handling - All Sevens handle beautifully. Behaviour ranges from the Goodwood Revival-style four-wheel drifts of the skinny-tyred 160s, to insane levels of grip with semi-slick-shod 620Rs. The ride is firm with all models, but not as bad as you’d expect.

MPG and running costs - Outright economy varies from model to model - the 160 is very frugal indeed - and many other costs (brakes, tyres, servicing) are kept relatively low thanks to the car’s light weight and simplicity.

Interior and tech - Not much of an interior or tech to speak of, but provided you physically fit, it’s not a bad environment from which to drive. It’s actually worse with the tent-like roof up.

Design - The basic design hails from the 1950s, but still looks great to us, whether in retro Sprint and SuperSprint form or the bright colours and trackday tyres of R versions.

Prices, specs and rivals

Seven pricing begins at £17,725 for the 160. The 270 is priced at £22,410, the 310 at £23,910, the 360 at £25,910, the 420 at £28,910, the 620S at £46,410 and the 620R is a hefty £51,405. The limited-run SuperSprint is £29,995.

However, all those prices are effectively the DIY rates. Get the factory to build your car and you can add £2500 to those numbers (aside from the 620 models and the SuperSprint, which are all factory-build only), while Caterham’s various options and packs add further costs. Specify the road-orientated S trim and you’re looking at £3495, and R pack cars with limited-slip diffs, uprated suspension, race seats and harnesses and the like add £4495 to the base price of relevant models.

> Lotus Elise review

Choose a wide-body car and you’re adding £2500, a six-speed ‘box and it’s £2495, and a dry-sumped engine (standard on the 420 and up) is £1550. A windscreen, hood and side screens comes to £1250, and a long list of other features, from roll cages to shift lights can add hundreds more. Some of the options are quite tempting, so it’s safe to assume you can take the base price of any model with a pinch of salt.

The good news is that Sevens depreciate slowly, and some - like the retro Sprint and SuperSprint special editions - are likely to actually rise in value, as each has been produced in such a limited run and both sold out within hours of their respective on-sale dates.

Rivals? Take your pick - the Seven’s pricing structure puts it up against various vehicles in purely economic terms, though chances are the specialist nature means you’ll be considering other sports cars, and specifically British ones like the Lotus Elise, Ariel Atom or Morgan 3-Wheeler as rivals.

Performance and 0-60 time

It’s always a good sign when the slowest car in the range can reach 60mph in under seven seconds, and the Seven 160 manages that in 6.9. Top speed is very much limited by 1950s aerodynamics (in all models, though it’s most apparent in those with the least urge), meaning the 160 can only reach 100mph - though to be fair, a hundred in a Caterham feels perfectly brisk.

> Caterham Seven Donington Edition review

The numbers climb quickly from there. In order of accelerative ability, the 270 hits 60mph in five seconds flat, the 310 in 4.9, the 360 in 4.8, the 420 in 3.8, the 620S in 3.4 and the sequential-’boxed 620R in 2.8sec. Top speed is 122mph for the 270, 127mph for the 310, 130mph for the 360, 136mph for the 420, 145mph for the 620S and 155mph for the mental 620R

As with everything about the Seven, it’s the delivery and feel of that performance that matters as much as the numbers. The 160 is brisk, but stops well short of the terrifying pace of the fastest Sevens. The little Suzuki engine doesn’t have the throttle response of its stablemates even though its turbo is tiny, and it’s less keen to rev than the fours too, though a healthy mid-range means you can travel quickly enough without breaching the rougher reaches of the rev counter.

The Ford four-cylinders rise in excitement proportional to their on-paper numbers. The evo team is split on just which variant is most satisfying to use, but all share throttle response seemingly hard-wired to your brain, and a willingness to bat into the rev limiter in every gear. The 310 is undoubtedly the pick of the 1.6s, delivering seriously quick performance without it feeling overdone for public roads, and it emits an engagingly raucous note as you race through the gears.

> Caterham 160 review

The Duratec models are all seriously fast and by the time you get to the 620R there’s barely enough time to blink, so quickly do numbers show up on the speedometer. Even the 420 has an ungodly turn of pace, and after our old Fast Fleet long term 420R was fitted with a set of individual throttle bodies, it instantly became the best-sounding car on the fleet.

Engine and gearbox

The choice here is wide but broadly revolves around three engine variants, a 660cc turbocharged Suzuki three-cylinder, and naturally-aspirated 1.6 and 2-litre Ford four-pots in various states of tune.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard on most models with a six-speed manual standard on the 420 and a six-speed sequential on the 620R. The basic architecture means Caterham will only too happily fit a six-speed on all but the 160 though, and a limited-slip differential is available on all Sevens except the 160 - though the limited-run SuperSprint does include a limited-slip diff as standard equipment.

> Caterham Seven 620S review

The entry-level engine in the Seven 160 comes from Suzuki. An unusual choice? Perhaps, but the diminutive K6A engine has been used in Suzuki’s cars for decades so it’s a proven design, and its tiny size and affordability make it a natural choice for the basic Seven. It produces 80bhp, which doesn’t sound like much these days but feels healthy enough in the Seven, giving 163bhp per ton. The SuperSprint features a tuned version of the unit making 95bhp.

If you want proper power though, the rest of the range can provide it. Next up is a 1.6-litre Ford Sigma four-cylinder, making 135bhp in the Seven 270 and 152bhp in the Seven 310 and developing a suitably sporting blare as they race towards the red line. The 2-litre Ford Duratec-engined models are rampant, with 180bhp the entry-point in the Seven 360, rising to 210bhp in the Seven 420 and, fitted with a supercharger, 310bhp and 219lb ft of torque in the 620R.

Caterham fits the latter model with a six-speed sequential transmission - probably just as well, as while the Seven’s manual gearboxes are as tactile as transmissions get, we doubt our arms could move fast enough to change gear manually in the 620R.

Ride and handling

Light weight, a stiff spaceframe chassis, a front-mid engined layout, a low centre of gravity, rear-wheel drive… simply by looking at the car’s on-paper characteristics you know it’s going to be good, and true to form the Caterham remains one of the great drivers’ cars, decades after Colin Chapman first introduced the Lotus Seven way back in 1957.

> Ariel Atom review

That low weight influences virtually everything that makes the Seven great. Basic Seven 160s dip under the half-ton mark at 490kg and no other Seven weighs more than 575kg at the kerb. Even though the Seven is narrow by the standards of most cars, it’s wide for its height and combined with great front-to-rear balance and, if selected, sticky tyres, the car’s grip and change direction and the space it gives you on the road are pretty much unrivalled among regular road cars.

You direct it through a quick, unassisted steering setup and a tiny wheel, meaning the smallest of movements have a large outcome and all but the tightest of turns can be dismissed with the flick of a wrist. The steering bombards you with feedback, but so tiny is the Seven’s frame that you feel as much about what the car is doing through the seat as you do from the wheel - and perched above the rear axle, you’re perfectly placed to detect changes in the car’s yaw. Only motorcyclists and single-seater racing drivers are granted more two-way communication between pilot and chassis.

The Seven’s ultimate behaviour does depend on which model you go for, which gives the wide range of variants Caterham offers surprisingly different characteristics. The basic, live-axle 160 on its narrow tyres feels very much like driving a particularly well set-up classic, without the power to really excite the rear axle in the same way as its stablemates, but a wonderful front-to-rear balance and relatively low grip that lets you pull off tiny four-wheel drifts at satisfyingly sane speeds.

> Morgan 3 Wheeler review

At the other end of the scale, Caterham’s R models on near-slick Avon tyres grip tenaciously but give you more options when it comes to altering your cornering line with the throttle. Models in between do a bit of both, so choosing the car that best suits your driving style requires little more than the right budget and deciding just how fast you want to travel.

The Seven’s ride quality is better than you’d expect, as the ultra-light chassis allows a softer spring rate than you’d normally require for such cornering performance. It’s never less than firm in any Seven, but the car’s small size means you always have the option of avoiding rougher sections of road altogether.

MPG and running costs

You’d probably not choose a Caterham Seven as an economy car, but for something with the potential for such huge performance, they can be surprisingly affordable to run.

Caterham only quotes fuel economy for the basic Seven 160, mainly because it’s absolutely remarkable - 57.6mpg combined, with only 114g/km of CO2. The latter means an initial bill of £160 for VED (something not even the frugal 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5 can manage, with 139g/km and a first year bill of £200), with annual VED of £140 thereafter. That economy-car engine really pays dividends here.

You can expect the four-cylinder Sevens to be less economical, though on a steady cruise you shouldn’t expect too many shocks at the pumps from most of them. Better will be the way you don’t chew through tyres or brakes as you might from a heavier performance car, and with so few toys in the cabin, there’s little to actually go wrong in the first place.

As a car from a small-volume manufacturer though, there’s still the potential for little, niggling faults and the occasional failure to proceed, so factor this into your buying decision and set aside a little money for unexpected costs. On the plus side, slow depreciation means you'll not take too great a hit when you come to sell up.

Interior and tech

There’s not much interior to speak of in a Seven, but the biggest concern you’ll probably have is whether you even fit. Caterham does offer different seat options and perhaps more pertinently, a large SV frame is still available for particularly tall drivers, but it’s certainly not a car for the broad.

Next, you’ll want the roof off. It’s handy that Caterham supplies one, but it makes getting in and out a considerable faff, it’s fiddly to erect or stow, it makes the cabin a claustrophobic place, doesn’t really make it a great deal more weatherproof, and frankly it looks a bit crap too. A better bet is the recently introduced 'shower cap' roof that leaves the rear of the car open but can be erected or lowered in a matter of seconds; unlike the full roof, which takes minutes and the skin off your knuckles. Ultimately, for wet weather driving we'd recommend warm waterproof jacket and a healthy sense of adventure.

The doors are worth using if you intend to drive your Seven without a helmet, mostly because the car’s unique shape turns the interior space into a vacuum above a certain speed and actually makes it quite difficult to breathe.

The rest of the Seven’s cabin is as simple as they come. You can option a heater and a heated windscreen as mild creature comforts, and if you’re in a racy mood then the fixed-back bucket seats with harnesses ramp up the race-car feel - though they do make getting in and out even more of a chore. The dashboard is pretty much a board (albeit made from carbonfibre in some models) with instruments strewn about its surface, and you’re hemmed in by the transmission tunnel to one side and the chassis to the other.

Pedal room is tight, but once you’ve got the knack they’re just right for heel-and-toe and their short actions complement the tight gearshift and rapid steering. And if you are the right shape for a Seven, then you might even find it surprisingly comfortable inside - though some of our testers complain about the lack of elbow room for changing gear and working the wheel.


“Purposeful” is perhaps the best description of the Seven’s styling. We think it looks great, but at the same time it’s fair to say it’s not a conventionally attractive car. Oddly, it doesn’t look as old as the 60 years of its basic design, but perhaps that’s down to the car’s gradual evolution - or perhaps we’re just so used to the way it looks that the styling has taken on a completely timeless quality, not unlike that of the Land Rover Defender or the overall shape of a Porsche 911.

That said, Caterham did offer a heavy rose-tinting package for your spectacles when it launched the Sprint and later the SuperSprint - stick an age-appropriate numberplate on either of these and it’ll take a connoisseur to realise they don’t hail from some time in the 1960s.

Other Sevens embrace modernity by way of fat tyres, aggressive alloy wheel designs, bright colour schemes and optional splashes of materials like carbonfibre. There’s certainly appeal in the design from a pure engineering standpoint too, as few vehicles short of an Ariel Atom give you such a clear look at their basic mechanicals.

And all Sevens stand out on the road, partly because they look hilarious among rows of bland hatchbacks and enormous SUVs, and partly because they’re still a relatively rare sight.

31 Jan 2018

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Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:49
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