Legendary Caterham 7

Written by M.West on October 22, 2006

Caterham 7The Caterham range is derived from the old Lotus Seven, but although the shape still remains familiar, the Caterham has been through so many incarnations and engine choices since that it is a completely different car. These days the range exclusively uses versions of the Rover K-series engine as used in Rovers 25, 45 and 75, the MG versions of same, as well as the MG TF and also cars from other marques such as the Lotus Elise. Under an exclusive deal with Caterham, the K-series engines in 1.8-litre form, as tested here, are badged X-power.

The Caterham range can currently be divided into three basic types; the entry level Classic with its 1.4-litre 105 bhp engine; the Roadsport available in 1.6-litre 115 bhp, 1.8-litre 140 bhp and 160 bhp X-power versions; the Superlight available in 160 bhp, 200 bhp and 230 bhp versions of the 1.8 X-power engine. The SV suffix on the test car means that the larger bodyshell, introduced to cater for the larger driver, is used adding 80 mm to the wheelbase and 105 mm to the overall width.

The Superlight models are really aimed at the track day market even the windscreen is an optional extra on these versions. The road end of the market is where the Roadsport models are aimed with the SV being Caterham’s top seller.  In the past there been many versions of the Caterham 7 including Superlight and even the old Vauxhall engined JPE with 250 bhp, but only ever on track.

The Caterham factory is in the Caterham town centre, next door to the railway station and across the road from a shopping mall.  A small showroom, capable of holding maybe four or five normal saloons, is the frontal aspect of the factory. There are no wrought iron gates, no security guards in huts, no barriers, just what looks like any other small town garage. This one is different, instead of the row of family saloons parked up outside, there is a row of Caterhams of all denominations shining in the sun. Behind the garage lies a single storey building where the cars are built.

There is no correct way to enter the Caterham everyone will adapt to a style that suits them. The best way is by folding the driver’s door forwards, stepping over the low door cut-out and standing on the driver’s seat, from where one would then lower themself under the steering wheel until their feet were fully stretched out.

There is no doubt that the Caterham scores highly at the things it was designed to do well. It goes like a rocket in a straight line, 0-60 in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 128 mph. It loves to be revved with maximum power not developed until 7000rpm, but due to the light weight, a torque peak at 5000 rpm still seemed perfectly tractable around town and at low engine speeds.

Cornering on rails, an overused description, but one never so apt as in this car. At any sane speed on the road, the front wheels go exactly where they are pointed (and the driver watches the mudguards turn with them), the back wheels follow the fronts faithfully. On track, sideways is an option, but this would only occur at speeds too insane for public road use. The brakes don’t use a servo, but then the Caterham weighs just 550 kg, about half the normal small family hatchback.

But even with a six-speed gearbox, gearing is so low that the 128 mph must be achieved at 7000 rpm or just over. This means that maintaining progress on a motorway needs about 5000 rpm and the noise is unbearable. I know it’s not a motorway car, but neither can you drive this at 50 mph in the “slow” lane without looking like a fool.  Wisely Caterham does not bother with a stereo, you’d never hear it and besides it adds weight.

The SV starts at £19,245 in factory built form, but the extras on the test car soon hiked that dramatically. First off there was the 160 X-power engine upgrade (£3000), metallic paint came in at £1100, the 15″ alloy wheels with sticky Avon R500 tyres another £600. There’s more. Leather seats seemed good value at £200, but the six-speed gearbox is a £1500 option, and the harnesses add £150. So even with just the extras it is easy to see, we’ve lifted the price to almost £26,000. For a car that most likely will not be used by the buyer as an everyday car. Fortunately for Caterham there seems to be no shortage of such a customer.

It has to be remembered with the Caterham, you are not so much purchasing a car as buying into a lifestyle. There is a thriving race series for when mere track days are not enough. And recognising that buying a Caterham is not a decision to be taken likely, you can even hire one if you go on to buy, a day’s hire charge is refunded.

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