Seven up: Caterham’s latest pair of open-tops

For a few short months, it’s cool enough for open-air motoring. We put two contrasting new Caterham Sevens through their wind-in-the-hair paces.
The Caterham Seven 160 only pushes out 80hp, but it has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Toyota 86. Courtesy Caterham Cars
The Caterham Seven 160 only pushes out 80hp, but it has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Toyota 86. Courtesy Caterham Cars

In continuous production since 1957, the enduring appeal of Caterham’s inimitable Seven has waned not one iota. Its recipe is delightfully straightforward: a lightweight composite shell poured over a skeletal, tubular, two-seat chassis, with a small but pokey engine powering the rear wheels through a manual transmission.

Enthusiasts love it for its clarity of purpose, for the way it removes every unnecessary layer between the road and the driver, and for its ability to embarrass metal 10 times more expensive. It has had many imitators, but the Seven has survived and gone from strength to strength. I’d argue that the purity of its driving experience in combination with its relative affordability makes it all the more desirable and relevant than ever.

Caterham’s latest two Seven models – the 160 and the 620 R – bookend the company’s current range. Both continue the tradition of delivering the most scintillating and visceral driving experience possible, but they do so in very different ways. With its tiny 660cc, three-cylinder, turbocharged Suzuki engine wringing out just 80hp, the 160 takes up its position on the bottom rung of Caterham’s performance ladder. But remember that this car weighs an anorexic 490kg, giving it a punchy power-to-weight ratio of 163hp per tonne. Toyota’s GT 86 musters 156hp per tonne, by comparison.

So what’s the link with Suzuki? David Ridley, Caterham’s chief commercial officer, explains that the idea behind the 160 came about back in 2008 during a trip to Japan, the company’s third-largest market after the United Kingdom and France. “We’d always thrown around the idea of a car specifically for the Japanese market, one that embodied the Caterham spirit but also qualified for ‘kei’ status,” he says.

For a car to fall into Japan’s kei class, and benefit from the attractive government-sponsored tax, parking and insurance benefits they enjoy, explains Ridley, it has to be no longer and wider than 3.4 metres and 1.48 metres, and power from its 660cc engine is capped.

“What started as an off-the-cuff comment at a late-night dinner slowly gathered momentum, developing into a single project that would address both our desire for a bespoke kei car for Japan and a no-frills entry point into the Seven range for the rest of our markets,” says Ridley.

Caterham approached Suzuki in 2012 and, after lengthy discussions, a commercial arrangement was agreed – it would supply Caterham with the engine, gearbox and live rear axle from Suzuki’s Wagon R (Japan’s best-selling kei car since anyone can remember) to drop straight into the 160. In Japan, this zingy little turbo power plant delivers just 63hp, but for all other markets, the shoebox-sized engine has been fettled to dish up a big-hearted 80hp at 7,000rpm and 107Nm of torque at 3,400rpm.

Gunned from standstill through its snickety five-speed manual transmission, the little Caterham wails its way to 100kph in 6.5 seconds flat and tops out at 160kph. OK, that’s hardly supercar-baiting stuff, but despite its pocketable dimensions and modest performance, there’s something deeply appealing about the 160’s unerring focus on sheer driving pleasure, rather than outright, tyre-blistering grunt.

You see, the 160 isn’t about outright pace and eyeball-flattening acceleration. It’s all about the sensation of speed; the impression of covering ground at a riotous rate. In most modern cars, 100kph feels slower than a salt-sprinkled slug. At that speed, the 160 makes you feel like you’re piloting the fastest thing on the planet. The engine howls, the steering wheel writhes and wriggles, the suspension works overtime, the airstream is battering your face and the blacktop is just a few inches below your derrière. The entire car feels like an angry hornet in full attack mode.

The 660cc Suzuki triple may have thimble-sized pistons, but despite its Lilliputian size and outputs, the blown engine delivers the goods with hairy-chested determination. The combination of thrummy baritone soundtrack and superb throttle response – the engine reacting instantly the moment you even think about adjusting the teaspoon-sized pedal – creates the impression of sound-barrier busting pace, even if the tiny speedometer says you’re nowhere near the national speed limit.

Despite the water-biscuit thin tyres and their narrow contact patches, the dry grip levels are astonishing. The 160’s nose scythes instantly into corners, and the rear end responds readily to throttle adjustments. Flinging the 160 into a long sweeper as fast as you dare, and then balancing it on the fine line between grip and slide, is a driver’s delight, helped by the wealth of accurate and highly detailed information dished up by the small, unassisted steering wheel. It perfectly balances performance and pleasure.

If the 160 is all about poise and momentum, then the 620 R is all about violent power and ferocious speed. Caterham has an unblemished record of building some of the world’s most decidedly unhinged performance cars, and the 620 R carries that banner aloft – and at ­synapse-snapping pace.

The 620 R – like the 160, the name refers to its outlandish power to weight ratio of 620hp per tonne, with the R for “racing” – started life as the R600 track-special. The R600 was wheeled out in 2012, and Caterham announced to the wide-eyed media who had just come in from test-driving it that a road-going version was under development. The 620 R made its debut 18 months later, most aptly, at the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

If Satan took to the road, he’d do so in the 620 R, because it’s easily one of the most terrifying, intoxicating and electrifying cars I’ve ever driven. Where the 160 makes do with just 80hp, the 620 R is powered by a bespoke 2.0L Ford Duratec engine that’s breathed on by a supercharger to deliver – take a big breath – a faintly ridiculous 311hp at 7,700rpm and 297Nm of torque at 7,350rpm. This, remember, in a car that weighs a fraction over 500kg. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed, straight-cut, sequential ’box and a very aggressive limited-slip differential.

The rest of the car draws heavily on Caterham’s considerable motorsport success with track-inspired suspension, ultra-quick steering, carbon-fibre construction and racing brakes. The result is a road car that will catch and devour anything this side of a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. It’s that ferociously fast.

Slammed through its sequential gearbox – there’s no need to use the clutch when you’re on the move, you just lift the throttle slightly and pull back the stubby shifter for whip-crack upshifts – and the 620 R will scream to 100kph in just 2.79 seconds. Yup, that’s quicker than a McLaren P1, and just two-tenths of a second behind Porsche’s 918 Spyder. That’s very quick company indeed. Even its 250kph top speed seems outrageous given the size of the hole that its blunt, open-wheeled shape has to punch through the air.

Throttle response in any gear and at any revs is scalpel-sharp – there’s no mid-range lethargy or top-end breathlessness, just instant, mouth-drying pace that pulls in the horizon so quickly that you need to heavily recalibrate your distance-speed-time triangle. The engine pulls through to its 8,000rpm redline with demonic aggressiveness, and it will spin its rear wheels in third, fourth and fifth. You can change up early at 5,000rpm and still cover ground at a ludicrously fast rate, but you’ll need to find a lot of teeth-gritting courage and some big open roads to redline this car through the gears.

If the 620 R’s explosive straight-line speed is jaw slackening, then its cornering ability is expletive-inducing. Once its trick Avon race tyres are warm and sticky, this four-wheeled missile will slice its way through curves and bends at the most insane speeds, without any sign of understeer or twitchiness. You don’t lob the 620 R into a corner and slide it through with a grin on your face as you would the 160. No, this monster is way too planted and grippy for sideways showboating. Get this car out of shape and you’ve probably got things horribly wrong.

Both the 160 and 620 R have struck a real chord with buyers – the company has shifted just more than 100 160s since the start of 2014, with 24 fearless drivers parking a 620 R in their garages. This boost means that 2014 will be Caterham’s best year to date, with total Seven sales nudging 500 – 70 per cent for export, 30 per cent for the UK – compared to the 450 recorded last year.

The Seven’s order book is full until mid-April 2015. Unsurprisingly, the UAE features strongly in Caterham’s expansion plans. It has already appointed a distributor in Dubai, which will be announced in January 2015, and it’s actively seeking new partners in Qatar and across the Middle East. Prices are yet to be confirmed here, but in the UK, the 160 currently starts from £14,995, while the 620 R starts from £49,995.

My advice? Go and test drive both the 160 and 620 R as soon as you can. They’ll change the way you think about driving, for good.

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Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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