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First Drive: Caterham Seven 160

Caterham Seven 160

Caterham Seven 160

The flyweight British marvel is still going strong, and comes with a very clever and efficient new engine.

A few important details. Firstly the model itself, dubbed the 160 on account of its power-to-weight ratio, and it gets that on account of a new engine. Other models in the range still use modern Ford units to good effect, but the 160 gets a three-cylinder turbocharged Suzuki engine of just 660cc. If that doesn’t sound like much for a sportscar, you’d be right. But that’s not a problem because some things remain gloriously unchanged. Most importantly the Seven’s minimalist approach to everything. The (optional) doors are canvas and plastic, everything is operated via toggle switches and the standard equipment list includes inertia-reel seatbelts. No car is as fantastically minimalist as a Caterham.

There’s an honest, retro charm to the Caterham; authentically so because not a huge amount has changed since the Seven began its life as a Lotus way back in 1957. The Seven 160 has its own smart logo and, as standard, wears modest steel wheels rather than the usual alloys, and while that might sound a bit old-tech, it adds to the charm. If the Seven 160’s looks don’t raise a smile, look elsewhere.

There’s no hiding the fact that the Seven has little space and isn’t very practical. In fact you’d have a job hiding a piece of paper containing that sentence anywhere in the car. There is a boot of sorts but if you have the roof down, that’s where it lives. You can squash a couple of bags in there, but that’s it. The cabin is tiny too, with you and your passenger squished in tightly together. But the pay-off comes when you drive it.

The fact that there’s very little to the Seven 160 means it weighs just 490kg. For reference, the automotive heavyweight that is the Ford Fiesta weighs twice as much. So although the three-cylinder turbo only offers a modest 80bhp, it gets along smartly, particularly thanks to the good torque. The gearshift is meaty and fast with closely stacked ratios so it will sprint to 60mph in only 6.5 seconds.

Performance is only half the story however, because it’s the Seven’s directness that is its great appeal. The tiny steering wheel is alive in your hands and barely needs more than a quarter turn to send you darting off in another direction. And those skinny tyres offer decent but not excessive grip, so you can enjoy its fantastic balance. Any other car feels bloated and numb in comparison.

On the one hand, you could say you don’t get much for your money when the options list includes things like carpet, a heater and weather protection. But they’re not expensive options, and the base price is just £17,995. Better still, if you want to build it yourself (Caterham reckons you’ll need about 60 hours), you can get it for just £14,995. Bargain. And it can manage almost 60mpg - if you behave.

If you’re an enthusiast and you despair at the way modern cars are sanitised, electronic-laden bloat boxes, the Seven is just the tonic. There are increasingly mad versions that add more power and save even more weight, but the basic recipe is the same. Sure it’s an occasional car unless you’re very keen (and probably single) but until you’ve driven a Seven, you can’t really say you’ve driven at all.

If this car was a... means of cooking it would be a barbeque — using it in the rain requires commitment, but when the conditions are right, it’s the best thing in the entire universe.

 

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