What use is a car with a 660cc motorbike engine that generates just 80bhp? A car that is utterly impractical; has no storage and a boot the size of a suitcase; has none of the modern safety systems or driver aids like ABS or power steering and no entertainment system of any description? A car with a cockpit that is so cramped you can barely move whilst driving and so noisy it renders conversation nigh on impossible?
Now imagine that same car but this time bear in mind it weighs 490Kg; has a power to weight ratio of 163bhp per tonne; does 0-60 in 6.9 seconds; bears the name Caterham, and holds true to the mantra of “simplify and add lightness”. If you can attribute that quote you’ll understand what makes these cars so unique.
Caterham build a wide range of cars that cover the entire performance spectrum, this particular model is the baby of the family, the 160 and it is, in a word, brilliant. Yes it may only have a 660cc engine but it’s from Suzuki and they know a thing or two about engines. Put that engine in a lightweight car, fit it with a turbo, connect it to the rear wheels and the effect is absolutely exhilarating. It sounds like a furious mosquito on steroids and corners like a housefly on rails. While all around you are simply driving you’re having an absolute blast.
Before we all get too carried away there is an elephant in the corner that needs pointing out. The downside of the small engine is that the 160 really doesn’t like motorways. A long journey quickly becomes tedious and you quickly start to notice how cramped and rattly everything is. The driver’s seat squeaks against the rear bulkhead – if you’re shorter this won’t be as much of an issue – the gear knob rattles in the gate, the rear view mirror is a vague blur that may or may not provide useful information and the 3-cylinder engine is out of puff at normal cruising speed (around 85-90mph if the police aren’t looking). This translates to a cacophony of howling wind, screaming engine and a full symphony of squeaks and rattles to accompany the numb backside and cramped legs.
To be fair, this isn’t entirely the fault of Caterham. There are two different chassis sizes across the Caterham range, the S3 and SV, but because the 160 is only available in the S3 which is the smaller of the two, it really isn’t suitable for those over 6ft tall to sit in comfort. When you’re 6ft 2in and almost as wide it’s a squeeze. The SV is slightly longer, slightly wider and infinitely more comfortable than the S3. I obviously fit otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this but I found myself jammed between the side frame and the transmission tunnel with nowhere to put my left foot except on the clutch pedal, and climbing in and out is best performed in private if you value your dignity. If it starts to rain and you have to fit the cover – a simple task in itself – then you may be better off slapping a stamp on your forehead and posting yourself to your destination rather than trying to get back in.
However – and it’s an however of gargantuan dimensions – give it a blue sky, early summer sun, and a twisting A-road through sleepy villages and busy market towns and all of the above ceases to matter. Tree lined roads; long swooping straights and tight corners; suspension transmitting every ripple and bump in the road to your outstretched arms; watching the front wheels kiss the apex with the slightest movement of the wheel; the howl of exhaust as the revs build; the light whistle of the turbo as you shift up through the gears; the beautifully solid gear-change; no driver aids; no electronics; just engine, wheels and driver. Under these conditions the Caterham is an entirely different animal.
What this car loves more than anything is to sit right in the middle of the rev range where the power is on tap instantly. It’s not about outright speed in the 160, it’s about the way it accelerates between the corners and the sensation of being an integral component of the car. The steering is precise and direct, the brakes require a confident touch, the gearshift needs to be slotted home with a tiny flick of wrist. It’s the sheer pleasure of driving a beautifully made and perfectly balanced car. Under the right circumstances the Caterham is exquisite and I don’t care that I don’t fit.
It’s easy to drive too. Not so powerful that it will attempt to graft you onto the nearest tree at the first lapse in concentration, but gentle and forgiving when you inadvertently (deliberately) push it past the limit. Because the 160 sits on narrow wheels there isn’t the usual level of grip you’d expect from a car of this ilk, but because it’s light and agile when the back end starts to let go it happens in slow motion so you have time to relax, enjoy the scenery and bring it gently back into line with the slightest touch of opposite lock. Pushing the Caterham to the limit will have you biting the inside of your cheeks to avoid grinning like the proverbial idiot without running the risk of sullying your license with penalty points.
So how much would you pay for this thrill, excitement and driving purity? Whatever number you have in your head there’s an excellent chance that you’re wrong because the Caterham 160 costs a miserly £15,995. It doesn’t take a genius to categorise it as something of a weekend toy but it’s significant chunk of toy for a relatively modest outlay and easily manageable running costs. I can’t think of many ways to have this much fun for that amount of money without straying into the realms of the legally questionable.
I could go on but I suspect there is a finite limit to the amount of hyperbole you’re willing to stomach. If not, there is certainly a finite limit on the number of words I’m permitted to squeeze into a review. The original Colin Chapman designed Lotus Seven the Caterham range is based on was created 60 years ago now but the driving force behind it remains as true today as it was then. It’s a testament to Chapman that the original concept is still so relevant today and to Caterham for recognising this fact and resolutely maintaining that vision
Personal note – The Caterham 160 is a fantastic driver’s car but I have to be honest, I couldn’t live with one for the simple reason that I am too generously built for my own good. I can’t blame Caterham for my big bones but if you have similar concerns I encourage you to have a look at the next model up, the 270, which is available in the larger chassis. It costs a little more (around £23k depending on the specification) but it offers the same thrills with more comfort and more power at what is still fantastic value for money. Hopefully I will be able to review an SV model in more detail later in the year so watch this space.