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Caterham 7 Roadsport road test. Image by Adam Jefferson.

Caterham 7 Roadsport road test
Three glorious days of summer weather and a Caterham to play with - there is a God!

 



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Three glorious days of summer weather and a Caterham to play with - there is a God!

The 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 I have driven many versions of the Caterham 7 including Superlight and even the old Vauxhall engined JPE with 250 bhp, but only ever on track. I have always felt that the track is the natural habitat for these cars where an exuberant sideways driving style (not of course the fastest way to lap, but surely the most fun) can be maintained with ease all day long, or for as long as your crash helmet can contain your grin. I've never really wanted to drive one on the road, convinced that at the first roundabout I'd kick the back end out just as the boys in blue were arriving on the scene to lock me up and tear up my licence. So although I was looking forward to driving the Caterham on the road to see just how much of that was true, I approached this test with some trepidation.

My first surprise was on visiting the factory. Surprisingly enough it's in Caterham, Surrey just off the M25. The location was extraordinary enough, not located in an industrial area, or even in the middle of nowhere. In fact 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.

Time to collect "my" Caterham. It looked very nice in deep metallic blue, and the black leather seats almost hinted at a concession to luxury, but of course leather seats will survive getting wet a lot better than cloth ones. I was quite surprised to see doors on the car - well more a cross between sidescreens and doors which hinged forwards along the edge of the windscreen. A quick lesson in how to erect the roof if required just served to reinforce the idea that it was best left in the boot. Being a firm believer that roofs are for wimps, this was no hardship.

Getting in! There is no correct way to enter the Caterham - everyone will adapt to a style that suits them. In my case this seemed best carried out by folding the driver's door forwards, stepping over the low door cut-out and standing on the driver's seat, from where I would then lower myself under the steering wheel until my feet were fully stretched out. And this was for the larger SV model. With the roof stashed away. Heaven only knows how you get into a standard sized Caterham with the roof erected.

Even the Roadsport models in the Caterham range are an exercise in lateral thinking, where lack of weight is king. The interior comprises the two leather seats, a steering wheel so small that it resembles the ones you use with a PlayStation, some simple (but Caterham badged) dials and seemingly random switches laid out across a flat surface masquerading as a dashboard. No airbags, not even column stalks - the indicators are operated via a '60s toggle switch with no self-cancelling. The test car was fitted with optional race harnesses, which are necessary on track where surely even the Roadsports cars will spend most of their time, but I did feel a little incongruous driving round town with them on.

Time to move off - but where is the ignition barrel? I felt a fool; I searched for what seemed like a full five minutes. I had a key so there had to be a barrel - but not where I expected - attached to the steering column - as the wheel is almost attached directly to the dashboard. Not Saab style near the gear lever either. Finally, using the Braille method (shut eyes and grope around in the dark until you find it), there it was, under the dashboard, and up again. Maybe there is an art to getting the key in the barrel, it felt like a job for someone with ET's fingers - over three days with the car I never did get the hang of it. Finally, key in barrel, ignition on and time to drive.

Whoa! Now I didn't expect silence, or even refinement, but I don't think I was prepared for just how LOUD the exhaust note is, in these days when even Ferraris have sanitised exhaust notes, how do Caterham ever get this past the noise regulators? Feeling more self-conscious than ever, I edged out into the town traffic. The test car had done 18,000 miles in only six months and had just come back from a long-term test with the BBC motoring magazine. Maybe the clutch needed a little adjustment; the biting point seemed somewhere south of the bulkhead. Not the end of the world, unless like me you are more suited to the standard wheelbase model (I tried one later) - to change gear cleanly I almost had to slump down in the seat and stretch out.

No matter, a couple of fluffed gear changes later and I was leaving the confines of town, pedestrians and the 30 mph limit. There was only one sensible thing to do - floor it. Woooooooooow! I could not believe the noise, but it was combined with a huge shove in the back and the need for fast gearchange after fast gearchange from the Caterham designed 6-speed gearbox. A good shove on the brake pedal (no ABS, it weighs too much) showed that at least the braking was not in awe of the available acceleration.

And so it continued for three days, at every possible opportunity the throttle was buried through the bulkhead, traction was unbelievable. Round corners the Roadsport just went where it was pointed, the back end didn't step out once but I know that corners and roundabouts were being taken a good deal quicker than I normally take the same curves in lesser vehicles. This is the payback for all the built in lightness.

Strictly in the interests of science, I removed the doors to get the pure experience. Bad idea. This is fine on a track with helmet on, but the windblast without the doors, coupled with the fact that while seated normally I could reach out and touch the road, hinted at where the phrase "four-wheeled motorbike" originated. And not any old motorbike either - one of those unfaired things where flies in your teeth are de rigueur.

So I enjoyed my time with the Caterham then? Well, yes and no. 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 the downside - personally I couldn't live with this car on the road. 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 - 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. I also need my creature comforts. Wisely Caterham does not bother with a stereo, you'd never hear it and besides it adds weight. I could cope with singing to myself, after all, no one else could hear me, but that ignition barrel was the final straw. I never could get the key in the slot, and by the time I did the immobiliser had cut in - safety regulations take the blame for that one.

Scariest of all was the price - 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 I could 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 - I just can't help thinking that if you're buying this type of car which is just so compromised, you might as well go the whole hog and buy from the Superlight range - the R300 would actually have been cheaper, the R400 maybe another 4000 but with a major hike in performance.

Of course, the Caterham has its origins in the Lotus Seven, a self-build car. And you can still build it yourself if you want - a saving of approximately 2250 being available if you carry out the final assembly yourself.

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. I hope you get the weather for it.

Adam Jefferson - 6 Aug 2003









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2003 Caterham 7 specifications: (Roadsport SV160)
Price: 21,245 for the basic 160 version.
0-60mph: 4.9 seconds
Top speed: 128mph
Combined economy: 35.1mpg
Kerb weight: 550kg

Full technical specifications

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.



2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 

2003 Caterham 7. Image by Adam Jefferson.
 






 

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