"Above all, the handling astonishes. Everything you've heard is true"
The R300 is, like a long line of Caterhams, derived from Colin Chapman's Lotus Seven although like a trusted axe that has had five new heads and four new handles, the bloodline may be traceable but the actual hardware has come on a fair bit. Here we examine the Superlight R300. Once voted Evo magazine's Trackday Car of The Year, it seems a good point of introduction and forms part of a family of Superlights that also encompasses the motorsport-derived R400 and R500 models. With 175bhp under the bonnet from a new Ford 2.0-litre Duratec engine (10bhp up on the old version's output), the R300 costs around £28,000, yet still boasts a power to weight ratio of almost astonishing potency. To put it into perspective, a Ferrari 360 Modena manages 292bhp per tonne. With 339bhp per tonne, this is not vehicle that one takes lightly. Performance is suitably outrageous, the Superlight R300 accelerating to 60mph in 4.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 140mph. It's the way it gets there that recalibrates your gyros. Fiddle with the immobiliser, grope for the ignition barrel, press the fire button and ignite the Ford Zetec engine and you soon become aware that this is like nothing you've experienced before. The exhaust assaults you with a sonic barrage quite at odds with the engine's modest capacity. Despite years of experience in all manner of exotic cars, my mouth has suddenly gone a little dry. My size twelves feel like clown shoes in the diminutive pedal box and my thighs rub against the bottom of the steering wheel. The three point seat belt pins you to the glass fibre shell that serves as a seat and it genuinely feels as if you've strapped the car on rather than vice versa.
On the move, you're astonished by the directness of the steering. Think of a line and the Superlight is on it, the dinner plate sized steering wheel sending the most delicious feedback to the driver. Everything seems alien. You can watch the front suspension doing its stuff and feel the car delicately shifting balance, your body mass perched almost on top of the rear axle. At first, each tentative thrust of the accelerator merely results in gales of disbelieving laughter but confidence quickly builds followed by a feeling of invincibility. Narrow country lanes disappear in a blur, the insistent bark of the exhaust rebounding off verges. Then you notice a Kia Mentor behind impatiently wishing to get by. Let's just say that the Superlight R300 does, to the uninitiated, make 35mph seem really very spectacular. The downside of Caterham ownership is the impracticality. Loiter around the showroom in Caterham (strangely enough) and you'll encounter numerous hardy types who run one as their only car, dismissing as fey any complaints that it's a bit uncompromising. If you're a genuine trooper, you can specify your R300 without a windscreen, hood or doors and drive around in a Biggles helmet and goggles. Being someone who has managed to reach the age of 33 without having beaten a tiger shark to death with his bare hands, I prefer something a little less heroic. The doors fitted to the Superlight 300 I tried only barely justify the description, being vinyl flaps that affix with a popper and to which the door mirrors are attached. The rear view can therefore be a little fuzzy, the best tactic being to travel faster than any posterior hazard. Driving a Superlight solely on the road is a little like buying a top line set of thirteen Ping golf clubs and using them exclusively at your local pitch and putt. You're barely scraping the surface of the potential available. On a track, the Superlight R300 suddenly makes all kinds of sense. The tiny pedal box makes dancing between the pedals a delight and the stubby gear lever can be palmed around the six gears just for the sheer tactility involved. Above all, the handling astonishes. Everything you've heard is true. Tail slides that would usually generate entreaties to your maker in certain other cars become sought at every opportunity in the Superlight. It's the ideal car to learn about the finer points of handling and the art of driving. The light weight of the car also means that it doesn't have a ravenous appetite for tyres nor does it return crippling fuel consumption figures during an enthusiastic session of lapping. Caterham have long been the exemplars of the 'less is more' philosophy. The Superlight R300 takes this accepted wisdom and runs with it. Fast. The only problem is that such is the delightful balance and sheer accessibility of the R300 that the R400 and R500 models above it suddenly seem a little excessive. Yes, it does work best as a second car, but if you've got the money to indulge your passion, the Superlight R300 makes a strong case for attention. Subject to further research, I've discovered that Caterhams only divide opinion amongst those who've never driven them. The rest are invariably converts.
Facts at a Glance
Facts At A Glance CAR: Caterham Superlight R300 PRICE: £24,995 in component form and £27,995 factory built INSURANCE GROUP: 20 PERFORMANCE: Max Speed 140mph / 0-60mph 4.5s FUEL CONSUMPTION: (combined) 27.5mpg [est] WILL IT FIT IN YOUR GARAGE?: Length/Width/Height mm 3100/1575/800mm