Although 150bhp doesn't sound that exciting in a world where that's barely enough to power a warm hatch, the Caterham Seven 150 shows that working smarter rather than harder is the way forward. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
The Caterham Seven is an anachronism right? Wrong. With 'just' 150bhp to play with, this Ford Sigma-engined Seven produces performance figures that would scare a Porsche 911, yet is affordable, economical and environmentally sound. So much for the view that it's behind the curve. Some day all sports cars could be built this way.
Think of a resolutely modern sports car and you'll probably think of something like the latest Porsche 911. Break it down its component parts and you begin to wonder at what price this modernity has come. For £66,000, a Carrera S gets to 60mph in 4.8 seconds while emitting 285g of carbon dioxide per kilometre and will swill fuel at a rate of 24mpg. Your investment in the 'definitive sports car' is buying you 246bhp per tonne. You can do better than that. No, really. Caterham has long believed in the credo of efficiency and effectiveness through light weight and simplicity and their latest Seven models, powered by Ford Sigma powerplants, show that this philosophy never really gets old. Although you've got just 150bhp to play with, these cars are quicker than the 911, way more economical and greener plus they offer a superior power to weight ratio. Which car seems more relevant now?
If you've never driven a Caterham before, it can initially feel a little overwhelming. Compared to the rather synthetic feel of many sports cars, the Seven experience is rather more organic. Turn the saucer-sized steering wheel and you can see the front wheels respond behind their cycle mudguards. Hit a bump and you'll see the suspension at work. Drive down a country lane at 40mph and it'll seem as if you're about to make the jump to light speed. You'll emerge, juiced and with slightly shaky hands wondering how such a full-strength adrenaline hit can still be legal. The 150bhp engine fitted to this Sigma Seven might come from relatively humble Ford origins but it certainly gets the job done, power output being only 10bhp down on the aggressive Superlight 300 model. This translates into a sprint to 60mph of just 4.7 seconds and an exhaust note to die for. The improved chassis is stiffer than before which, as counterintuitive as it may seem, actually improves ride quality due to the suspension being isolated and working more efficiently. Everything else is pure Seven. The steering is weighty but communicative and the brakes have the ability to hang you off your belt. Traction control? That's down to your right foot.
Design and Build
While the Seven might have the ability to embarrass a Porsche 911 on a twisty road or racetrack, it can't hope to compete with a lardy sports coupe when it comes to practicality. This is not the sort of car to pick up the weekly shop in. Although ergonomics have been improved quite significantly in recent years, the cabin still resembles a throwback to the 1970s with a fiddly popper fit roof, some rather endearingly idiosyncratic minor controls and space for two rather slim-hipped occupants. If you're on first name terms with the employees in your local KFC, you might well need to specify the slightly wider SV variants. Despite its rather basic look and feel, the Seven has been developed over many years and Caterham have ironed out niggling faults due to a very close relationship with owner. Yes, the cars may be quirky but there's actually very little to go wrong and the fundamentals are tried and tested. Build quality in the conventional sense of soft feel plastics and doors that thunk shut are a non-issue here. Far more important is the ability to do forty laps of Brands and then drive home without missing a beat. That's where Caterhams are utterly unbeatable.
Market and Model
Two versions of the Sigma-engined Seven are offered. First up is the more accessible Roadsport model, aimed at those customers who want a car that's geared up for Road use but which can turn its hand to the odd track day. The Roadsport weighs in at 550kg and features a five speed gearbox. Opt for the Superlight variant and you'll be buying an extremely focused sportster, aimed largely at track use. This is fitted with a six-speed gearbox and also boasts uprated brakes and wider track suspension. There are also fifteen inch alloys, rather than the fourteen inch wheels fitted to the Roadsport, and there's also carbon fibre for the fascia and the front wings. Composite seats and a Momo steering wheel are also part of a pack that gets you supercar destroying pace for the price of a Golf GTI. That's value for money in my book although you will have to regard the Seven as a second or, as is frequently the case, a third car. There are, however, a large and loyal section of Caterham's clientele that take a rather perverse pride in their Seven being their only vehicle and stick with the cars come rain or shine. For these people, a windscreen is a rather fey luxury item.
Cost of Ownership
Caterhams are among the least costly sports cars to run. Because of their inherent lightness these cars are very easy on things like tyres and brakes. With less forces acting upon them and with less work to do, the materials last longer. The other benefit of not lugging a bunch of extraneous kilograms around is economy. Even a rather spirited drive in a Seven will often see average fuel economy in the region of 30mpg. The other big factor that reduces the pence per mile ownership figure is residual values. Caterhams attract a cult following and if you were to buy a Sigma Superlight today, three years down the road it would still be worth over 65 per cent of its original price. That's cheap motoring by ay stretch of the imagination. A cult following also includes an active community of owners, so finding the best deals on upgrades, parts and insurance is usually only a few mouse clicks away. Several specialist insurers will offer attractive rates on Sevens, knowing that owners are often more responsible, committed and knowledgeable than with most other marques. Mileages on Sevens also tend to be modest.
The Caterham Seven ought to have been superseded long ago. Something smarter and cleverer should have consigned into history. That's usually the way of automotive product development but just occasionally, a formula is so inherently right that successive generations of cars only serve to underline its relevancy. Such is the case with the Seven and this Sigma-engined car shows that the Seven is a roadster that, if anything, is more in tune with the times now than it was thirty years ago. This is a car that's fun even when you're not posting huge numbers on the clocks, that is economical and environmentally sound yet which nevertheless retains a steely focus and capability that refuses to be emasculated. So many sports cars today nanny their drivers, offering a dumbed-down, synthesis of all the visceral emotion that should accompany a proper roadster. Caterham doesn't subscribe to this view. Long may that continue.