Breadcrumbs

Caterham Super 7

Car details navigation

8/10

Latest
Road Test

Caterham Super 7 160 Driven

Driven December 2013

Additional Info

Hang around long enough, and eventually you'll find yourself back in fashion. It's a political and pop cultural truism, but also one that strikes you as you slither into the Caterham Seven 160's slender cockpit. It feels awfully familiar. Now a Formula One team, motorbike manufacturer and deep into a highly promising technical partnership with Renault, it's a little ironic that the Caterham that's got us most juiced up in ages barely has enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Its new model-naming policy takes the car's power-to-weight ratio as its inspiration, so while the recent 620R should come with a free straitjacket, here we're talking about a more manageable 160bhp per tonne. Less fizz-inducing is the 80bhp this thing actually makes, while 79 torques looks more like a typing error than a statement of fact. But the reality is that this is a fantastic recipe, and an antidote not only to the modern hypercar but also porky modern cars in general. Perennial shirker of fashion it may be, but Caterham's Seven 160 actually couldn't be more apposite as 2014 dawns.

The engine is Suzuki's K-car 660cc, three-cylinder unit, boosted by a barely there turbo from 64bhp to 80, at a busy 7,000rpm. The five-speed gearbox and live rear axle are also Suzuki-sourced, and the steel wheels are wrapped - if that's the word - in minuscule Avon tyres, 155 section at the front, a thumping 165 at the rear. You'll also find drum brakes back there. A technological powerhouse this is most definitely not.

Never mind. By reversing its obsession with wringing ever more from its mainstay model, this back-to-basics Seven isn't just highly entertaining, it reconnects you with the idea of driving at its most primal without scaring you witless. There's obviously nowhere near enough power for any heroics, but those four tiny rubber contact patches mean you still have to think about what you're doing rather than lazily relying on electronic chassis wizardry and fat tyres to do the heavy lifting or bail you out.

Caterham underlined this rather romantic ideal by letting us drive the 160 on the Futa Pass, an endlessly twisty Tuscan hillside road made famous by Italy's legendary road race, the Mille Miglia. Not being Sir Stirling Moss, the looming clouds and total absence of roof, doors and, indeed, windscreen briefly had me craving the comfy embrace of a Vauxhall Astra hire car.

It's exactly 20 years since I first drove a Seven. It was powered by Rover's K-series engine back then, but not much else has changed. You get a speedo, rev-counter and oil, water and fuel gauges. A Moto-Lita steering wheel is standard; a Momo one, an option. Unless you tick the right box, the aluminium body panels are left unpainted, and the other bits come in a seriously limited range of colours. In a smartphone world, it's the equivalent of two plastic cups joined by a piece of string.

Unsurprisingly, it's all the better for it. Driving it on an autostrada on the outskirts of Bologna is up there in my top five funniest motoring experiences. Into the hills, the 160 exemplifies all the usual Seven virtues: with its open wheels and microscopic body, you can place it on the road with millimetric accuracy; looping all the corners together is a total doddle, thanks to the superb steering; and despite an antiquated rear suspension set-up, it actually rides amazingly well.

As for that little engine, well, it's mostly up to the job. It fizzes and chirps along surprisingly sweetly, and the triple's lightly flatulent parp and the proximity of the stick-thin exhaust generate enough of a soundtrack to keep your ears happy. Give it the beans on a straight, and it'll hit 60mph in 6.5 seconds, before the Seven's lack of aero sophistication overwhelms it (top speed is 100mph, but that may as well be a distant galaxy).

Up in the twisty stuff, the 160 does its best work above 2,000rpm, and prefers to stay in a higher gear, even when the corners tighten. Dropping it into second is neither a particularly tactile pleasure - the 'box is a bit gnarly - nor an aural one, and every one of those 79 torques is on your side so there's enough grunt. In other words, you find yourself in third and even fourth gear in places you wouldn't expect, which feels technically wrong but actually works in practice. Exposure to the elements means you always feel as though you're going faster than you really are, although the truth is that even if you do eventually start to have delusions of Mossdom, you'll struggle to shake off a well-driven Fiat Panda. But it's still massive fun.

Besides, the 160's lack of muscle means you're free to plot the perfect line rather than heaving in and out of every corner like an ape. On greasy, leaf-strewn Italian roads, even 80bhp is enough to keep you sharp, and the Seven is so beautifully balanced and so light (just 490kg) that you can make progress with the lightest of touches on the controls, including a ‘dab of oppo' where necessary.

If this all sounds a bit pipe and slippers, don't be fooled. Toyota's corking GT86 is TG's retiring Car of the Year, and it's a lard bucket compared to the 160. Build it yourself, and prices start at £14,995; factory-built, the 160 costs £17,995. Either way, it's an absolute gem.

Jason Barlow

Verdict: With its tiny 80bhp engine, the Seven comes full circle. And in doing so proves that less is definitely more...

Stats: 660cc, 3cyl turbo petrol, RWD, 80bhp, 79lb ft, 35.0mpg, 180g/km CO2, 0-60 in 6.5secs, 100mph, 490kg, £17,995 (fully built)

Now share it...

Latest road tests

9/10 Caterham Super 7 Road Test
February 2013
8/10 Caterham Super 7 Supersport
April 2011
5/10 Caterham Super 7 Monaco driven
December 2010

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear's code of conduct (link below) before posting.