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Caterham 160 vs Suzuki Swift

  1. Fear not. This is not one of those twin tests in which a Something is pitched against Something Very Different Save For One Apparently Minor Detail: “Toyota Aygo vs Ferrari FF: they’re both four-seaters, but which is best?” 

    This is because such twin tests must end with this banal conclusion: if you want a city car to park in narrow spaces, the Toyota’s for you, whereas if you want to do 180mph around an ice-racing circuit, you’ll need the Fezza. So let’s get this out of the way early: if you want a low-cost lightweight for a summer’s weekend, go for the Caterham Seven 160. If you want a warm hatch with space for five (at a push), buy a Suzuki Swift Sport.

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle 

    This article originally appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Even so, these two share more than a colour. Both are unusually light, both cost a chunk less than 20 grand (£14,996 for the Caterham if you’re prepared to do the spanner-work yourself, £14,249 for a fully built five-door Swift), and both use a Suzuki engine. But what really joins the Swift and Caterham is their belief that back to basics is best. Both these cars keep it simple: honest, old-school goodness with not a hint of a double-clutch ’box, adaptive chassis or adjustable throttle mapping.

    Or, let’s be honest, much in the way of fastness. The Swift packs a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated four that sends a modest 134bhp to the front wheels, while the Caterham wields an almost imperceptible 80bhp from its 660cc Suzuki-borrowed turbo three-pot. But both make the most of their demure power outputs by keeping kerbweight to a bare minimum. The Swift weighs just over a tonne, the Seven a willowy 490kg. Combined, these two weigh only a jot more than a Vauxhall Astra VXR.

  3. Speaking of the rip-snorting Astra, the Swift Sport is a welcome reminder that hot hatches don’t need Porsche-troubling power, bowling-ball sized turbos and wheelspin-quelling differentials to do their stuff. No, the little Suzuki isn’t tear-yer-face-off quick, but makes up for it by going about its business with fuss-free clarity. All its controls are even and neatly matched, a welcome break from the over-assisted, indirect responses from 
the pedals and steering wheels of too many recent hot hatches. The Swift feels, in fact, like a happy throwback to the Eighties, one just as good in recently introduced five-door flavour as three.

    Still, context is an amazing thing. Jump into the Swift Sport after driving any other modern hot hatch, and the Suzuki feels the lightest, most compact of cars. Jump into the Swift Sport after a blast in the Caterham 160 and – no exaggeration – the Suzuki feels like a Range Rover. The Sevenis an object study in being the very least a car can be without ceasing to exist in any physical sense. 

  4. Which has its ups and downs. Downs: the motorway. You drive the Caterham on a busy carriageway with the Grim Reaper lounging in the passenger seat, ever aware you’re only a mistimed overtake or daydreaming SUV driver away from being smeared over the next two miles of tarmac.

    Ups? Sophisticated as a mollusc it may be, but the Caterham is a happy-go-lucky barrel of fun. So straightforward and sincere is the Seven that 
to string it through a series of tight corners is to find yourself chuntering with involuntary pleasure, every sense tingling in sniffer-dog detail.

  5. This is not because the 160’s handling is pin-sharp. Because, well, it isn’t. Rather than the de Dion suspension of the more powerful Caterhams, the 160 gets a simple Suzuki van axle (Suzuki Van Axle: brilliant name for an Eighties action hero, no?) at the rear. With no differential to help its cause, this means the skinny-tyred Seven loses grip at the rear a) very early and b) somewhat haphazardly. But, really, that’s OK, because – with your posterior parked right between those slipping rear wheels – you feel you’re operating right at the ragged edge of handling, whereas in reality you’re barely nudging double figures around a gentle corner. The world needs more of this. Modern performance metal, with its torque vectoring 
and adaptive suspension and stability control, is astonishingly good at convincing you that everything’s fine, right up until the moment 
physics butts in to bluntly inform you that you’re doing 90mph into a hairpin and you don’t have the talent to get out the other side. The Caterham is the opposite, always keen to remind that catastrophe is but a moment away. Might not sound like a compliment, but truly it is. 

    Even so, after a day cheerily belting the Seven round Britain’s twistiest countryside, a thought troubles me: if a Chinese manufacturer without 
a grand sports-car history proudly unveiled the Caterham 160, proclaiming it the future of lightweight excellence, would it be roundly mocked? I fear so. Because, on very many levels, the Seven is either woefully outdated or simply woeful. Look at those rear lights, which muster all the cutting-edge sophistication of a toddler’s Duplo efforts. Or the leathery, popper-lined roof, the fitment of which requires several hours, half a dozen bloody fingers and, inevitably, a full Basil Fawlty-style branch assault. Those of us blessed with conventional human feet rather than pointy goat hooves will struggle to depress the clutch without mashing the brake (and, sometimes, the accelerator for good measure) with our left boot. 

  6. Truth is, addictively no-frills though it may be, for those of us without 16 grand to blow on a toy to crank out of the garage on the two sunny weekends of summer, the 160 is probably still a Tube stop too far down the Keeping It Simple line. But it’s 2014’s most extreme example of paring back the unnecessary, an example the Swift Sport softens into day-to-day reality. Less weight means more go for less power, and, crucially, the ability to absorb potholes without turning your spine to sneezing powder. Most of all, less complexity makes you, the driver, the most important component, rather than a passenger to technology.

    Take the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, an extraordinary technical achievement by any measure. A car that squeezes 354bhp from a 2.0-litre (2.0-litre!) turbo four-cylinder, and passes it to the road through a seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox with two electrically actuated clutches, and then to a four-wheel-drive system with a multiplate clutch that can detect slip on the front axle to throw power to the rear wheels. Chuck in a host of acronym-laden traction control and stability software, and you’re looking at more technology than the combined might of all the Apollo missions, which, when it all hooks up correctly, serves up face-bending levels of acceleration and grip.

  7. But here’s what happens when you chuck the A45 AMG into a sharp right turn on an abandoned mini-roundabout. First you get understeer, because the A45 is front-engined and, in the normal course of play, front-wheel drive. You get very much the same from the Swift Sport, just rather slower.

    But whereas you can remedy said understeer in the Swift Sport with either a judicious poke of the brake or an injudicious wrench on the wheel, not so in the A45, which takes it upon itself to sort out your dilemma, first by abruptly shoving torque to the rear axle and then, a few milliseconds later, applying much clever traction controllery to quell wheelslip. If you’re really lucky, you might be treated to a gearshift or two in there, as the A45 determines you’d be better off elsewhere in the rev range. The net result is that you exit the corner a whole lot quicker than you would in the Swift Sport (not least because you’ve got nearly treble the power), but having done a whole lot less to get you there. Like the Caterham, the Suzuki puts you in control of your own destiny, for better or worse.

    Top Gear is not against technology, or even driver assistance. We greatly admire the Merc S-Class and BMW 7-Series, and their ability to shield occupants from the messy world of traffic and noise and poor people. But these are luxury limos: stupor-inducing isolation are their raison d’être. Tech must be applied appropriately: lightweights and hot hatches are about hardwiring the driver into the experience of going down a road, but complexity erects a barrier between squishy human and oily engine. Both the Seven 160 and Swift Sport offer a reminder that, sometimes, less is more.

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