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Ha-ha! Has Noddy been on a track day?

Let’s get the lols out the way first, shall we? Yes, this is a brand-new Caterham. Hysterical joke isn’t it? Looks like every other Caterham… which looks like a car from the 1950s. Boo-hoo, ha-ha! Get all your belly laughs out now. But this one is different.

Wait a minute, I’m still laughing.

We get it, you either get the seminal, stripped-back driving experience a Caterham offers, or you don’t. It’s that black and white. And if you’re laughing right now at what you think is Noddy on a track day, you’re probably not a fan. TG, on the other hand, is. Black and white, see? But this new Caterham Super Seven 1600 puts a bit more grey into the picture. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Oh, why is that?

Well, the Super Seven follows last year’s retrotastic Sprint and screenless Super Sprint Speedster to become the third car to join Caterham’s ever-growing Heritage collection. The previous two were incredibly twee nods of nostalgia based on the charming 660cc turbocharged 160 Classic. Popular, too – both selling out instantly. So Caterham is having another crack at kicking it old-school (arguably, their modus operandi), this time with more power and more retro. Oh, and a widebody option – so you can enjoy those 1950s looks with a 2020 waistline.

More power. That’s a GOOD thing, no?

Yes. The extra oomph comes courtesy of the 1.6-litre Ford-sourced motor from the 270 – so we’re talking 135bhp in a 500kg package, all fed to the rear wheels via a five-speed gearbox. And it’s a humdinger of an engine. Where the Suzuki was peppy, this positively zesty naturally aspirated number fizzes with character thanks to DCOE throttle body injection and those two chrome air filters punching out of the side of the bonnet. It’s an engine that loves to rev, and rewards you for it thanks to an intoxicating, purring induction noise from a time gone by. A time when engines could sing before being snuffed out by emission filters and turbos. Good times, basically.

This all sounds very positive. What’s wrong with it then?

Unfortunately the retro two-seat tub lacks the Gucci bits of hardware that make more focused Caterhams so addictive and engaging. There’s no adjustable suspension, and the setup it comes with is baggy. If you’re just bopping along between hedgerows you won’t mind – there’s a bit of suspension travel and the dampers provide good cushioning. It’s relatively calm and you get to enjoy the sensory experience of a lightweight, open-topped car. Which, on a warm sunny day is incredibly pleasant as you tootle along like Toad of Toad Hall; enjoying your surroundings and doing things that actually make you feel in control of the car and doing the driving. In lots of modern cars, that’s simply not the case. Remember the Caterham is completely analogue; there’s no power steering, no ABS and no traction control. It’s the washboard and mangle of car world and all the better for it. But that engine makes a good noise and stirs you up, so you want to go faster. And that’s when the problems start.

Drive the Suzuki turbo-engined Classic hard and it’s endearing. It can’t quite manage what you’re asking, but it’s up for having a go and communicates that well. By comparison, the Super Seven 1600 feels flaccid. The Avon ZT5s are too weedy to grip hard, but that would be fine if they at least provided enough stiffness in the sidewall to give you an accurate idea of current trajectory and remaining grip. But in fact direction changes are uninspiring – not helped by the optional (£300) large diameter Moto-Lita steering wheel, which reduces steering effort too far and simply takes up too much space in the tiny cockpit. Rather than incisive turn-in, what you get is the sense that the steering column is a tightly wrung chamois leather. You twist it, the message gets through to the other end, but it’s all a bit wet through the middle.

And it’s hardly at the ballistic end of the Caterham spectrum, either – seeing off 0-60 mph in 5.0 seconds and topping out at 122mph. Expensive too, coming in at £40k when you tick essentials like the strawberry and cream colourway, roof, doors and other period touches.

Ah, I see. Looks a bit gawky too.

That’s the thing. With the dynamics not being the normal motoring hit we crave, and the power running very thin on track, it’s more of a styling exercise. And Caterham may also be a bit wide of the mark in that regard. Where the previous throwbacks were well-judged and quaint with period detailing and enviable paint palettes, the Super Seven 1600 is nudging dangerously close to being awkwardly pastiche. With flimsy running boards and gold-painted 14” alloy wheels (complete with a spare wheel hangar) it looks over-egged and kit car-y. Which – don’t get us wrong – it has all the right to be given it’s an actual kit car. But it looks a bit – err – Westfield. Y’know, a bit ponytailed-man-at-the-village-green-car-show.

Doesn’t look very practical either.

Naturally, it comes with the normal raft of Caterham ownership quirks; needing to drip fuel into it at the rate of a litre a minute, having to be a greased contortionist to get in and out of it with the roof on, always anxious that something will break. These are normally palatable niggles in other Caterhams as you’re rewarded with exquisite moments of driving that normally push the concerns to the back to your mind. In the Super 1600 you don’t get that, so they quickly become genuine frustrations.

Should I get one then?

If you want dated looks with comfort and usability, you may be better off with a Morgan. Or just save up a little more money and buy a ‘proper’ Caterham that’s built for driving. As that’s what they’re best at.

What do you think?

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