- Car Reviews
Purist driving experience, old school charm meets new age ability
Cramped and uncomfortable interior, the roof isn’t exactly waterproof
What is it?
If you look hard enough, you’ll find Caterham Sevens on some ancient cave drawings. Probably. The archetypal old-stager is based on a design by Lotus founder Colin Chapman and hasn’t changed in 60-odd years. For what is fundamentally a two-seat tub with wheels, stripped and spartan, it remains a seminal experience for those interested in actually driving rather than simply travelling.
SO IT'S THE SAME AS IT'S ALWAYS BEEN?
While it looks that way, the Seven is a master of evolution. The latest range is the strongest it's ever been, with a clear progression from entry-level 170 through 360 and 420 to pant-wettingly fast 620. Each is named after its power-to-weight figure, so given they all weigh around 500kg, just divide those numbers in half for rough bhp figures. You’ve two engines to choose from. The 170 uses a 660cc turbocharged Suzuki three-cylinder, while the rest of the standard Seven range deploys a 2.0 litre Ford Duratec four-pot. Most of those are naturally-aspirated, but the 620 is strapped up with a supercharger – just in case white knuckles are something you’re looking for from a car.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE IN THE RANGE?
There is. In September 2022 Caterham announced that it was reintroducing its ‘heritage range’ with the addition of the Super Seven 600 and the Super Seven 2000. These are ‘retro-inspired’ with flared front wings and chrome exterior details. And yes, we know the rest of the Seven range isn’t exactly futuristic. Anyway, the 600 is based on the 170 so gets the Suzuki engine, while the 2000 is based on the 360 with its larger Ford engine.
DO THEY ALL BEHAVE LIKE OLD-FASHIONED CLASSICS?
Emphatically not. Equipped with modern engines and brakes, the Seven can scare even the most outrageously powerful supercars – helped in part by modest dimensions and steering that connects directly to your brain. In the most powerful cars, 0-62mph is possible in just under 2.8 seconds. So it’s quick. Also uncomfortable, cramped and noisy, with a devastatingly rubbish fabric hood arrangement that’s harder to put up than a broken tent. It, of course, remains an absolute TG favourite.
DO I HAVE TO BOLT IT TOGETHER MYSELF?
If you’re mad enough, you can build one yourself. It’s claimed that, armed with just a simple set of tools and 70 hours of free time, even the most mechanically deficient human should be able to transform Caterham’s pile of boxes into a road-legal car. To make sure there’s no room for artistic interpretation, all kits come fully wired, with the instruments in place, the fuel and brake lines fitted and all essential safety equipment secured. Essentially, all the other parts are just bolt-ons. It’s like an Ikea flat-pack with an exhaust.
Caterham says that as of 2022, demand is so strong there's an eight-month waiting list on pre-built Sevens. The car has quite simply never been more popular, or more relevant.
In an era of three-phase charging, electric torque-vectoring and turbine range-extenders, the Seven is as simple as things get this side of a pedal car: a steel spaceframe chassis, engine at the front, power at the rear, and driver slung over the back axle to feel everything the featherweight is doing. It’s driving purity. More on that over on the next tab of this review.
What's the verdict?
The Seven is one of the purest motoring experiences committed to four wheels, and the fact that it isn’t completely out-of-reach price-wise makes the whole package even more appealing. Plus, the older it gets, the better it gets as it naturally distances itself from all the tech wizardry that’s on offer elsewhere. The organic feedback that any Seven serves up is so crisp and clear it’s like you’ve docked your coccyx to the chassis.
So anytime it does step out of line, it’s incredibly natural to get it back again. Also terrific fun. If you’re a bit scared, try a smaller engine first as the senior stuff may be a bit too much for some. But all that oomph makes for a truly exhilarating, yet wonderfully usable lightweight for the road.
As cars get heavier, larger, and more complex, this tactile little thriller which consumes so little and delivers so much has never been more welcome.