You've always wanted a Caterham 7. Do you really?

The Caterham 7.

I'm in my 50's now. Not having a mid-life crisis or anything like that; I daily and quite happily drive a Renault Kangoo. My second car, back when I was 18 though, was an MG Midget. I've always liked small convertible cars, and the Lotus / Caterham 7 was always the one I wanted. The practicalities always put me off though. They were just so small, even for an 18 year old. So I settled with a variety of "lesser" drop tops, ancient underpowered and utterly unreliable MG's generally, and was happy.

Fast forward a few years and I got the chance to do a track day in one. Wow. Awesome car. Fast, responsive and fun. Still small. Too small. I had to take my shoes off to drive it, and I'm less than average height for a UK male now. My 13 year old daughter is almost taller.

Turns out they now do a wide bodied version, with far more room inside. Apparently you don't need to take your shoes off to drive it. Caterham also hire them out for the day. Which is why I found myself in Crawley picking up the keys to a wide bodied 270S.

The start.

30 years of normal cars left me struggling for the first 100m. You see below 2,300rpm the car is not at all happy. Not in first or second gears. Having ridden motorbikes for years, I soon learnt to rev it and slip the clutch. It still caught me out now and then, juddering alarmingly. So within 100m, there I am, wife sitting next to me, minimum of 2,500rpm all day in an open topped car, with the exhaust outlet next to my right elbow. In first gear 2,500rpm with the clutch fully out.... in a 600kg car. By the time we got into third I was doing 70. In around seven seconds. Wife not happy.

This was on a dual carriageway. Smooth road. Car was gorgeous to drive. Happy boy, want one please.

Picked my son up, out for a pootle.

Off the dual carriageway, onto some proper A and B back roads. Have some fun. And yes, it was fast. Hit the limiter in first, second, and, yes, third. Boy laughing.

Until the road became a well used road. Little bumps in the surface had the car jumping around, veering slightly side to side. Back off a little, watch ahead. Wife owns a two seater Smart car; used to avoiding bumps.

God almighty, what was that! Massive loud metallic bang. Felt as though the car was going to snap in two. I'd not hit anything, and neither was there a pot hole in the road. Oh, I'd hit a little ripple in the road at 25mph and the car had bottomed out.

The car had fully bottomed out, sub 30mph in a suburban street. After that I was scanning ahead for any road imperfections and, quite frankly, it became tiresome. Only when you have to look out for such things do you realise how bad the roads are. Or rather you start to value.... actual working suspension. It's fine having a 600kg car on stiff springs for handling. Great. Just how often are you right on the edge on a public road?

Even on A roads it could be awful, especially under braking. I hated it under braking as it tended to dart side to side, with a little weave.

Personally I'd rather Caterham focused a bit more on making the car work better on real roads than chase 0-60mph times. Perhaps even find room for a glovebox or little shelf. Even MG, before mobile phones, realised that people like to carry little oddments with them. I'm fully used to small cars with no room. However, in the Caterham there is no room for anything. Literally nothing. I'm guessing to get some kind of government safety approval for such a dramatic thing - a glovebox - would cost them quite a bit of cash, hence why there isn't one.

The 0-60mph thing. The 270S does it in 5 seconds in ideal conditions. Call it 6 seconds then. That's not actually that fast is it? Not for somebody from a motorcycling background. Hate to harp on about it, but if it did it in 7 seconds yet had far more compliant suspension, would it bother that many people? I know they do the basic specification 160, with the 660cc Kei turbo engine, yet have you sat in one? Tiny. Great looking things, give them that.

The performance.

What would happen is this. For the main I'd drive really cautiously, looking out for road imperfections. Spot a clear stretch, and give it the full beans. My son found that great, so, being a shallow impressionable dad, I'd do that when I could. We never went over about 75mph really; the fastest I dared go was 80mph. Even then I felt it beyond silly. Be honest, in your mom and pop daily driver, how scary is 80mph on an open road? It's not, is it. Not at all. You sit there, a bit bored. Can do it all day long.

In the Caterham it was banging and popping, skittering over the road. Turn the wick up, hit 70mph, it's like being in a tumble dryer. The vibrations were so bad, that I simply couldn't see any more.

And then perhaps you need to brake. At 50mph I found the brake weave alarming. At 70mph the brake weave starts to become frightening, and you wonder why you did that speed in the first place.

Now you may be sitting there thinking "shouldn't be doing those speeds."

Sorry? I'm in a car designed to go fast, and I'm going at the same speed as other road users. I did not overtake a single person all day. All I did was sample the acceleration up to road speeds. And the car failed. Got up to speed real fast, but once there it was not at all pleasant.

I'm guessing a Fiesta ST would be far faster a vehicle on back roads. Indeed I'd say any Fiesta would have been faster point to point. In comfort, perhaps listening to the radio or talking to passengers. I did not even find the car engaging to drive. Just harsh. Where's the fun in spending all your time looking for road imperfections? At one point the road was pockmarked with potholes. Not big ones; at most 1cm deep. In my Renault I'd breeze through them without notice. In the Caterham I actually stopped several times to negotiate these hazards. You tell me, is that fun?

Not really sure why it is so crashy over stuff. I've ridden motorbikes that were far faster, with much more compliant suspension set ups.

My daughter.

Took her out in the afternoon. She's not as impressionable as my son, so I had nothing to live up to, just drive. No silly acceleration, no trying to get to interesting speeds. We pootled - as much as you can in a car that stalls below 2,500rpm.

The car is so loud that we drove in silence, just driving. I realised then how silly the thing is. Using it as transport is way off the mark. It was like being on a roller coaster in a maintenance cycle, pootling back to the workshop. Loud, just shy of being scary, and ever so slightly boring. Quite frankly I was embarrassed being in it. It dawned on me then, that for a lot of people, a car like this is trying to hard to impress, and failing miserably. You just look like a dick.

Past the performance.

Just driving. In traffic.

Everybody wants to race, to be in front.


Van drivers. Diesel pickups with cement mixers in the back. Lorries. Women driving cars full of children. Really. Every car out on the road that day wanted to race or be shown willing and able to race.

Everyone sees the Caterham as an insult or challenge to their driving skills. This is a right pain, and as a driver you never win. At traffic lights, if you are at front and accelerate away, speeding ahead, at the next lights, when you get caught up, everybody around you is fuming, and bunches around, all tense with anticipation at the next green light.

This gets tiring so I started to avoid being at the front. Settle in behind some old dear. No challenge from me then.

Everybody still wants to race. They still bunch up around you, and tear off at green. Why? I'm guessing the open exhaust and a 2,500rpm stall speed. You're just revving the nuts off it at standstill. You may as well be standing next to the driver's window of the next car shouting in their faces "you wanna go with me?"


Quite frankly I hated it and am embarrassed now that I ever wanted one. My son loved it. Wife tolerated it, daughter found it boring. I'm not really sure now who the car is meant to appeal to, not in that form, and that was almost the base model*. I still like the look, still like the notion of carefree motoring. Just think a lot less aggression may well make the car far more appealing. Less noise, less crashing about, less in everyone's face please. A glovebox would be awesome.

Talking to a neighbour, I realised that 135bhp from a 1600cc engine is pretty poor really, especially one you have to slip the clutch in. My wife's two seater Smart gets 74bhp from a 1,000cc engine. That's a city centre runaround in a not too dissimilar state of tune. We don't sit in that, slipping the clutch at 2,500rpm. Rather amusingly Peugeot do a hatchback called the 270.... Because it actually has 270bhp. A five seater hatchback. Caterham call their car the 270S because it has, well, 135bhp and two seats. Ten to one the Peugeot will pull away at almost idle. The Peugeot costs about the same.

And whilst we do look out for potholes, it's not a huge drama if we hit one in the Ranault. Just a bit of a judder. For interest I looked in a family car magazine. A BMW 520d would, in the real world, be faster than the Caterham on pretty much any given road. The MX5 we borrowed a few years ago felt way faster, and could be used on any road. Indeed I'd say it was faster by a substantial margin simply because you did not need to slow down for any tiny road imperfection. One of those Toyota GT things would be better fun on the road by a big margin. Driven one of those as well.....

Really, to run a Caterham as a road car, you're trying too hard to be something that you are not. Not entirely sure what that something is. It's not cool though. Trifle sad?

On a good point, we did 80 miles and the car only needed £4.70 worth of petrol to top it up.

*Actually I can think who it appeals to..... Just rather not insult people.