The Caterham Seven is a completely back-to-basics sports car which does without equipment most car buyers would consider necessities, let alone luxuries. The Seven is a tiny, lightweight and utterly simple machine which puts the focus purely on giving the driver the maximum amount of fun on tight, twisty roads.
This is a car so bent on connecting the driver with the sensation of driving that it doesn’t even come with a windscreen as standard. Or a roof. Or doors. Here is a car that doesn’t compromise, one bit, on providing the ultimate driving experience.
The Seven has been around for decades in many different incarnations and the reason for its longevity is simple. No other car in the 21st century can emulate its visceral driving experience – especially for the price.
Ignoring kit cars which are clear carbon copies of the Seven, the closest road legal machine you can get to the Seven is the Lotus Elise, which is substantially more sophisticated and provides a somewhat watered down driving experience in comparison.
What is it?
The Seven is a very compact, lightweight and simple sports car which has been on sale in various guises since the early 1970s. The Lotus Seven on which Caterham’s model is based can trace its roots back all the way to 1957.
Despite the car’s long history it has been updated over the years and now comes with a range of modern engines and is available in kit form for buyers to build themselves or fully constructed by Caterham.
Current models vary from the £14,995 (or £17,995 fully built) Seven 160 which packs a meagre 80bhp but weighs a scant 490kg, to the barmy Seven 620R, which can fire from a standstill to 60mph in just 2.79 seconds and costs a hefty £49,995.
What is it like to drive?
The Seven offers an utterly intoxicating driving experience, even in entry-level 160 form tested here. The car may have a miniscule 0.7-litre three-cylinder engine, but because it is so small, light and low to the ground the Seven magnifies every ounce of g-force – so much so that most drivers won’t want for any more power. The 160 makes cats eyes feel like speed bumps and humpback bridges feel like mountains.
Unsurprisingly this basic machine feels very loud and very visceral compared to nearly everything else on the road. The engine may be small but it makes a big noise, with the passenger-side-mounted exhaust barking out a vocal – albeit enjoyable – tune.
The 0.7-litre engine may be small, but it fires the car down the road with an indecent burst of speed – partly down to a turbocharger which boosts power to 80bhp and partly down to the sheer lack of weight. At 490kg the Seven 160 is a third of the weight of an average family hatchback.
The turbocharger also means that you don’t have to rev the car hard for a decent amount of thrust. Work the engine, though, and you are rewarded with a distinctive sound and the speedometer jumps rapidly. The stubby metal-topped gearstick has a very short throw and clunks into gear satisfyingly, but it is very stiff compared to most cars.
The steering does without power assistance and is incredibly responsive – as soon as you turn the wheel the reaction is instant, with the car darting around the road without any weight to dull its reflexes. Consequently though, simply keeping the car in a straight line at motorway speeds requires a fair amount of concentration. The car also gets deflected across the roads when negotiating big bumps.
Thanks to the lack of power steering it takes muscle to manouevre the car at low speeds too, though the steering lightens up when on the move. The sporty suspension gives the car a firm ride, though the supportive seats mean that this gives a sense of connection to the road rather than being unpleasant.
The brakes work effectively enough but require a huge amount of force to get this lightweight car to stop. The pedals themselves also have very little room around them. Those with large feet or even chunky shoes may be completely unable to press the accelerator without pressing the brake pedal at the same time.
Work up to motorway speeds and the amount of noise is ferocious. The roof flaps around, the bluff windscreen whips up a swathe of wind noise and the boom from the exhaust is inescapable. Even for a sports car this is an uncompromising machine. Finishing off the aural assault the Seven’s interior also rattles around you.
What is it like inside?
The interior is very basic with a minute steering wheel and unconventional controls strewn across the strip of dashboard. The indicators are controlled by a small metal lever which you flick left or right while the headlight switch resembles a domestic light switch, as does the control to engage full beam.
The dials are simple and easy to read, though the fuel gauge is located way over to the left, making it hard to see. We also found that the tiny steering wheel obscured some of the speedometer and rev counter.
The seating position is incredibly snug. The leather seats in our car offered good side support and we found them very comfortable though they don’t offer much adjustment. Anyone over 5ft 10 will struggle to fit behind the wheel at all, especially as the seat is hemmed in by the leather covered transmission tunnel to the left and the door to the right.
Is it practical?
Simply getting into the car is an event in itself – this is not a practical car in any way, shape or form. If you opt for the optional doors and roof, you have to squeeze your arm between the doorframe and roof and release the two poppers, just to open the door. The door then folds back so it rests with the wing mirror an inch away from the front of the windscreen.
Clambering into the car then requires a great deal of flexibility – and a sense of humour – as the floor of the car is just a few inches off the road and the roof is also very low, leaving a very small aperture to climb through. Bear in mind though that not even the roof, doors and windscreen are standard – you’ll need to find an extra £1,250 for these.
Additionally there is also no storage in the cabin and the boot is small, with the roll cage drastically limiting the size of item you can fit in it. Furthermore, even the boot cover is an option. The optional roof also has many poppers to secure it in place and reattaching it can prove fiddly.
Should I buy one?
The Caterham Seven is laughably off the pace in nearly all areas that you would typically assess a modern car. However, it is an incredibly good machine for its intended purpose – giving you a thrilling driving experience at legal speeds and on public roads.
The Seven 160 may have a small engine but it still offers big thrills and makes more sense than other more expensive Sevens for someone who just wants a back-to-basics, fun to drive machine. The most basic Lotus Elise, which is its closest rival, also seems expensive in comparison, weighing in at over £30,000.
The Caterham Seven may not be sensible or good value, but it offers an unmatchable experience for driving enthusiasts who can savour that iconic view over the louvred bonnet to the silver-backed circular headlights and wheels ahead.
Don’t want to buy new? You can browse for a used Caterham Seven in our classifieds here.
Caterham Seven 160
List price: £17,995
Engine: 0.7-litre, turbocharged, three-cylinder petrol
Top speed: 100mph
0-60mph: 6.5 seconds
Fuel economy: 57.6mpg combined
Euro NCAP rating: Not yet tested