Colin Hubbard continues his series of road tests, this time taking to the road in a legendary British sports car: Nothing prepares you for your first drive in a Caterham. Twenty minutes behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce Ghost certainly didn’t and I don’t even think an hour on my bike would have. Today is my introduction into the world of lightweight road cars whose purpose is purely to entertain, not really to get you from point A to point B.
The car in front of me is a Caterham 360R which is the track focused variant of the 360S which is their road-orientated car. This has a standard sized body although there is an SV wide body variant with an additional 4 inches of width which is reflected in the cabin although the extra girth adds 25kg to the kerb weight.
Kerb weight for the 360 is 560kg which is about half the weight of a Ford Fiesta and equates to a power-to-weight ratio of 321bhp per tonne. A pretty impressive figure but only part of the picture.
Power for the 360S comes from a high-revving 2 litre Ford Duratec engine so reliability is of no concern, even if you built it yourself. Caterham have fettled the engine and added a tubular exhaust manifold with a side silencer pipe located just inches from the drivers head. I use the word silencer lightly as I doubt it cuts any volume from the screaming engine as the sound is very loud but very perfectly in keeping.
The gearbox is a 5 speed manual with an extremely short throw action which is firstly necessary due to restricted movement in the tiny cabin and secondly improves shift times.
It really is a miniature car with everything pared back to only what is strictly required. There’s just enough room in the engine bay for an in-line 4 and the front suspension components and wheels are all open to the elements with carbon mudguards keeping things legal. Even the headlights are set in individual pods. The engine is set far back and actually behind the line of front wheels, it could be argued it is front mid-engined and judging by the balance through the corners you wouldn’t argue with that.
Acceleration is pretty mind blowing, not in actual figures per se but in the way it actually gets the job done. 0 to 60 takes just 4.8 seconds but feels much faster as the whole car is buzzing with excitement from the race turned suspension and the shouty exhaust. The top speed is just 130mph due to the flat front and open wheel design but this car isn’t about top speed but acceleration and cornering ability.
You enter by stepping over the side pipe and put one foot on the seat, then grab the buckle for the 4 point harness and wiggle both feet down into the little foot well before lowering your bum onto the very snug seat. The next challenge is to find the locating belts to insert into the large buckle and fasten the buckles on the vinyl doors which are part of the £1,250 weather protection pack and includes a proper windscreen and hood.
Snug isn’t the word and I have a sweat on already despite not even turning a wheel yet! The pedals are very close together and I’m glad I wore my trainers as boots would have ended up pressing too many pedals at once.
To start you insert the conventional key into the ignition, turn on then press the Caterham 360R starter button on the dash (to turn off don’t press the start button like me, it doesn’t like it!). The Ford lump bursts into life and the bark from the exhaust makes me jump, it is very loud, certainly louder than my motorbike with an after-market exhaust but then its location is so much closer to your ear in a Caterham.
Sadly the Hill Course at the Millbrook Proving Ground isn’t open to the Caterham’s so I try to follow the test route on the card located on the passenger seat.
As I drive towards the exit of the venue the ride feels hard despite having only 13 inch wheels with 55 profile tyres, it jiggles around on bumpy roads and bounces over speed bumps. Just before the exit I am faced with a barrier with a control pad to speak into. I don’t stand a chance of reaching it nor shouting over the exhaust, luckily while I’m stuck in the driver’s seat battling with the harnesses to reach up to the control pad the barrier it is remotely raised by security. I wouldn’t want to take this through the M6 Toll!
I exit the main entrance and give it some throttle and it soon reaches 60mph which is where I’ll stay for now. Even at 60mph it feels fast and barely legal as you are extremely exposed to the elements with the wind battering your face and the tiny cockpit with hip-hugging composite fixed back seats feeling claustrophobic at first. The route map won’t lie on the passenger seat, the airflow keeps trying to turn it into a kite so I tuck it down the side and make my own route up.
As the miles stack up I begin to get used to the size and exposure and have completed a few overtakes with considerable ease, aided by that generous power to weight ratio. The engine has a broad range of torque and the lack of mass means the shift light quickly illuminates when you use full throttle.
The handling is sublime achieved by the low weight, Bilstein dampers, track-focused tyres and a mechanical limited slip diff, so corners, roundabouts and anything that gets in the way is taken with precision and grip although the ride is a little bouncy.
Every control has a direct action, there is no servo for the brakes or power assistance to the steering, just an immediate, if slightly agricultural physical action. This is only possible due to the featherweight mass and lightweight components but offers a real connection to both the car and to the road. The steering is extremely direct having just 1.93 turns lock to lock and the tiny steering wheel shimmies with feedback from the front end during road surface changes and particularly through the corners.
Driving through a small village was an experience as it is an extreme looking car (especially with ‘Non-metallic Porsche GT3 Green’ paint) and that exhaust really is attention seeking, along with the cabin being so low down and exposed you feel like everybody is looking at you. Busy junctions are a cinch as visibility is great but you have to remember to cancel the indicator as it is a plain old toggle switch.
As I drive out of the village the sun was glistening then I hit some tree cover, as my vision acclimatised I suddenly noticed a speed bump just in front of the car. I hit the bump at around 30mph and the front wheels took the majority of the force then quickly settled but as the rear wheels hit the rise the back wheels actually took off and bumped back down. As you sit pretty much over the back axle and compressed into the seat by the harness it was quite a physical experience and not one I wanted to repeat.
I gel with the car after a few more miles and find overtaking soon becomes addictive, the huge surge of the Ford motor propelling such low inertia along with the wind crashing through the cabin meant I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I hope Caterham don’t mind me saying this but the car is a little maniac, it offers an experience akin to a rollercoaster ride with handling like it’s on rails along with the wind rush and spectators watching you.
I truly enjoyed my brief time with the Caterham, this was helped massively by some glorious sunshine but I fear it would have been a different experience had been raining; you could get properly soaked in the exposed cabin and the track focused tyres may have been a bit of a handful.
You will have heard this before but believe me as a biker it is perhaps the closest you can get to a motorcycle experience only more exposed as you don’t wear a helmet or leathers. With the figure hugging seats and 4-point harness you feel like you are actually part of the vehicle.
A Caterham is terrific fun and an agile car but one you couldn’t use as a daily driver. It is just too extreme to get in and out of and the weather protection is seriously lacking even with the optional weather protection. If you use it as intended as a weekend toy or trackday car then it really is the perfect tool to enjoy the thrill of driving.
The Caterham range starts at £15,995 for a self-build with a 3-cylinder Suzuki engine and tops out at £49,995 for a factory build with supercharged Ford engine capable of 0-60 in 2.8 seconds.
Positives – unbelievable fun and fairly unique
Negatives – loud, uncouth and attention seeking (these may not be bad points)
Price – £23,995 (base 360, DIY build)
Price as tested – £36,295 (factory built 360R with options)
Engine – 2 litre Ford Duratec naturally aspirated
Transmission – 5 speed manual
Drive – rear wheel drive
0-62mph – 4.8 seconds
Top speed – 130mph
Power – 180bhp
Torque – 143 lb ft
Kerb weight – 560kg