Is the pointy, lightweight and athletic Caterham Seven really like a go-kart to drive? We put both on the track to find out
2 January 2014

The Caterham Seven, then. It’s great fun, they say. It’s got go-kart handling, they say.

Obviously, the Autocar team don’t say that because it’s a terrible cliché, and those should be avoided, as our style guide suggests, like the plague. But I’m sure that you’ve heard it before.

Certainly, we have. So, here we are, on a cold but mostly dry November morning, at Rye House circuit in Hoddesdon, to see how much truth there is in the cliché. After all, there’s truth in some clichés. Plagues are best avoided.

Anyhoo, Rye House is a kart circuit. That’s okay. It’s a good one. My local one. If a Caterham really does have go-kart handling, it’s going to have to show it on a kart’s home turf.

The car in question is a Seven Supersport, a couple up from the bottom of the Caterham range. For the past year it’s been Nic Cackett’s long-term test car; this was its swansong before leaving us for good. 

Lower down the scale, the kart 
is in Autocar’s custody, too, of a fashion. It’s mine. It’s an ex-hire kart (I think), twin-Honda-engined, making about 10bhp on a good day rather than the 140bhp of the Seven.

We’re going to swap and see how much my weekend wheels handle like his and how much his are like mine.

I’ve driven this Seven a lot, but nowhere as small and narrow as Rye House. But, by gum, if there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s that the Seven doesn’t dwarf the place.

It sits daintily in the pit lane – the Seven is only 20cm wider than my kart’s back axle – and it doesn’t overburden the circuit. You wouldn’t want to race 20 other Sevens around here, but on its own there’s room to pick a line and exploit the handling.

On the two straights, you can pull third gear. The braking is strong and you feel the weight transfer under slowing and on turn-in for every corner, which all want second gear. That’s great because on 175-section tyres and with a limited-slip diff, the Seven, turned in on the brakes, is inclined to step into oversteer very easily, which second has the power to exploit. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that every corner bar one kink can be taken sideways.

The Seven is also pretty fast. On the day, it lapped Rye in 42.1sec, while my kart managed just 45.8sec. Much of that is down to the power advantage, but there’s no question it 
corners with panache. Is it truly karty, though? Nic C takes up the story. 

Can a Caterham be a kart?

It’s fine for Prior. My ‘kart’ was an easy prospect for this test. He only needed to turn up, ease his snake hips into his Autocar dungarees, and then slice and dice half a dozen sideways laps of a natty circuit he knows very well. 

For me, it was all a little more… creaky. A half-decade diet has left me the wrong side of 15 stone, and Prior’s seat is, I swear, made for a child. Getting into it an inch or so off the ground, I sweat, swear and gurn like a tabloid hack at court. 

Only when my kidneys repackage themselves under my rib cage do I land. Similarities? None. Colin Chapman’s attitude to driver safety was famously medieval, but the Seven is an armoured personnel carrier to the kart’s rickshaw. 

Not having been in one for some time, I’d actually forgotten just how vulnerable it feels: feet splayed in front of you, no seatbelt (all the better to eject you with) and a steering wheel held at chest height. 

The fear factor is non-existent, however, mostly because the instantaneous get up and go of Prior’s kart got up and departed some time earlier. That makes speed up Rye House’s diddy straight the Seven’s forte. The kart’s comes at the end of it, where it takes me three laps to realise that no braking is needed at all to get its non-existent nose well and truly turned in. 

Immediacy is to be expected of its change of direction. What I’d forgotten is the enormous physicality that comes with it. Time spent twirling the Seven’s nimble wheel to counter its (brilliantly) wayward rear end is no preparation at all for the sawing, forearm-heaving inputs the kart’s caster wheels insist upon. 

Of course, like the Caterham, its attitude to Rye House’s apexes is best trimmed with the throttle, but its dynamic is utterly different from the nose-heavy, tail-light Seven because it rotates not around the tiny petrol engines or the driven wheels but around the overweight, under-talented human at its centre. 

As a result, Prior’s kart doesn’t necessarily make a lardy malingerer of the Seven; it’s too good, fast and fun for that. Rather, the kart beats the Seven at its own game, stripping back even more handicapping mass from the pursuit of a good time. And because its biggest burden is where it should be, it ultimately swaps the Seven’s frivolous oversteeriness for the deeper driver reward of genuinely advantageous, mid-engine-emulating four-wheel drifts.

Better still, it does it for a fraction of the cost. With its options, this Seven’s sticker is on nodding terms with £30,000. Prior’s kart cost him £500. Sure, he had the hassle of bringing it on a trailer and will be getting his fingers oily for the foreseeable, but the day cost him less than a tenner in fuel, and six hours of track time (for owner/drivers) at Rye House was £46. No car beats that. Not even my favourite one. 

Matt Prior and Nic Cackett

Our Verdict

Caterham Seven

The Caterham Seven is a stripped-down sportscar offering one of the most pure driving experiences available. It is a true classic and available in nine iterations

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Comments
3

2 January 2014
Darren Moss wrote:

It’s got go-kart handling, they say. Obviously, the Autocar team don’t say that because it’s a terrible cliché, and those should be avoided

"Can the Mini's go-kart handling justify its price tag?" - From the description of Autocar's twin-test between two of the ugliest cars currently in production: the M135i and Paceman JCW.

2 January 2014
An invitation bring your Caterham (or other sensibly wide track car) to Boyndie Kart Track in NE Scotland, and I'll provide my KZ2 gearbox kart as comparison. 42bhp, 180kgs including an 80 kg driver. I'll arrange a full day at the track for the price of a day membership £20. All I'd ask for in return is a reasonable write up for karting with different ages and classes to give the sport a bit more exposure, and let your readers see what it's about (can't remember ever seeing something like this in the mag in many years of reading).

For cadets you're talking about £1,200 for a good used package, Juniors £1,500, Senior direct drive £2,000, and KZ2 £3,500. That'll get you racing at a good level for club MSA racing, or have the best stuff for non-MSA.

Matt's prokart is still good fun, but a kart needs a bit more poke and grip before it becomes seriously good fun.

Are you up for it guys? Or how about a day's practice followed by a non-MSA race (pay for what you break!).

2 January 2014
I have to say as an ex Caterham owner (and enthusiastic supporter) and occasional kart driver that it irritates me when any car is compared to a kart. Surely no-one that has driven an even vaguely serious kart could sensibly say that. That a twin engined pro-kart (arguably the least agile of karts) was judged to make a Caterham seem like a "lardy malingerer" says it all. When it comes to agility karts are to Caterhams, what Caterhams are to middleweight "sports" saloons.
That said put a Caterham and a kart on a fast bumpy road (as opposed to kart) circuit and the advantage shifts somewhat. Paul's challenge would make interesting reading and I'd love to see it. A 42bhp kart is pretty midrange (as gearbox karts go - the fastest have more than double that), but then so is a Supersport Caterham, so it's a fair challenge - if both are on slicks.

Go on - you know you want to!

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