The Caterham Seven is almost the default choice for drivers looking for trackday thrills or a back road blast on a Sunday morning. The appeal is in the Seven’s simplicity, lightweight and communicative chassis. That, and wonderfully rapid acceleration.
The Caterham Seven 160 or 165 is perhaps the entry-point into Caterham’s range of back-to-basic open-top machines for those looking to get their pure driving thrills predominantly on the road rather than on the track.
Entry-level Seven 160 models are as stripped out as one could ever expect, with the standard cars coming fitted with an 80bhp turbocharged three-cylinder Suzuki engine, a five speed manual gearbox, a live rear axle, a road-tuned suspension set-up, steel wheels and a composite aeroscreen on the outside, while inside there is rubber floor mats and a black vinyl roof. Want luxuries such as a heater, a 12V socket, leather seats and a proper windscreen, windows and hood then you will need to opt for Caterham's S pack and part with an additional £2995 for the privilege. The 165 can't be had with the S pack as of yet.
Upgrade to the either the 270, 310, 360 or 420 and you get a choice of three trims. The standard Seven gets a five-speed manual gearbox, a road-tuned suspension set-up, 14in alloy wheels, cloth seats and rubber floor mats, while paying an additional £2995 for the S pack adorns the Caterham with carpets, a full windscreen and side windows, a heater, 12V socket, leather seats and a Momo steering wheel. The R pack available for £1000 more gives the Sevens a limited slip differential, a lightweight flywheel, sports suspension set-up, racing harnesses and an uprated brake master cylinder.
Topping the standard car range is the Seven 620 available only with either the S or R pack. The 620S comes with a five-speed gearbox, limited slip differential, full windscreen, sports suspension, a heater, 15in alloy wheels, leather seats, a Momo steering wheel and racing harnesses as standard, while parting with a further £4995 gives the 620R race-tuned suspension, a lightweight flywheel, 13in alloy wheels shod in Avon racing tyres and a six-speed sequential gearbox.
Want a more hardcore Caterham Seven, then the CSR make scratch that itch, with its 2.3-litre Ford engine pumping out 260bhp and propelling it to 155mph. It also comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, 15in alloy wheels shod in Avon tyres, a fully independent rear suspension, a full windscreen, carpets, leather seats, a Momo steering wheel, a heater and racing harness.
Here we’re driving the Seven 360, which is the middle of Caterham's range. Unlike the 160 and 165 versions which use a three-cylinder Suzuki engine, and the 270 and 310 which use a 1.6-litre Ford Sigma engine, the 360 uses a 2.0-litre Duratec engine producing 180bhp.
By way of performance comparison, Caterham claims 0-60mph times of 6.9sec, 5.0sec, 4.9sec, 4.8sec and 3.8sec for the 160, 270, 310, 360 and 420 versions respectively. The latter four all roll up with a claimed weight in the region of 540kg and 560kg, which gives the Seven 360 driven here a power-to-weight ratio of 321bhp per tonne.
Given that the engine powers both the Seven 360 and Seven 420 is exactly the same, the noticeable difference in character between the two is surprising. Mostly this comes down to the different gearing. With the 360's five speeds, you find yourself changing gear less and relying more on the torque, which is something the Duratec powerplant is not short of. Just 143lb ft may not sound much, but in something weighing 560kg it’s plenty to be getting along with.
The difference in outright pace between the 360 and the 420 may be slim – just 1.0sec to 60mph on paper (although as a percentage of not very much that’s quite large) – but in reality the 360 is a lot less manic. Whether that appeals will depend on how you intend to use your Caterham.
For the track-day regular, the six-speed gearbox option on the 420R is probably the way to go, but if you’re going to be spending most time on B-roads, mixing it with other traffic, the more relaxed delivery of the 360S makes sense and, compared with the lesser variants, the 360’s additional mid-range punch makes easier work of overtaking.
The suspension, while lacking a little of the 270’s sophistication in the way it deals with bumps, still finds a nice balance between comfort and tautness. The beauty of Caterham’s operation is that there are few hard points in the range, and almost endless personalisation. The trick is to choose the right starting point, depending on what you want from your Seven.
Caterham has further made this decision even harder with the introduction of the 620 models. It shares the Ford Sigma engine and five-speed gearbox with the regular 7, but its engine has been given a supercharger making it the ultimate back-to-basics Caterham.
The 620 range is fitted with sprint gear ratios offer ferocious acceleration; matched with its monstrous 310bhp, Caterham claims a 0-60mph time of 3.4sec. The handling is predictably spectacular, with traction aided by a limited-slip differential and Avon CR500 tyres. For trackday and hillclimb regulars the £45,000 plus 620 may seem steep but its utterly compelling.
For road use, there is probably better value in the less powerful (but still quick enough) 160 or 270 versions. And while the 2.0-litre, 180bhp Duratec engine is a cracker, its extra performance makes it better suited to the trackwhile offering power and pace that’s fully exploitable on the road without constantly propelling you to licence-losing speeds.