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Caterham’s new entry-level model aims for simplicity and value, achieving both in a way that few other manufacturers could hope to match

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Any British sports car maker billing a new model as “the ultimate in accessible fun” would make ears prick up all about these parts. But when it’s Caterham making the claim of its latest debutant, the Seven 160, tools are downed at Autocar HQ, keyboards fall quiet and the sound of excited hubbub duly fills the void.

If any firm owns the concept of low-budget, high-performance, all-out entertainment motoring, it’s Caterham. Very few cars from volume makers can compete with the speed and thrill that this car’s enduring formula continues to create, more than half a century after Colin Chapman nipped up the bolts on the very first Lotus Seven.

A three-pot Suzuki engine and live rear axle are the main departures from the modern Seven mould

Chapman's original Lotus Seven, launched in 1957, was powered by a 40bhp 1.2-litre four-cylinder Ford engine, making the new 160 look positively overblown. Like the 160, it also used live rear axle suspension.

Autocar's then-rival magazine, Motor, figured one in 1958. It took 16.2sec to hit 60mph and topped out to 80.4mph. By the time Caterham acquired the rights to build the Caterham Seven in 1973, engines had grown to the 1.7 litres of the Ford 'Kent', and to 135bhp.

If Caterham really has exceeded its own exceptional standards with this new car, it will have created something very special indeed. But that’s a sizeable ‘if’, and an awful lot to prove for a car powered by an engine from a Suzuki microcar, with wheels and tyres that could have been pinched from a Brian James trailer.

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Time to find out if this flyweight sports car’s stature is greater than the sum of its decidedly humble parts.


Caterham Seven 160 badging

The fundamental design of the Caterham Seven hasn’t substantially altered since 1957, although it has been refined and updated. However, Caterham can still be considered to be taking inspiration from this car’s history in search of the lightness, cost-effectiveness and simplicity that are vital to a new entry-level budget model such as this.

Like all other Sevens, the 160 and 165 have a tubular spaceframe construction clothed in stressed body panels made mostly of aluminium. Composite panels have been adopted in places, though, to save weight.

A hood, doors and a windscreen will cost you extra

The car’s suspension has likewise been simplified. Up front, the 160 has the same double wishbones that you’ll find on a normal 270 model – shorter than the ones on a 360.

At the rear, the car uses neither the de Dion semi-independent rear axle adopted by Sevens since the 1980s nor the fully independent set-up of the Seven CSR, but a live axle suspended via trailing arms and a Panhard rod.

The axle saves weight and, it can be surmised, cost. It will also add unsprung mass at the rear end, which may present in a more uneven ride for the car over particularly bad surfaces. Wheels are steel, 14 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches wide, wrapped in balloon-like 65-profile tyres.

In the cabin, anything that isn’t absolutely necessary has been dispensed with, either completely or at least banished to the options list. So you don’t get doors, a windscreen, a hood, a heater, a spare wheel or even carpeted interior surfaces as standard.

As far as power is concerned, everything upstream of the Seven 160’s live axle – from propshaft and gearbox to engine and turbo – is supplied by Suzuki Motor Corporation. Whether such a combination truly belongs in a proper sports car remains to be seen.

The engine in question is a turbocharged 660cc 12-valve triple, codenamed ‘K6A’ and found chiefly in the Japanese manufacturer’s family of kei-cars made primarily for the Tokyo car market. In the Caterham, this engine channels its drive through a five-speed gearbox to the rear wheels via an open differential. 

Specifically, you’ll find the powerplant in the Japanese-market Jimny. It’s offered in normally aspirated and turbocharged forms, the latter producing up to 63bhp for Suzuki at 6500rpm. The Jimny has the same gear ratios and a slightly shorter final drive.

Caterham's own tuning for the motor conjures 80bhp at 7000rpm and 79lb ft at 3400rpm, although it revs to an impressive 7700rpm before the cut-out intervenes.

The spacing of ratios in the five-speed gearbox is less impressive, though, with a yawning 4.5mph per 1000rpm gap between third and fourth gears; the differences between other intermediate ratios are, in some cases, half that.

Because of all that paring back, however, the kerb weight is just 490kg – 50kg less than a 1.6-litre Seven 270. Our scales registered 510kg for our test car, which had options fitted and a full tank.


Caterham Seven 160 interior

If you don’t already know whether you’re the sort of person who can get comfortable in a regular Caterham Seven, it won’t take you long to find out. Two out of three members of the Autocar road test team are, and the third usually considers the uncomfortable squeeze good value for such a vivid driving experience – albeit only over short distances.

If you’re taller than 6ft 4in, though, forget it – but don’t despair. There are plenty of more accommodating track specials. In truth, the size of the Seven’s cabin will be just one of the car’s limitations for those wanting to do anything other than drive around in circles at weekends in it – be they small circles on the track, or larger circles on the road.

Full weather gear and a heater are essential; the lowered floors are necessary for anyone over 6ft

This isn’t a ‘usable’ car. Filled with folded weather gear, the boot is only big enough for one soft bag, and the Caterham's cockpit is an intimate squeeze for two people. There is also no larger SV version of the 160.  

There is plenty of scope to make the 160 your own, with lots of options to make life that bit easier. Caterham has also put together what it coins as the S pack, which for an additional £2995, adds a fully carpeted interior, a proper windscreen and windows, leather seats, a Momo steering wheel, a heater and 12V socket. All of these options can be added individually but selecting a few together can workout more expensive than opting for Caterham's pre-defined S pack.

Still, once you’re in, inertia reel belt done up, you’re over the worst of the inconvenience. The fascia has a smart, simple black finish, a theme picked up by the handsome black gearlever. The speedo and tacho are small yet easy to see, but from there leftwards the oil pressure, temperature and fuel gauges are increasingly difficult to read.

Still, you get used to them, and although the ignition barrel is hidden out of sight and the immobiliser is often fiddly to disarm, familiarity breeds satisfaction here. The car is much more agreeable to drive with the doors off in the sun than roof up in the rain, as our noise measurements (done in the latter state) attest.

It is a toy brimming with charm for high days and holidays. Treated as such, its limitations become part of the appeal.


Three-cylinder Caterham 160 engine

Very little of what makes the 160 interesting relates to the engine. The first 50 feet will tell you that this is not a powertrain built with performance in mind, and 500 continuous miles might just have you questioning the wisdom of putting it in a Caterham Seven at all.

Away from the lights, the wheezing triple feels every inch the microcar donkey and is utterly bereft of puff by 40mph in second gear. Caterham claims 0-60mph in under seven seconds, but in the wet we couldn’t crack eight seconds and are inclined to think that it wouldn’t go dramatically quicker even in ideal conditions.

The Suzuki engine fires and idles without any of the cantankerousness that you'll find in the Ford Sigma-powered Sevens

Whipcrack standing-start acceleration, certainly of the kind that we’re used to sampling aboard a Seven, is clearly out. As is a congenial high-speed cruise. Force it to swallow a longer journey and it’ll blare 4000rpm at you from about 60mph in fifth. On the mile straight at MIRA, we couldn’t induce it to hit the advertised 100mph.

Restrict your route to town roads and motorways and the 160 comes dangerously close to inadequacy. Where it works with you rather than seemingly against is in the Seven’s standard stomping ground: the derestricted British B-road.

Here, with space to work it into a modest trot, there is a chance to enjoy the engine’s mid-range thrum through third and fourth gears. Although it’s possible to keep sourcing energy from above 7000rpm, the Suzuki unit’s best work is done between 3000rpm and 5500rpm, where the 160’s lack of mass allows the turbocharger’s audible fizz to work up something like a head of steam.

There’s no intimidation or aggressiveness to the build-up of pace – which some will consider a deficiency in excitement – but rather a peppy and law-abiding spiritedness that utterly befits the 160’s stock character.


Caterham Seven 160 cornering

If the 160’s sole purpose is to permit access to the Caterham Seven’s unique and characterful driving experience for as little money as is possible, it must be considered a roaring success.

So much of what a Caterham is and ought to be – chiefly, the raw and unconstructed feeling of driving rather than being driven – is laid bare here for even the most stubborn layman to enjoy.

A limited-slip differential would be a worthwhile addition to this Caterham

Our test was not conducted in the dry (certainly the conditions it will predominantly face), but previous experience of the 160 tells us that it can be driven flat out on the road without significantly challenging the adhesive limits of its Suzuki-donated back end.

Were that sentence describing a hatchback, it might translate as inescapably dull, given the limited pace already mentioned, but this is a Caterham Seven, meaning that the experience of flat out remains an unplugged handling ballad to the senses.

There is an unfamiliar lightness to the steering and considerable travel to the softly sprung suspension, but there is no loss of clarity or awareness. This is a Seven swaddled in a shroud of usability, not dialled back to the point of being nondescript.

In the wet, the 160’s limits appear as early as winter in the Shetlands. The power oversteer unavailable in the dry due to the three-pot’s horsepower shortfall is suddenly deployable in abundance.

Elsewhere, such a manoeuvrable rear end would probably appear brooding, but the 160 does its thing at such low speeds and telegraphs it so obviously through the Seven’s spaceframe that responding to the result of a prodded throttle with the still ultra-fast steering rack feels about as organic and foreseeable as it’s ever likely to get.

However, an awareness of what’s happening does not automatically signify accuracy or elegance. Dressing a delivery van’s axle in Caterham finery does not a princely proposition make.

Without a limited-slip differential or the coercion of a Seven’s normally serious suspension and the brawnier front-end grip of wider tyres, the 160 will not enter and exit a deliberate loss of traction without grumbling at the disparity of what’s occurring at each corner.

Certainly, it is not a hooligan or the sideways tearaway that its skinny tyres suggest. Well, not without the helping hand of a downpour, anyway. Suzuki’s solid rear axle and open differential are not components meant for finesse in extremis, a fact that will be made clear if you lean on them with track-based conviction.

But Caterham has other models to fulfil this demand. The degree of comfort – and its concurrent lean when cornering – have been engineered in to keep the 160 congenial at all times, just as its modest limits are recognisable early to keep everything casual and comforting.

Taken as such, the car is as amiable an open-topped companion as it’s possible to imagine.


Caterham Seven 160

The Seven 160 was conceived to be the very cheapest car that Caterham can come up with, and the fact that you can acquire one for less than the price of many new hot superminis – less still, provided you’re willing to put it together yourself – looks like genuinely remarkable value. At first.

What’s less impressive is how quickly the cost adds up for someone who wants a factory-built car with what we’d consider a usable day-to-day specification. Items like a windscreen, a hood and a cabin heater are hardly a lot to ask for, after all, but all are extras here.

There is only one model of Seven 160 but there are some options that you'd hope were standard

We’d argue that, on something clearly intended as a road car, they shouldn’t be.

And if you have them all, you’re already through the £20k barrier and closer to the kit price of a Supersport than the 160’s list price.

Neither does Caterham have the sub-£20k lightweight niche all to itself. Westfield and Grinnall are among the more established names to offer rivals at a similar price.

Residual values should be good however, as Caterham's used values are rock solid.


4 star Caterham Seven 160

What you expect of the 160 will determine what you think of it. If you believe you’re buying a cut-price modern Caterham Seven, hot-wired to go sideways and hot-rodded with a Japanese-flavoured hit of the usual Caterham potency, you’ll walk away from the 160’s imaginative concoction of disparate elements utterly mystified as to its appeal.

But if you’re hoping to spend a little on a lot, on purchasing a singular experience of motoring pleasure rather than a ballistic end result, the 160 will return your investment tenfold with an easy-going and appropriate charm all of its own.

It's fun but the entry-level Seven just smacks a little of compromise

So stark is its position as a starter car or first step into the Seven spirit that it’s hard to imagine any current Caterham owner regressing into it – yet for the uninitiated it will seem like a revelation.

Its somewhat rudimentary flair leaves it short of classic status, but the 160 is an invigorating car and not a little special.

Those seeking outright speed and precision, however, should look to the likes of the Ford-powered Caterham Sevens.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Caterham Seven 160 First drives