What is it?
The new and improved Caterham R500. So what’s different this time? Like the R400, the R500 now uses a 1999cc Ford Duratec engine, producing 263bhp and 177lb ft. That’s sufficiently more in both respects to better the old car’s power and torque-to-weight ratios, and that despite being 46kg heavier. The new model also gets the option of a six-speed sequential gearbox (as fitted here), launch control and a neater dashboard.
So what we’re looking at here is a car with no windscreen, no doors and a power-to-weight ratio of 520bhp per tonne. Even with this less than slender driver installed, that’s 451bhp per tonne.
What’s it like?
The old R500 produced its power as a consequence of pretty extreme tuning, resulting in a narrow powerband that needed at least 5000rpm before delivering its best. This new version makes no such demands.
At 60mph in sixth gear, roughly 3000rpm, hitting full throttle I half expect a cacophony of protest from an off-cam engine, but instead the R500 pulls cleanly, progressively and, er, rapidly. In a way, this low-end response has me worried; if it’s this quick in sixth, what will it do in second?
The answer, Caterham reckons, is 0-60mph in 2.88sec. We’ll have to wait for another (warmer) day to verify these claims, but subjectively at least it feels monumentally, brutally and scarily fast.
From a standstill, the launch control holds the revs at 5000rpm, the engine gently misfiring, and then manages the power through first gear, enough to get up to 60mph. Once into second, though, you’re on your own, and that’s when it really starts to hit hard.
Don’t be confused by launch control; this is not traction control. In second and third gears the R500 will spin up, and if you’re foolhardy with the throttle mid-corner in fourth, you’ll be needing corrective lock. It can crack 0-100mph in under seven seconds, or faster than a Ferrari 599.
The new engine’s more progressive delivery is a real plus point, because you can use the power more confidently. There remains a noticeable point around 6000rpm where the accumulation of revs accelerates and doesn’t stop until 8500rpm, but the throttle measures out exactly the desired poke.
The R500 has other merits. Firstly, that this is the best-handling Caterham I have driven, sweetly balanced and never edgy.
Secondly, the gearbox. It is an option, and at £2950 an expensive one, but you’ll want it. It is so pure, so accurate, so visceral. You need to use the clutch to pull away, and it is advisable to use it on downshifts, but upshifts are clutchless. You simply pull the lever back (it moves just a few millimetres), and then just before clattering the rev limiter you lift the throttle by the merest fraction and the next gear engages.
This experience, the jolt through the seat and the rifle-crack noise alone are worth the financial outlay. The standard six-speed is more liveable, but who needs liveable in an R500?
Should I buy one?
Yes. Admittedly it’s is a lot to pay for a Caterham without a roof, but it is just £3005 more than the old R500, eight years on. Even faster, more flexible, more reliable and better value? The R500 is not just back; it’s better in every respect.