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Suspension of disbelief

I’ve had this feeling once before, and I remember exactly where and when it happened. Late 2000, one mile away from the Lotus factory gates in an Elise. At first it seemed that something had gone awry with my backside. Ahead was an angry-looking road surface, probably scarred by the hasty work of some cable television company, and we were in a sports car. But there was no correlation at all between bump and bottom. Did I have trucker’s arse? Could 80,000 miles a year have finally caused irreversible damage to those delicate nerve-endings?

Turns out there was nothing wrong with my bottom. Lotus had simply managed to perfect the damping of the Elise to a level where it simply floated over the road surface. And if an Elise floats, the new Caterham CSR 260 levitates. It has the best damping on UK roads of any sports car I have ever driven. It is an extraordinary vehicle, and one that will have a profound effect on the company.

I drove a development CSR race car last November. Predictably it was very fast and equally capable around Donington Park, but so much has happened to Caterham and the CSR in the meantime that I now feel inclined to forget that day ever happened. Since then the car has gained a colossal 100 per cent extra torsional stiffness, been finished to a level befitting a company whose products are better than any other in the same marketplace, and those dampers have been painstakingly worked on.

So this is the road-going Caterham CSR. The first new Seven in 48 years, and the car that former Lotus man Ansar Ali bought when he persuaded the Nearn family to sell the family silver back in January. If you judge the quality of a transaction on the products and goodwill you inherit, Ali has himself a good deal. Feeling the CSR work its magic over the roads around Cadwell Park, it’s difficult to know where to start in explaining the differences from old to new.

We’ll begin with the chassis. Now infinitely stiffer than the old car (known internally as Series 3) and boasting double wishbones all-round with pushrods linking coil-over spring and damper units, owners of the last-generation cars simply won’t recognise the way the CSR covers ground. Compared to my R500, which runs suspension as high and soft as 240bhp in a roller skate will allow, this car has so much more suspension control it will deal with anything at almost any speed without a wheel even leaving the surface. Try the same in an R500 and you’ll be visible on RAF radar.

The secret to this is a combination of the rigid structure, the independent set-up at each corner and some meticulous damping work . To arrive at the settings on the bespoke Bilstein dampers, Caterham worked with Multimatic Technical Centre Europe and tried no less than 36 settings for the front shock and a scarcely believable 89 at the rear.

If the car looks similar, don’t be decieved into thinking it’s just another fast iteration of the Caterham staple. Running a 2261cc Cosworth-fettled engine of Ford, ahem, commercial vehicle origin, it puts out a solid 260bhp at 7200rpm and enough torque to make R500 owners such as yours truly weep: 200lb ft at 6200rpm.

Unsurprisingly, this bumps the CSR up the road at a serious lick. It’s probably a touch faster than last year’s silly R500 Evo, but the extra torque means far less stirring of the gearbox. That’s almost a shame because, within the revised cabin, the lever has been repositioned to perfection and even though it’s the same ’box as before, I’ve never driven a sweeter example than this.

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What will matter to potential buyers most isn’t just the performance (anyone can squeeze huge power from a K-series these days) but the reliability. The Cosworth unit is nowhere near as stressed as a grenade-spec K and should last far longer. It sounds the business, too: burbly low-down then growing into a BTCC howl at the top end.

The dimensions of the CSR are based on the wide-body SV. It’s much roomier than the standard car, and fitted with the optional upgraded dash – which also exposes the chassis – it’s a different world to the old one. Our test car had optional Tillett carbonfibre bucket seats fitted (roughly £1500 for the pair) and they sit a little too high for me, but otherwise it’s spot-on. Thankfully, all the good bits about snuggling down into a Seven cockpit remain: peering over the dash, along the nose and seeing its reflection in the back of the chrome headlights, grabbing the tiny steering wheel (this time an off-the-peg Momo) and wanting to scamper away.

There are a couple of ergonomic gripes. I kept fouling my right elbow on the side screen and the pedal box wasn’t ideal for rolling from brake to throttle. Given that it’s completely adjustable, that last gripe doesn’t count for much. Oh, and to placate left-hand-drive buyers the exhaust now exits on the driver’s side, which will make for singed shins on this side of the channel. It also makes it marginally noisier for the driver when cruising.

Nothing steers like a Caterham. Just two turns between the locks and with more feel than a year’s production of family saloons. You thread it down roads and just smile as the wheel wriggles in your hands. This is a car whose chassis has been taken back to the very rudiments of the art: no rear anti-roll bar or limited-slip differential (it’s an option) and only a small bar at the front (9/16in for those who like numbers). What marks it out as something quite unusual is just how elastic and supple it feels over all surfaces and yet, just when you think that will naturally translate into some roll and sloppiness come the twisty bits, it stays flat and changes direction better than ever.

Not running the limited-slip differential certainly helps the CSR’s road car credentials, but I’d have to say that for track drivers it’ll be £750 well spent. Yes, it will mean some more understeer and a reduction in ride quality, but Avon’s new 245/40 R15 CR500 tyre can only cope with so much and even on a dry road you can cause small bonfires in second gear.

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Wind buffeting is worse than you’d experience in a Lotus Elise, but sitting low and enjoying so much more of an occasion is compensation enough. And besides, it was always the ride that would have precluded taking the Seven on a long journey. Not any more: it’s now so supple that all you have to do is pack your luggage in the boot (still surprising how much fits) and head off with the standard heater warming your toes. In fact, it’s so good that the CSR will open Caterham ownership up to a whole new section of buyers who have only ever considered more comfortable machinery.

At £34,000 it’s not cheap. Add around £3000 for the seats, slippy diff (if you’re so inclined) and special dashboard and the CSR 260 is an expensive toy. An expensive toy that breathes with the road surface like no other car has ever done, looks simply fantastic in the flesh with its wide fenders and 15- inch wheels and will blast you along any road in the UK at speeds you simply won’t believe. If you’re looking for a toy, just make sure you try it before making any decision.

Chris Harris

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