The most potent production Seven to date, the latest R500 helps haul Caterham into the modern era without forgetting a formula that has built a loyal following. Jonathan Crouch reports
Now we're talking. With a 263bhp engine that serves up a massive 520bhp per tonne, the Caterham Seven Superlight R500 shows that when it comes to serving up an undiluted adrenaline hit, nobody does it better. Further weight has been taken out of the chassis and performance is suitably shattering.
The Caterham Seven Superlight R500 is a car I am rather frightened of. It doesn't happen too often that a car gives me the heebie-jeebies but the R500 certainly did. I took it for one lap of the Nurburgring, discovered where the limits of my bravery lay and spent the rest of my trip in something with airbags, a roof and electronic stability control. A group of Caterham owners from Leeds caught sight of this and I must have looked the very embodiment of a shandy-drinking Southerner. While that first-generation R500 never felt anything less than malevolent, Caterham is back with a version that runs on a completely different chassis and which offers both more speed and more control. That's the party line in any case.
I can understand if you're wondering what all the fuss is about, given that the R500's engine is outgunned in terms of power by the lump in, say, a diesel BMW 3 Series. One statistic should let you know what you're in for. This car has registered a 0-60mph sprint in just 2.88 seconds. It sounds ridiculous, it reads like a misprint but there it is. Two point eight eight. That's quicker than any production Lamborghini, Porsche or Ferrari and it means the R500 will even smoke the Bugatti Veyron off the line. That's the headliner. The details show that Caterham is committed to making that sort of performance accessible to a wider audience.
Beneath the lightweight bonnet is an all alloy Ford 2.0-litre Duratec engine. It doesn't rely on the quick hit of forced induction to make its power, instead extracting it the old fashioned engine tuner's way. With polished ports, gas-flowed heads, roller-barrel throttle bodies and an aggressive cam profile. Power is transmitted to the rear wheels via a six-speed close ratio gearbox or, as an optional extra, a Caterham Motorsport-engineered sequential transmission. Four-piston front brake calipers, fully adjustable dampers and no-nonsense Avon CR500 tyres also hint at this car's potential.
There's a certain beauty about the purpose of this car. Everything extraneous to the action of going very fast has been jettisoned. What is left has been pared back for light weight, the R500 tipping the scales at just 506kg. Three of these wouldn't weigh as much as a Nissan 350Z. Caterham have managed to carve 9kg from the already ultralight chassis used by the R400, primarily through the utilisation of additional carbon fibre and Kevlar componentry, while thinner body panels have been used throughout, right down to the aluminium rear light housings.
The R500 also features styling detailing carried over from the CSR models. Beautifully finished carbon fibre winglets sprout from either side of the nose cone to add downforce at speed. The interior has come a long way from early Caterhams that threatened to lacerate you in all manner of novel ways. There's now keyless ignition so that you don't need to fumble in the guts of the dash and the fascia itself features a Stack display with scrolling text. The haphazard jumble of toggle switches and buttons ahs also been replaced by some flush-fitting switchgear that looks respectably modern.
The factory built Superlight R500 retails at the kind of price that makes it, on a pound-for-pound basis at least, more expensive than a lightly used secondhand Porsche 911 GT3 which is quite a sobering way of looking at it. That said, the Porsche wouldn't stand a chance of hanging onto the Caterham's tail with a competent (and brave) driver at the wheel. As with all lightweight performance cars, what you're buying is not so much metal, but expertise. The Superlight R500 benefits from years of development to arrive in this state.
The comparison to the Porsche 911 is apposite, for this is another vehicle that has been endlessly updated and modified by keen owners, the results in turn filtering through well established back channels to the manufacturer. This enormous network of grassroots developers has generated all manner of tweaks, improvements and recommendations that Caterham and Porsche have incorporated into their production cars. While the R500 might seem a relatively simple contrivance, it's anything but.
Caterhams are among the least costly sports cars to run. Because of their inherent lightness, these cars are very easy on things like tyres and brakes. With less forces acting upon them and with less work to do, the materials last longer. The other benefit of not lugging a bunch of extraneous kilograms around is economy. Even a rather spirited drive in a hot version of the Seven will often see average fuel economy in the region of 23mpg. The other big factor that reduces the pence per mile ownership figure is residual values.
Caterhams also attract a cult following and if you were to buy a Superlight R500 today, three years down the road it would still be worth over 65 per cent of its original price. That's cheap motoring by ay stretch of the imagination. A cult following also includes an active community of owners, so finding the best deals on upgrades, parts and insurance is usually only a few mouse clicks away. Several specialist insurers will offer attractive rates on Sevens, knowing that owners are often more responsible, committed and knowledgeable than with most other marques. Mileages on Sevens also tend to be modest.
One of the most entertaining things about Caterham ownership is listening to infidels blather on about how the formula is well past its sell by date and that life's too short to be messing about with press studs to put the roof on. These are people who have never driven a Caterham Superlight R500; who have never had the guilty pleasure of making a hard-charging Lamborghini Gallardo disappear in their wobbly rear view mirror. Experience the full fury of an R500 and the value proposition coalesces very nicely.
What's old-fashioned about 0-60 in 2.88 seconds, low emissions and decent fuel economy? In many ways, this is a vehicle that's becoming more and more relevant with every passing day. Weight is the enemy of efficiency. Caterham has just been striving to take this maxim to its logical conclusion and it looks to have been an exhilarating trip.