The Caterham Seven is a faithful descendant of the Lotus Seven, invented by Colin Chapman in the late 1950s, and today it remains a minimalist sports car that elevates lightness to a point of honor. Electronic aids must also replace mechanical ones feeling let go. But that purity is also accompanied by an aversion to any notion of modern comfort.
Depending on the sporting expectations of its customers, Caterham offers the sporty Seven in different levels. In any case, you immediately know what you are dealing with, as the name already reveals the horsepower-to-weight ratio (in bhp per tonne). The sympathetic Seven 170 serves as an entry-level model, with a small three-cylinder turbo of 660 cc of Suzuki origin, with 84 hp and an empty weight of just 440 kilos.
At the other end of the range is the hot Seven 485, with a (relatively speaking) large naturally aspirated 2.0 Duratec four-cylinder from Ford, with 237 hp at a weight of 560 kg. Between these two extremes, Caterham still had a 1.6 from Ford with 135 hp under the hood of the Seven 275 until the end of 2022. But the Sigma block is no longer built these days, so the middle child of the family gets the same 2.0 Duratec from Ford as in the top model, but in a scaled-down version with 168 hp. With 560kg still to propel, that gives it the number ‘340’ on the body of our test model for this week with our hair in the wind.
S or R
Depending on the model chosen, you can choose between different subversions (and that is without counting the special series, such as the recent Super Seven 600 and Super Seven 200 with their nostalgic look). In the case of our Seven 340, we have the choice between the S (standard) or the optional R package (+ 1,400 euros) that is mainly intended for track use. It was also on our test model and includes a stiffer suspension, a limited-slip differential and 15-inch wheels with Avon ZZS semislicks. But there are also extras on board, such as composite bucket seats with 4-point belts, a larger roll cage and… no more windscreen! However, you can also opt for numerous individual options if you wish (such as replacing the windshield, phew!). We are clearly in the world of customizable craftsmanship.
Tiny sports enthusiast
In the Seven’s configurator you can also opt for a larger chassis (+ 2,665 euros) and/or a lowered floor (+ 635 euros). Unless you skipped puberty, we recommend checking these boxes. Even with my fairly average size it was difficult to get into a ‘standard’ Seven, so I was happy that this 340 R was one of ‘XXL’ size! Although that is relative, because the length increases by 17 cm (from 3.18 m to 3.35 m) and the width by 11 cm (from 1.58 m to 1.69 m). The interior remains narrow and your elbows are still against the door on one side and the transmission tunnel on the other.
It is easier to find a good driving position, especially for your legs. However, narrower driving shoes are still recommended to prevent you from pressing two pedals at the same time… But the most difficult part remains getting in and out, which requires some acrobatics. Especially in wet weather, with the fabric roof in place. However, you can opt for a removable steering wheel (+ 235 euros). This is not only useful for getting your pants dirty on the greasy hub, but it also makes access on board easier. And it’s fun to brag about…
For once we’re not talking about touch screens or connectivity. There is not even a radio on board. The only speaker here takes the form of a huge exhaust on the side! Furthermore, at first glance it is a rather bare dashboard. For example, you may search in vain for levers with automatically returning turn signals. You have to manually press a switch in the desired direction (and don’t forget to turn it off again after the maneuver…). You have to find the controls for the heating (also an option) somewhere near your knees.
The first meters in traffic also take some getting used to. The steering wheel is heavy due to the lack of power assistance and its fairly direct design. The brake pedal is also bone hard and upon first push gives the impression of no brakes at all. Moreover, it does not exactly inspire confidence to drive this low car among the current horde of SUVs in traffic… Not to mention the cold sweat you get from the quality of the Belgian road network! Between the holes and bumps you have to pay constant attention with a crankcase that is so close to the ground…
And then we haven’t even mentioned the highway, with all the noise that entails. Yet the suspension comfort is surprisingly good in this stripped-down soapbox. Even with the stiffer suspension of the R, the damping remains very good. One of the countless benefits of low weight…
Sportsmanship on merit
Once the roads open up and start to wind, the fun you can get from this timeless machine is undeniable. They are sensations that resemble driving a vintage car, pure and unfiltered, but with the efficiency and performance of a modern car. However, you have to earn it to experience driving pleasure behind the wheel of a Caterham: you need a firm grip to turn the small steering wheel, a muscular calf to press the brake pedal hard enough and a certain driving skill to tame the beast when the grip fails. The electronics cannot save you here, you have to dose, counter-steer, and so on. Real driving and driving!
But what a pleasure to see the front wheels dancing before your eyes to the rhythm of the dampers. Then brake hard (contrary to the first impression, the brakes work very well if you know how to do it!) to load the front axle as much as possible as you enter the corner, while firmly gripping the small steering wheel. Then you come out of the corner and you feel exactly when the ass is going to slide (you are sitting right on the rear wheels) when you push the naturally aspirated engine into the red zone, before manually reaching for the next gear with the feeling of a real mechanical lever in the palm of your hand. What sensations!
To get the best out of the 340 R, don’t hold back on putting the 2.0 Duratec to work. While smooth enough for a gentle ride, it becomes especially explosive near the red zone, with maximum torque of 175 Nm only reached at 6,500 rpm, and peak power of 168 hp at 7,250 rpm. The result is performance that is quite okay, although there is undoubtedly more to be gained from a twisty combination than from straight-line acceleration. In any case, the fun here can be found even at more or less legal speeds, unlike the modern and almost clinical sports cars.
Price Caterham Seven 340
The entry-level version Seven 170 is offered from around 41,500 euros in Belgium, but the price tag increases considerably if you go for the 340. It is available from us from 57,831.95 euros. With the R package, the wider chassis and some options (such as the windshield and the new headlights with LED signature as on this model), you can quickly exceed 65,000 euros. That’s a lot, considering the bare appearance and the finishing quality. But at the same time it remains attractive considering the level of performance and driving pleasure you get. An entry-level Porsche 718 Boxster also costs around 70,000 euros. And for a comparable power-to-weight ratio you should look at the 718 Spyder, which is only available from 105,000 euros.
The Caterham Seven remains the textbook example of the fun car par excellence. Its plump weight and complete absence of electronic aids make it the favorite toy of purists. But it is definitely a ‘second car’, because it is too much of a hassle for daily use.
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