Review: Caterham Seven 160 (2014)

Rating:

Offers just the essentials for an entertaining drive, small but punchy three-cylinder engine, delivers its fun at sensible road speeds thanks to its focus on fun rather than outright pace.

You need the S pack to get simple comforts such as a heater, windscreen and carpets.

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Caterham Seven 160 (2014): At A Glance

As back to basics sports cars go, only the most extreme track day cars are any more pared down than the Caterham Seven range. The simplest and least adorned of the lot is the 160, which is the entry-point to this most British of driving devices.

British it may be, but the power for the Seven 160 comes from Japan in the form of a turbocharged three-cylinder engine built by Suzuki. The engine is normally found in Japanese-market Kei cars, so it’s fitting it should find its way into such a compact sports car.

With only 80PS on offer from the 660cc three-pot engine, you might think performance is going to be on the dismal side of dull. However, the Seven only weighs 500kg, so the power-to-weight ratio works out at 160PS per tonne, hence the car’s name.

It’s around the same power and weight balance as a decent hot hatch and this is reflected in the 160’s 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds, so much the same as a Ford Fiesta ST’s. However, that’s where the similarities with a hot hatch end as the Seven has much more immediate responses and is far more driver-focused.

This focus comes at the expense of creature comforts, with the basic 160 not even offering a windscreen, hood, carpets or heater. You can even opt to build the car yourself from a complete kit of parts.

An S pack adds all of the above niceties and a choice of paint colours, although the factory charges £3000 to assemble the car for you. Even with all of this decadence factored in, the Seven 160 is an immensely fun car and one that will hold its value far better than any hot hatch.

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Caterham Seven 160 (2014): What's It Like Inside?

The comics among you may wonder if the Caterham Seven 160 has a cabin at all. There is certainly very little when compared to the average hatch, but what there is has been well assembled and generally clearly thought out.

Our only gripe here is the ignition key is tricky to slot into the barrel as it’s positioned under the dash at a slight angle, so it can take a few attempts to push it home. The rest of the dash is clear and concise, featuring two main dials for speed and revs directly in front of the driver and three more auxiliary dials in the centre.

Rocker switches work the other controls and have a satisfying ‘click’ as they engage. The indicators are worked by a toggle switch to the left of the steering column, but you must remember to cancel them yourself in order not to confuse other drivers.

Getting into the Seven 160 is no more or less tricky than with any other Caterham Seven. It’s best to use the roll-over bar to support your weight and then slide down into the seat. The small steering wheel doesn’t get in the way and the seat adjusts fore and aft to refine the driving position. With the optional hood and sidescreens in place, getting in and out is much more of a contortionist’s act.

With the driver’s seat adjusted, which is trimmed in leather in the more expensive S pack models, the driving position is ideal. For more comfortable driving, it’s best to fit the sidescreens that are also part of the S pack as they keep the wind from whipping into your face.

A stubby gear lever pokes out of the transmission tunnel and is only a wrist flick from the steering wheel. But the handbrake lever is sunk into the tunnel too and taller drivers may find it a little awkward to reach.

If you stick with the standard Seven 160, there isn’t a lot else to think about. With the S pack, you enjoy a heater that warms your feet effectively, carpets to add a modicum of luxury, and a 12-volt power socket to charge a phone or navigation.

A full windscreen is also part of the S pack in place of the standard version’s tiny aeroscreens. For driving in the UK, the full screen is a necessity to keep wind and rain drops out of your face and make the Seven more usable.

While no-one will buy a Seven 160 to pop to the shops, it is possible to fit a fair amount into the luggage compartment behind the seats. It’s restricted by the roll-over bar, but still big enough for a couple of soft bags and there’s a cover that pops into place to keep prying eyes at bay.

Child seats that fit a Caterham Seven 160 (2014)

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What's the Caterham Seven 160 (2014) like to drive?

Light weight dominates the Caterham Seven experience, whether it’s this entry level 160 or the fire-breathing 620R. For the 160, this means steel wheels rather than alloys plus they have daintily thin tyres that appear more suited to a small hatch than a sports car.

However, this is all part of the charm and appeal of the 160 as it aims to deliver its thrills at speeds that are not only attainable and manageable but also well within legal limits. As such, the 160’s narrow tyres begin to let the car move gently across the road’s surface much earlier than you might expect, but thanks to the feedback through the steering and the driver being positioned almost directly over the back axle, it’s very easy to predict and control.

Far from being intimidating, this makes the 160 a hugely entertaining and easy car to drive. There’s no power steering, so all of the information you feel through your hands is exactly what the front wheels are up to. With a little familiarity, it soon lets you press the 160 into and through corners with more poise and pace than you imagined possible.

Even then, you will find yourself travelling at lower speeds than you initially think. This is because the open cockpit of the Caterham imparts a much greater sensation of speed, so you can have your fun and retain your driving licence at the same time.

The other controls all have the same immediacy of feedback and response. You will need to wear suitable shoes as clumpy boots will have you pressing at least two pedals at once in the tight fit of the Caterham’s footwell. The gear lever also needs an accurate and positive action as we found it a little rubbery and difficult to gauge where each gear slot lay.

There is no such trouble positioning the 160 on the road as you can see the front wheels bobbing along the road’s surface. Although the steering is very direct, it’s not nervous or twitchy, and nor is it unduly deflected by larger rumps and grazes in the road’s façade. The narrow wheels and tyres help here, working with the supple suspension to give the 160 a good ride quality.

Even with its somewhat old-fashioned solid ‘live’ rear axle, the 160 rides well and it offers plenty of traction to make use of the modest 80PS output. The engine has bags of low-end shove but is also willing to rev to the red line, with a typically chirpy three-cylinder burr.

Above 70mph, the engine does begin to feel a little strained and your ears take a pounding from the wind noise, but this only encourages you to stick to the more interesting back roads where this car excels.