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Caterham Seven 160 review: 80hp of old-school British motoring

4.5

The Good

  • Hugely fun to drive
  • Capable handler
  • Round headlights

The Bad

  • The wipers are rubbish
  • Good luck shopping in it

Caterham Seven 160 review: Ben Griffin finds out why 80hp is all a British sports car needs to offer a brutally honest, smile-filled drive – providing your spine is up to it.

Let me be honest, I never really got the appeal of Caterham and the Seven 160 is the slowest car of the range by what can only be measured in light years. There was a genuine fear I would be overtaken by a glacier. Or even worse, a Honda Jazz.

Why the hell would anyone buy something with all the presence of a Hornby trouser press, the storage space of a thimble and the horsepower of a food processor? I had no idea – but eight seconds into a test drive it all clicked into place. I was hooked and was ready to sling cash at the British manufacturer.

So I asked the ladies and gents at Caterham if I could have one for a week with the sole intention of telling you, our dear readers, what makes this bug-eyed and British four-wheeler so special and why it might not be for everyone.

Caterham Seven 160: What are we dealing with?

You may have noticed the Seven 160 is only slightly bigger than a Lego model. The reason is that Caterham designed it as a Kei car for the Japanese market ─ a class of cars that gets tax and parking exemptions in cities. A Suzuki Cappuccino is in the club.

As such, there is little room for excess fat and the pedals and accelerator pedal are very close together, which means some awkward moments where you mash the brake and accelerator until you get used to it. Or decide to buy thinner shoes.

Although pint-sized, only those substantially taller than six-foot or noticeably overweight will struggle to fit. Getting your legs under the steering wheel is no easy task, but once done it feels bearable, especially when the ceiling is the sky if you choose to remove the roof.

The cockpit, meanwhile, makes the Jordan desert feel homely. You get an engine start button, dinky steering wheel, stubby gear knob for the manual gearbox, switch for the indicators and that's about it.

The windscreen, believe it or not, is an optional extra and the wipers prefer to smear the rain all over your field of view as opposed to clear it. As for the heater, it takes a long time before it clears the side and front windows, mainly because there are sizable gaps for the heat to escape from. Plus it makes a lot of noise.

Continuing the theme of impracticality, the Seven 160 has two fabric appendages instead of doors that offer all the protection of a wet paper bag and can be opened from the outside, making it somewhat thief-friendly. And when you open them they awkwardly rest on the bonnet.

"The cockpit, meanwhile, makes the Jordan desert feel homely."Then there is the boot, which is really only good for a packet of chewing gum, while the process of getting in the Seven 160 requires you to dislocate all your limbs. And then get someone to relocate them all so you can start it.

Oh, and if it rains you will need to work very quickly to attach the fabric roof, which is stored in the boot area (working from the windscreen backwards to avoid causing damage).

The Seven 160 is a nightmare to live with, then, especially when even the smallest traffic calming measures will either shatter your spine or scrape along the bottom of the car and make an equally painful noise. But none of this matters too much, as you will now read.

Caterham Seven 160: What is it like to drive?

Once you have got the knack of the immobiliser, which requires you to wriggle a key fob around while the ignition is on, you can fire up that 80hp three-cylinder petrol (borrowed from the aforementioned Cappucino) and quickly realise one of the car's biggest strengths.

By removing luxuries such as heated seats, power steering and just about everything that is a non-essential, you end up with a car that weighs 500kg. That gives it 160bhp per tonne (hence the '160' part of the name), putting it in the company of the old Lancia Delta Integrale. And that was no slouch.

Except here there is nothing in the way of bodywork to get in the way of the noise from the engine and that unmissable whoosh of its turbo spinning up. It can delight, with sheer eagerness outweighing the slightly harsh, unpleasant edge at lower revs.

It may only have 660cc at its disposal, but boy is the Seven 160 loud and quick enough to make you grin from ear to ear when, in fact, it is only as fast as a Ford Fiesta ST. Sitting so close to the road below really emphasises the sensation of speed.

"It is possible to buy a car ten times the cost and get a tenth of the exhilaration."What I really love is that I can see the front wheels and can feel every pebble, every twig and every coin-sized undulation through the taut chassis. The experience is so raw and potent that you forget the fact there is not even a radio to try and disguise some of the noise.

On the downside, its live-axle rear suspension setup is hugely uncomfortable on bad roads and the Seven 160 becomes much less forgiving in bad weather, but neither dampen the experience too much and you always seem excited the next drive. Even if you need a few days to let your body repair.

Make no mistake, the Caterham Seven 160 makes the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider feel like a a luxury limo. And I say that as someone who drove them back to back.

Caterham Seven 160: Is it really that good?

It is possible to buy a car ten times the cost and get a tenth of the exhilaration, especially as cars become safer and more comfortable. Honestly, it never gets dull hammering along in the Seven 160.

A modern-day hot hatchback is faster, more practical and around the same price, there is no denying it, but this is a car you buy because you want the simplicity of the old days. You may come home with a zoo's worth of animals in your hair, but you never care because you feel alive. And exhausted.

Let's not mince words, the Caterham Seven 160 takes effort to drive. But in time you stop wrestling with the controls and start to realise you can be more gentle with your inputs as you slice through British countryside like a scalpel through sorbet. Or sideways, if you prefer – drifting is possible.

You might be thinking the Seven 160 is too slow for you, but that is actually a good thing. It can and will scare and exhilarate you but it does so within the confines of the law. Go full tilt in a 620R and there is every chance your loved ones will be on the phone to claim your life insurance policy.

Those who are used to comfortable cruisers will never get the appeal of the Seven 160 and it would never inspire me to use it to get to work. But at the weekend when you want a fun drive, few cars make you feel as involved. All its many frustrations melt away.

Caterham Seven 160: Cheap as chips?

The Caterham Seven 160 starts at £16,995 (there was a £1,000 price hike during our week with the car for Brexit reasons), which is cheap and makes it a potential weekend car for some, but you will never pay that little if you want a usable car.

For 'luxuries' like a windscreen you will have to pay £19,990 for the Seven 160 S version. Then you have to part with £3,000 if you want it to turn up outside your house in a finished, unboxed state and £805 for the road package to make it road-legal. And then a few hundred more if you want paint.

Alternatively you can pay a £395 for delivery of the parts and build it yourself but if it is anything like most DIY jobs, it will be 2030 by the time you finish it and you will probably leave out something important. Like the gearbox.

A car that has absolutely zero mod-cons and a puny engine actually costs quite a lot of money, then, but you do get the satisfaction of knowing it was hand-built in Britain and it is actually surprisingly good on fuel economy. Plus Caterhams tend to hold their value rather well, unless you opted for a pink paintjob.

Caterham Seven 160: So should I buy one?

As the slowest Caterham in the range, critics will be quick to judge the Seven 160, but it is their loss. The Seven 160 is a car that provides more thrills than some supercars for the price of a Fiesta. Who cares everyone will think you lost the plot for buying one?

My only real gripe is that the price jump to the £21,495 Seven 270 is not that big, which happens to be faster and easier for normal sized people to get into. But the 270 is less cute and more serious, not to mention requires more space in the garage.

The Seven 160 may be utterly impractical, but it was never designed to go easy on you. For all of its frustrations, you end up loving it because it is an uncompromising and unforgiving machine. Just be sure to have Caterham build it for you or you can add unfinished to the list.

Key Specs

  • 660cc Suzuki three-cylinder turbocharged petrol
  • 80hp at 7,000rpm
  • 79lb/ft at 3,000rpm
  • 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds
  • 114g/km of CO2
  • 57.6mpg (combined)
  • From £16,995 (£22,495 tested)

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