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Test Drive July 25, 2007

Posted by openroadhire in What the Magazines say.
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First Drive: Caterham R400 Superlight

 

 

Henry Biggs' biography (Image © MSN)

 

  • What – Caterham R400 Superlight
  • Where –North-west England
  • Price – £25,995
  • Available – Now
  • Key rivals – Lamborghini Superleggera, Porsche 911 GT3, Ariel Atom, Westfield SEi, KTM X-Bow, Lotus 2-Eleven

 

Summary

Fittingly for its 50th birthday, the Seven is back with Ford power. The extra torque plus chassis and suspension modifications make it the best yet.

  • Likes: Supercar performance without the price tag, agility, supple ride
  • Dislikes: even supercars are more practical, lack of pedal and shoulder room on the standard chassis model

 

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

Click images to enlarge, more below

There are two new cars bearing the ‘Lightweight’ moniker. The first, the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera costs £150,990, offers up 392bhp per tonne and will sprint to 62mph in 3.8 seconds. The Caterham R400 on the other hand, has a nice even 400bhp per tonne and matches the Lamborghini in the aforementioned benchmark sprint although it is a good 50 miles-an-hour shy of its 195mph top speed. But then it is one-sixth of the price and in fact £1,700 less than the outgoing model…

 

First impressions

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

Look at a Caterham and it’s rather difficult to tell where exactly the company’s engineers can strip weight from, since the entire thing looks like it weighs the same as a packet of crisps. Closer inspection reveals front cycle wings made from carbon fibre, matching the dashboard and the splashguards on the rear wheelarches. Standard Superlight spec also includes four-point racing harnesses and a wind deflector in place of a windscreen although the press car was fitted with such outrageous luxuries as a screen and heater, pushing weight beyond the standard 525kg.

 

Performance

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

Replacing the 1.8 K-Series with the 2.0-litre Ford lump has only led to a 10bhp increase in power to 210bhp and torque is virtually identical at 152lb/ft. But the way in which it is delivered has changed, the great majority of that torque now being available as low down as 4,000rpm, 16% more than the ‘K’ managed at that engine speed. Performance is, as mentioned, up there in the supercar league, knocking a tenth of a second from the previous R400’s 3.9 second sprint to 62mph. Road and engine speed apparently make not a jot of difference to the acceleration available which won’t tail off until twice the motorway limit, rather faster than would be prudent in such a tiny projectile on public roads.

 

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

The bare figures fail to convey the savagery of the acceleration – there’s enough torque to spin the wheels in the damp in the first four gears. The six-speed Caterham built gearbox has a set of very closely spaced ratios so a charge up through the ‘box requires deft coordination between feet and left hand as soon as the change-up light blinks to avoid running into the limiter. The side-exit exhaust with its beautiful four-into-one pipework now sits on the right of the car, exiting a foot or so from the driver’s ear and emitting a fearsome bellow out of all proportion with the car’s size – blipping the throttle on a downchange results in a deep boom like a shotgun blast.

 

Ride and handling

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

With such a low centre of gravity and so little intertia to overcome, the Seven changes direction with the sort of alacrity usually reserved for superbikes, never mind supercars. Diving towards the apex of a corner is accomplished by a mere roll of the wrists, the cycle wings making it possible to place the car to the nearest centimetre, let alone inch. Squeeze the throttle hard after the apex and in the first three gears there may be a squirm from the tail but it is easily caught and in fact grip levels are astonishing, only afterwards do you realise that you could have carried 10 or 20 miles an hour more speed into the corner.

 

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

The handling prowess of course is a given but the real revelation of this Superlight was the ride. The spaceframe chassis is now robot welded, improving torsional rigidity by 12%, vital if the De Dion tube rear suspension is to transmit all that power faithfully to the road surface through the relatively modest 15-inch alloy wheels and Avon CR500 tyres. The disadvantage of the non-independent rear suspension is of course the fact that bumps affecting one wheel will also affect the other but the Caterham engineers have worked wonders with the damper, spring and anti-roll bar settings.

 

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

A Caterham is never going to glide like a Jaguar but the crashes and shudders that would knock the previous car off its line over typical broken British B-roads have gone. Even a 200 mile motorway schlep proved comfortable with no aches and pains at the other end. There’s no longer any need to give manhole covers a wide-berth and the car will transmit its power cleanly without the wheels hopping and spinning the power away, helped by the standard fit limited-slip differential that allows gentle, progressive slides that are easily caught and neutralised.

 

Interior and safety

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

Carbon fibre dashboard or not, sliding down into a Caterham is very much a step backwards. A flat slab of black carbon fibre faces you, sprinkled liberally with unmarked toggle switches for lights, wipers, indicators and, well, that’s about it. Our car swapped the standard composite racing bucket seats for more generously padded items and a word of advice for Caterham novices – always to remember to do up your four-point safety harness before securing the door otherwise it becomes impossible due to the restricted elbow room.

 

 

Caterham R400 Superlight (image © Caterham)

The harnesses are basically the only safety equipment you will find in any Caterham, the fout-pot ventilated brakes are strong but lack ABS, traction control is provided by a delicate right foot and long travel throttle and the shirt-button sized steering wheel is far too small for an airbag. There is the security of a hefty rollbar behind the seats but anyone losing control in a manner likely to turn turtle in a car just 80cm tall probably has other things to worry about. Where the Caterham really majors of course is active safety – the swiftness with which it can both gain and shed velocity as well as change direction should keep it out of harm’s way.

 

The MSN Cars verdict: *****

Cheaper than the car it replaces, the R400 is the current pinnacle of the genuine De Dion Seven experience. The CSR may offer even more eye-widening acceleration but a different driving experience and a hefty price tag. We’ve no doubt there will be madder, badder models in the pipeline but for now this is the king.

 

Ratings out of five: Caterham R400 Superlight

Performance *****
Interior **
Safety ***
Price ****
Practicality **
Fuel economy ****
MSN Cars verdict ****
   

Drive one of these ON THE ROAD. Try before you buy? Why buy a weekend car at all when you can hire one?

We have 150hp SV Caterham Sevens for hire in Perth. Cut out the motorway drive and head for the hills: stunning scenery and fantastic roads. Leave the congestion behind and discover how much fun motoring can be. Hire a Seven

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