'We were developing the Caterham Seven 160 at the same time as the new 620R,’ explains David Ridley, chief commercial officer of Caterham Cars, as we admire the spindly looking Seven down below our kneecaps. ‘Funny thing is, everyone at the factory kept talking about this one.’
Yes, it is odd: the frantic 620R has 310bhp, and it’s so fast it’ll make your ears bleed and your hair curl; whereas the new 160 produces just 80bhp, and on paper its acceleration wouldn’t worry a well-stoked steam train. Yet it’s not just Caterham employees that are mysteriously drawn to this new, reduced-fat Seven – since it was announced back in August, magazines, websites and social media have all been buzzing with awe and wonder at the prospect of this 56-year-old car with less horsepower than your average chainsaw. Strange. The new Seven clearly appeals to a deep instinct in all of us, a desire to strip away the starchy underpants of the modern world, and go commando.
All that chatter and coverage means you probably know a bit about the new Seven 160 already: the three-cylinder Suzuki engine, the skinny tyres, the entry level price of £14,995. What you might not realise – as it hasn’t been trumpeted by Caterham at all – is this car isn’t just powered by a Japanese engine, it’s actually a ‘Kei car’, conceived and developed from the start as a Japanese model (see panel on p36). Kei cars are the pocket-rockets that enjoy tax and parking exemptions in Japan’s overcrowded cities.
Limited to 660cc and a footprint of just 1.48 metres wide and 3.4 metres long, the Kei market is huge in Japan, accounting for one third of all cars on the road. Only a fraction of these models – such as the Daihatsu Copen and Suzuki Cappuccino – ever make it to the UK.
Understanding this sheds light on the 160’s spec: the engine, gearbox and axle sourced from Suzuki aren’t just cost-effective to buy; these Kei components also dictate Kei dimensions. The Seven has always been short enough to qualify, but the standard car has always been too wide. The new 160’s live rear axle, plus those skinny wheels and the new, cut-down mud guards (each 50mm narrower at the back than the standard car’s) make this the first Caterham to qualify for the much sought-after yellow number plate, that denotes a Kei in Japan.
The big difference between the Japanese car and this UK version is the power output – Kei cars are limited to 63bhp, but for the UK the turbo engine has been tuned to produce 80bhp. That’s an important change – as we’ll find out, every bhp counts with the 160.
This new entry level Caterham has an unmistakable look, one you’ll recognise as soon as you see one on the road: those narrow steel wheels with their cheap £40 Avon tyres give the car a classic ’60s feel, like something Colin Chapman would drive in his flat cap. It’s the first Seven in years that actually looks like the featherweight it is.
Although the car we drove in Italy appears, to the uninitiated, to be a pared-back, no-frills, economy model, in the world of Caterham it’s actually loaded with optional extras. The £14,995 headline price buys you a kit that’ll need 70 hours of spannering to complete, and that doesn’t include a windscreen, doors or paint. Buy a car that’s factory built, add these luxuries, plus the leather seats, Momo steering wheel and heater found on our Seven, and you’re quickly up to £22,000.
Clamber in and everything is familiar Seven: the lying-in-a-bathtub driving position, the hip-squeezing transmission tunnel, the view down the bonnet to the chromey headlights. Touch the pedals though, and you sense something new – the clutch is lighter than any Caterham I’ve ever driven, the first sign of the delicacy of this car’s controls. Fire it up and it sounds different too: instead of the Seven’s usual crisp bark, the 160’s tickover reveals a drummy, thrummy engine note, not unlike the friendly chuf-chuf-chuf of a Fiat 500 TwinAir. The exhaust is on the passenger side too, a change that further muffles the tickover for the driver.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t got bite when you nail it though. It’s amazing how fast 80bhp can feel in a car that weighs just 490kg – acceleration isn’t terrifying, but it surges down the road with instant willingness, the Suzuki triple pulling strongly from 2000rpm to the power peak at 7000 (the limiter is at 7700rpm). Caterham claims 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds, which means a 620R might leave it for dead, but in traffic through Bologna the tiny 160 darts and cuts and thrusts like only a Seven can. It never feels slow.
We head up the Futa Pass that links Bologna to Florence across the Apennines. It is Seven heaven up here: a wibbly spaghetti strand of corners, linked by short straights that are just long enough for a brief, satisfying stab of the accelerator. At speed the 160 is pure, undiluted driving fun – the exhaust note gets loud and angry, the five-speed gearbox feels short and positive, and the steering lightens until it requires just fingertip inputs. The ride is amazing, despite the antique live axle and Panhard rod rear suspension: yes, there is movement, a slight squirmy feel under your seat, but carrying such a light load it never feels unruly, and it soaks up every bump and pothole, making the 160 a comfortable tourer as well as a squirty sports car.
The hardest thing for a modern driver is trusting the front end – exquisite feedback through the steering means you always know what’s going on up front, but I have a couple of scary moments when I overcook my approach, and almost outbrake myself into a ditch. Compared to most modern cars, those front contact patches are ridiculously puny. But you soon get the hang of the required style, which is similar to that other, rear-drive, skinny tyred enthusiasts’ car, the Toyota GT86.
Like the Toyota, I was expecting more oversteer from the Caterham – on my first damp corner I floored it in second gear, and my elbows were twitching, ready to catch a slide that never came. Instead, you have to chuck the 160 in with a big steering input, faster that you might normally, and ideally in third, not second gear. The rear then swings into action, and if you plant the accelerator now you’ll enjoy a momentary tailslide that you collect with a twitch of opposite lock.
It’s not scary or wild, and it hasn’t got the horsepower to really hang the back end out, but it soon has me grinning. I love it, because it keeps you busy, slotting between third and fourth, tweaking the wheel, feeling that axle move directly beneath your spine. And I reckon the engineers have judged it just right – 80bhp feels enough, neither too much nor too little for the skinny chassis. The Japanese-spec cars will feel a little underpowered at 63bhp, but they have their tax incentives to sweeten the deal.
For the UK, the new car is a stroke of genius, a move that leaves you wondering why Caterham didn’t do this years ago. It may not be the fastest, but the 160 is now my favourite Seven.