► New Caterham Seven 310 tested
► Powered by 150bhp 1.6-litre engine
► Harks back to hallowed R300
It’s funny how the outcome of unplanned events can often exceed the results of meticulously plotted strategies. This new Caterham Seven 310 is the perfect example of such serendipity. The company was developing a motorsport-based performance upgrade for its Ford-sourced Sigma engine. This power hike would be used in the step up from its Roadsport to its Supersport track cars, which sit at the upper end of Caterham’s popular Academy racing programme, and it would be sold as an upgrade to existing road car drivers.
Having fitted the 1596cc unit with hotter cams, remapped the engine management system and lifted the redline to 7500rpm, the tweaked engine was dropped in to the Academy’s trusty test mule – a bright orange Seven interestingly named Valerie – and taken out for a test drive. ‘Within a mile I knew this was too good to be just a simple upgrade option,’ explains Simon Lambert, Caterham’s Chief Motorsport and Technical Officer. ‘It felt like a complete model in its own right, and immediately reminded me of the R300, arguably our best-balanced model.’
So you’re saying this new 310 was an accident?
Well, yes, but a very welcome one nonetheless. The 310 joins the current Seven range, which starts with the Suzuki-powered 160, followed by the 270, 360 and 420 – and topped off by the utterly unhinged 620. And like the other models in the range, its name roughly reflects its power to weight ratios in bhp per tonne. It will be available from December 2016 and will cost £24,995 in built-for-you format, or you can save yourself £3000 and build it yourself. It will also be available as a £1500 upgrade to 270 owners.
So is it really that good, or are Caterham just spinning a marketing yarn?
Oh, it’s good. Very good. The 310 is Caterham’s Goldilocks car – everything about it is just right. Just the right about of power to thrill but not scare, and just the right amount of grip and traction when you want to cover ground at rapacious speed, or to slide through corners when you want to play. It always feels incredibly well balanced and composed – keen to flatter rather than snap and bite – without any sign of nervy twitchiness or ten-tenths waywardness.
That modified engine takes centre stage. Okay, 150bhp may have lower-end diesel hatchbacks sniggering into the particulate traps, but in the 540kg Seven it delivers more than generous helpings of grunt and performance. The combination of wilder cams and an upped redline means the engine revs with an ever-hungry appetite for its 7500rpm rev limiter. It’s a screamer, but also a slugger too – at low engine speeds it shoves the Seven along with a deep-lunged urgency. And it has the soundtrack to match – a deep bassy low-rev rumble that gives way to a serrated howl from 6000rpm onwards, all accompanied by the rudest of pops and crackles on the overrun.
Presumably everything else matches the engine’s dynamics?
Yes and no. When Caterham revised its entire model line-up last April, it also simplified its extensively long list of options to create two main packs – the £3995 R pack and the £2995 S pack. With its (relatively speaking) chunky leather seats, carpets and softer suspension set-up, the S pack is aimed at the more relaxed Sunday driver. The R pack adds an LSD, lightweight flywheel, uprated brakes and suspension, bucket race seats and gearshift lights – as well as a raft of cosmetic enhancements. We believe the R pack is a must-have option for the 310 because they beautifully complement its visceral character, as well as adding to its on-track capabilities.
And while you have your bank manager on the line, we’d also insist on opting for the six-speed box. The five-cog unit if fine, but the ultra-close ratio six-speed unit is a joy that lets you extract the very best from that engine. You’d regret nor spending £2500 on it. Other options worth a closer look are the LED headlamps. They’re priced at £800 but if you’ve ever driven a Seven at night, you’ll know they’re money very well spent.
Hang on, I’m adding this all up…
Well, a turn-key 310 costs £24,995, an R pack weighs in £3995 and that must-have six-speed box is £2500 – and then you’ll want a roof and doors, tallying an extra £1250. That’s a total of £32,740. Which, if you play the ‘What Can I Buy For That Money’ game as often as I do, will get you into a base-spec Ariel Atom, or a top-spec Mazda MX-5 with money to spare.
And don’t forget that while the Seven dishes up what is arguably the purest driving experience know to man, it does so without the help of any electronic safety devices or driver aids. No anti-lock brakes, no airbags, no nothing.
We love the 310. It’s a most welcome addition to the Seven range, and is, as Simon Lambert admits, the car Caterham would produce if it only made one car. When you drive and own a Caterham you buy into the whole shebang – the vividness of the driving experience, the drama, the sound, the explosive performance and the engagement.
You also buy into the miniscule cabin, zero refinement, the tiniest windscreen wipers ever fitted to a car, and huge trust in other drivers. You either get it and love it, or you don’t and hate it. We get it, and we love it.
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