- Track-focused Caterham based on Seven racer
- Fully adjustable Bilstein dampers, sequential ‘box and 375bhp per tonne
- Priced from £54,990, first deliveries in early 2023
To the untrained eye, the Caterham 420 Cup looks like any other model produced by the Crawley-based manufacturer. Same compact proportions, same frog eye headlights, same devil-may-care attitude to luxuries such as a roof… Or even a windscreen. And yes, the tried-and-tested 2.0-litre Ford Duratec unit is once again the engine of choice under that long, narrow bonnet.
With all this in mind, you could be forgiven for wondering why the 420 Cup starts from a tenner short of £55k. Or, in other words, about 10 per cent more than an Alpine A110 – another exceptionally enjoyable two-seat fun machine that, comparatively, is kitted out like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
So why does it cost over £50K?
A quick look through the spec sheet and that hefty price tag starts to make more sense. Caterham pitches the 420 Cup between the 420R and the Seven Championship UK racing car. The former is no slouch, but the latter is without doubt one of the fastest ways to lap a circuit regardless of budget. In fact, around most UK tracks, the Seven Championship race cars are only fractionally slower than the front-running British Touring Car Championship machines.
So then, the 420 Cup aims to deliver the best bits of the racing car in a relatively usable, road-track hybrid package. It’s a delicious recipe and one that Caterham claims to have resulted in ‘the best track day car we’ve ever made’. A bold statement from, arguably, the Kings of track day cars.
Along with super sticky Avon ZZR tyres (optional ZZR Extreme track tyres are available), the 420 Cup gets fully adjustable Bilstein dampers (ten stiffness settings – no tools required), a limited-slip diff and a SADEV six-speed sequential gearbox. As for the Duratec engine, it’s been treated to a power ouput only exceeded by the 620R, meaning that at 210bhp it’s 35bhp up on the Seven racing car.
It’s not all substance, either. Leaving aside lazy comments about the styling, to my eyes this has got to be one of the prettiest Caterham models ever to leave the factory. Translucent satin decals adorn the carefully crafted bodywork, while a race-inspired nose cone, centralised petrol filler, new LED rear lights and an optional race roll cage lift add a noticeable flourish to the styling.
The interior is also a pleasant surprise. No, it’s not littered with creature comforts, but the satin carbon finish, 420 Cup racing dials and Momo suede steering wheel are as well-trimmed as they are satisfyingly functional.
How does it drive on track?
Straight out of the pits at Snetteron, the ZZR Extreme tyres need little time to warm up before going full pelt into the Norfolk track’s tricky mix of slow and fast corners. Sitting so close to the ground with no windscreen, (a basic one can be optioned in), the sense of speed feels somewhat exaggerated, yet there’s no denying the 420 Cup’s straight-line pace.
The Ford Duratec engine pulls hard with so little mass to shift and the engine noise is rasping and purposeful. Floor the throttle up the red line and all it takes is a decisive tug on the gear-lever to engage the next ratio. No lift, keep it flat and let the ‘box do the work. Bang, you’re in the next gear and the surge of acceleration recommences. It tails off as you go past 90ish, but at this point you barely notice as the force of the wind buffets your helmet and the next corner is fast approaching.
Heel and toe isn’t essential but is highly recommended to help calm the rear axle as you approach a corner. Nailing three simultaneous downshifts as you pitch the 420 Cup into a hairpin is a thrilling and rewarding experience, but you need to be quick. The four-pot brakes aren’t quite as powerful as the Seven racer’s but, together with the sticky tires and mere 560kg kerb weight, they scrub off speed with alarming ease.
Turn in using the small and simple Momo steering wheel and the response is so sharp, so keen that it makes your average sports car feel like HMS Endeavour. Inch-perfect apex attacks are almost guaranteed, the main question is how quickly you can ready yourself to get back on the throttle. It’s something the 420 Cup encourages you to push further and further, knowing that this isn’t a snappy or unpredictable car – at least on a dry track.
Of course, you can adjust the behaviour of the car by delving into the damper settings. All it takes is an arm under the wheel arch and it’s a simple adjustable dial with ten settings – more than enough to switch things up. Indeed, going from a standard six front, eight rear setup to full soft all the way around was an eye-opening experience, the increased body roll generating greater grip but also a more unsettled car if you get your inputs wrong.
Whatever you do to the dampers, though, this is a proper, hell-raising experience designed to bring out a tidal wave of endorphins. Banging down through the gears, revs flaring and eyes scanning for the apex, the 420 CUP is as thrilling as it is fast.
And on the road?
Given its abilities on track, the first bit of good news is that the 420 Cup isn’t as unruly as you might think when the road becomes uneven, narrow and chock full with other road users towering above you. The sequential ‘box can be operated smoothly at low speeds and while the ride is undoubtedly stiff, it’s seldom reaches territory that many of us would consider uncomfortable. Otherwise, the seats are super supportive and have the most powerful (optional) heaters known to man, while there’s even a 12V power socket for your sat-nav or phone. Just note that, even if you get the ‘large chassis’ SV version (which is 110mm wider and £2,500 more expensive than the regular model) the cabin is most definitely built for those of a slender frame.
Elsewhere, the outright flexibility of the engine really grabs your attention. It may ‘only’ produce 150lb ft, but the featherweight chassis means that there’s genuine urgency from 40mph in sixth gear, pulling hard up to and beyond motorway speeds. Not that you’d want to cruise at much more than this without the optional windscreen fitted (trust us, we tried).
While the 420 Cup is more than capable of driving to the track, setting a ludicrous lap and then completing the return journey, its on-road talents are best enjoyed in relatively short bursts. It’s narrow width and frantic agility mean even the tightest of B-roads can be dissected at pace, while the regular ZZR tires deliver less grip but greater margin for error.
Caterham Seven 420 Cup: verdict
If an exquisitely judged mix of laugh-out-loud fun and devastating on-track ability is what you’re after, then Caterham has managed to raise its own bar with the 420 Cup. The Sadev gearbox and adjustable Bilsteins add involvement, yet also bring considerable gains in pace that leave you only a fraction off the fully-fledged 420R racer. And while the latter is track-only, the 420 Cup allows you to enjoy the delights of a competition-inspired road car on a balmy summer afternoon.
The only fly in the ointment is the price. At just under £55k, the 420 Cup runs into formidable sports car territory. Porsche 718 Cayman T, Alpine A110S and the Lotus Emira are available for similar money and don’t need to dive for cover as soon as the heavens open.
However, boiling a car like the 420 Cup down to mere numbers is missing the point. Numbers don’t make an experience, and as experiences go there’s few things on four wheels that deliver what a Caterham does. That the 420 Cup might just be the best of an exceptional bunch, is all you really need to know.