Our long-term Caterham 360S clashes with another Seven

Published: 16 February 2021

► CAR lives with another Caterham
► This time it's a balanced 360S
► It definitely won't be boring

No, you're not seeing double. That is a different Caterham next to our long-term test car, even though it has the same paint, wide chassis and sticky tyres. The doppelgangery occurred at our Track Car of the Year test, where the 420R (the one in the background) met with some of the hairiest sports cars on sale today for a knees-up at Silverstone.

I didn't get chance to lap our road-biased 360S but I did drive it to and from the test, so it was a handy chance for a 'look at what you could have won' comparison. The Seven 420 uses the same 2.0-litre Ford engine as our 360 but with a dry sump and extra 30bhp. Its circuit-ready R spec brings a lighter flywheel, brake upgrade, race seats and harnesses among other hop-ups. I'd expected them to feel quite different, but actually they felt really very similar. Not least because our 360 has a few R bits fitted as options, including limited-slip diff and beefier brake master cylinder.

It also carries some of the same suspension changes at the rear; our car has the S-spec springs and dampers but with the front radius arm mounted further forward and lower down. On the same tyres and track widths, handling felt pretty similar. I'm sure I'd feel the 420's extra 30bhp on the road but on the wide, open Stowe circuit the extra poke wasn't so noticeable.

So our car's spec, for fast road use at least, really does feel like the best of both worlds. Wish our car had the R's standard shift light, though. Curiously, there's no redline on the revcounter, so you have to remember where the limiter cuts in.

The 420R did rather well – it very nearly won the whole thing, and was our guest expert, W Series champ Jamie Chadwick's favourite car of the whole test (even next to £250,000 McLarens and mega-downforce Radicals). Settling into our 360 for the drive home, it felt almost as thrilling at lower speeds as slinging the 420R around the track earlier. The Seven really does make every journey feel special.

By James Taylor

Logbook: Caterham Seven 360S

Price £31,490 (£44,918 as tested)
Performance 1999cc four-cylinder, 180bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 130mph
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 35.1mpg (tested) n/a CO2
Energy cost 17p per mile
Miles this month 520
Total miles 5024

Month 1 living with a Caterham 360S: it won't be boring

Caterham LTT parking

As first journeys go, this isn't a best-case scenario for our new Caterham Seven: a 150-mile grind from Sussex to Lincolnshire, through the traffic chaos emanating from a closed M25. Without sat-nav and with my sense of direction (or lack of) it takes five and a half hours, almost exclusively spent in traffic jams and average-speed-camera zones.

With the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels of an industrial threshing machine, the Seven is not a happy car on the motorway.

I stop halfway home to put the hood up, and don't do quite as taut a job as I should (I've since learnt the knack). Above 60mph the wind whips it rhythmically against the frame. Flap, flap, flap. At about the same speed, fifth gear has a slight but insistent whine. Somehow six decades of development still hasn't blessed the Seven with self-cancelling indicators, so every time you use them they emit an electronic nails-on-blackboard bleep to remind you to switch them off and avoid a roguish lamp winking away at traffic around you. Neep, neep, neep.

Living with a Caterham Seven Academy racer

It's dark by the time I've flap-flapped, neep-neeped, whined and roared my way home, and I remember I didn't get a chance to clear space in the garage for the Seven beforehand. A bit like returning from a long-haul flight, ready to collapse into bed, before remembering that you stripped the covers before you went. After exchanging lawnmower, bicycles and another car for the Caterham, lit by its headlights and neighbours' twitching curtains, I yoga my way out of the cockpit, almost on hands and knees (the side screens can't open fully in the garage). I'm exhausted, vaguely sun-stroked and with a ringing in my ears that won't go away until the following morning. Yet as I close the garage door I feel like the jammiest bugger in the world. I could not feel luckier to have this car to myself for the next few months.

Caterham 360s ltt front

Our Seven, picked up from Caterham's Crawley centre near Gatwick, where it's surrounded by other alluring Sevens in all hues and trims, is a 360. That means it sits bang in the middle of Caterham's numerically ordered range, approximately named after power-to-weight ratios. The humbler 270 and 310 use Ford's 1.6-litre Sigma engine; the 360 is the cheapest Seven available with the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine. The 420 and 620 above it use the same engine, tuned for headier power outputs.

The 2.0-litre motor is torquier and burlier in feel than the Sigma but less eager and zingy; for now I'm undecided which I prefer. Regardless of engine, each Seven is also available in a choice of either road-friendly S or track-orientated R trim. Ours is a 360S, which means it has a full windscreen, hood and side screens (handy), a heater (ditto) and slightly softer suspension. It misses out on the R's race seats, lighter flywheel, limited-slip diff, rear anti-roll bar and uprated brakes.

Or at least it would, except our car is a bit of a crossbreed in that it's an S with some R bits added as options. So while it has leather seats and weather protection, it also has the diff, rear suspension mods and brake upgrades. It might just be the best of both worlds. We'll see.

Next stop Sussex, to meet with contributing editor Ben Whitworth and his Renault Zoe. 'You're a lucky boy,' he says, wistfully remembering the Seven 160 he ran in 2013 and '14. 'Just remember to pack earplugs.'

If only I'd thought of that earlier. But the journey is, in fact, so slow that wind noise isn't a big deal. Frustrating as the congested trip may be, it also serves as a reminder that cars can be so much more than just transport.

Whether you're going from A to B or from A to A for the fun of it, you can't help but revel in the exposure to the elements and connection with your surroundings, the sensation of speed and the simple joy of movement. The Seven's creator, Colin Chapman, described it as 'motorcycling on four wheels'. I feel like a kid on a bike again.

Caterham 360s ltt rear

As I lock the garage and stumble off to bed, I figure that having survived – enjoyed, even – a journey the 360S is so utterly unsuited to, the next few months are going to be pretty special.

Boxes worth ticking
The 360S is priced from £31,490, but ours is worth £44,918. Among the options we're glad it has are the limited-slip diff (£995) and sport suspension (£795) with a rear anti-roll bar (£195). Your elbows will thank you for the £95 you spend on side armrests. The half hood (£195) is easier to put on and doesn't steam up when it rains, although you'll need the standard full hood in serious wet weather.

Maybe not these...
The wide-body SV chassis (£2500) is only a good idea if you have big feet and broad hips. The high-intensity LED headlights (£800) are powerful, but there's a gap on full beam, and other cars flash us on dipped. Leather rollover bar cladding for £700? Spend it on two trackdays. The Avon ZZS tyres (£595) are super-grippy in the dry and the naughty tread pattern looks great, but Sevens should be skinnily under-tyred.

By James Taylor

Logbook: Caterham Seven 360S

Price £31,490 (£44,918 as tested)
Performance 1999cc four-cylinder, 180bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 130mph
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 41.9mpg (tested) n/a CO2
Energy cost 15.1p per mile
Miles this month 230
Total miles 4504

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer