Caterham Seven 360S long-term test (2021) review | CAR Magazine

Our long-term Caterham 360S: the six-month verdict

Published: 29 June 2021

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

Just as a ballet dancer’s musculoskeletal system adapts and evolves, I’m pretty sure a Caterham driver’s body mutates in curiously specific ways over time. The Seven is gone but my fingers can still remember the contortions to unlatch the sidescreens from the outside, my neck still corkscrews to check over both shoulders whenever I change lanes on the motorway, and my right leg still hyperextends when climbing out of a car to avoid a non-existent hot side exhaust.

It’s a souvenir of a few months in one of the world’s purest sports cars. The loan’s overlap with lockdown put epic road trips off the agenda but one of the Seven’s talents is to make every journey special. Going to the shops feels like the Mille Miglia.

The weather was balmy when I collected the Seven and barmy when I returned it, so this test was also a chance to experience life with a summer sports car in winter. It wasn’t as tough a trial as I’d expected. The heater fitted as standard to S-spec Sevens works a treat; about 3mm of travel on its choke-like lever takes interior temperature from freezing to thermonuclear in moments. The heated screen mostly works, although one stubborn stripe of condensation always remains. I did try keeping the roof down in winter but I’m just not macho enough. The thickest hat I own couldn’t stave off ice-cream-headache brainfreeze, so I quickly gave in and put the hood up again. It’s remarkably weather-proof, if not totally foreign-object-proof. On one motorway run a supersized insect hit the windscreen and somehow ended up splattered across my chin and shirt. One of the roof’s poppers had become unclipped and the poor old bug’s mortal remnants were somehow drafted through the gap.

The roof partially collapsed at one point, when one of the support sticks unscrewed itself (an easy fix). Otherwise the 360S never missed a beat. Caterham packed a kit of supplies in the boot; spare wiper blades, oil to top up and so forth. None of them were needed.

Worst journey? That would be the very last trip, to drop the 360 off at Caterham’s Crawley centre in relentless winter rain. Our car’s wide semi-slick tyres and sopping wet surfaces didn’t mix, as an unscheduled visit to opposite lock on the A46 overtaking a lorry at 50mph on part-throttle proved.

And the best journey? The one that sticks in my mind the most was an entirely mundane one. At least, it would have been mundane in any other car: mooching home in medium-heavy dual-carriageway traffic, roof down, on a sunny evening: a million miles of headroom above, the scent of crops from surrounding fields in the air. You’re entirely in touch with the environment, and the sensation of travelling through it. That’s what I miss most about the Seven – enjoying movement for movement’s sake.

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 official mpg, 30.1mpg (tested), n/a CO2
Energy cost 17.3p per mile
Miles this month 317
Total miles 6421

Month 5 living with a Caterham Seven: life’s a (drive to the) beach

Plugging in (part 1)
Somebody (okay, me) left the Seven in the garage with the ignition on, so a spot of car-to-car resuscitation is required before it’s going anywhere. Not often an MG F is the healthy one providing the power.

caterham jump

Plugging in (part 2)
Underway. I’ve learned never to leave home without earplugs (for the road noise) and a 12V-to-USB adapter (for my phone).

Roofless villain
Do wish I’d remembered to bring the hood bag with me, though. It’s a sunny day and it’s getting too hot inside for it to stay up. Without the Velcro-on bag, I need to squash the roof into the boot and get paranoid about crimping the rear screen.

Small car, small appetite
The Caterham’s averaging an entirely respectable mid-30s mpg on drives like this. It might have the aerodynamics of a garden shed, but that small frontal area and light weight help it to an average figure better than many of the other petrol-engined cars on the Our Cars fleet.

caterham brighton

First time I’ve visited Brighton. It’s a colourful, breezy place. The Caterham feels at home here. Bit cold, though. Time to put the roof up again. This is why you should always pack a woolly hat, even in summer.

No barrier to success
Driving a low car, I’ve always fantasised about driving straight under a car park barrier without bothering to stop. If you took the roof off the Seven, it would make it. Tempting, but ANPR paranoia stops me.

caterham barrier

By James Taylor

Logbook: Caterham Seven 360S

Price £31,490 (£44,918 as 
Performance 1999cc four-cylinder, 180bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 130mph
Efficiency n/a official mpg, 34.4mpg (tested), n/a CO2
Energy cost 18p per mile
Miles this month 540
Total miles 6104

Month 4 living with a Caterham Seven: nipping home for a bit

caterham hq

By rights, Graham Macdonald should have a furrowed brow and the weight of the world on his shoulders. Supply chain carved up by Covid; Brexit’s shadow over vital overseas sales; the challenges of keeping the age-old Seven road-legal in a world of mandated active safety tech… Instead, Caterham’s CEO greets us with a broad smile and infectious enthusiasm. He’s clearly a man who enjoys his work.

We’ve brought our Seven to meet its makers at Caterham’s factory, an unassuming building on a busy Dartford industrial estate. It’s been the company’s home since 1986, when it left the Caterham, Surrey, base it’s named after.

‘As you can see, we don’t have a lot of space back here,’ Macdonald says, as we head onto the shop floor, Sevens in various stages of undress levitating on stands, each being completed by one technician from start to finish. ‘Quiet calm – this is ideal to see,’ he says. ‘After the first lockdown in 2020, I had chaos out here. We came back in May after shutdown ready to go; many of our suppliers weren’t. It took months of work to get everything flowing as it should. But we’re back in a happy place.’

So, how’s business? ‘In terms of sales, it’s fantastic. We opened up and the world went mad. Lockdown seems to have fostered a “you only live once” attitude, which we’ve perhaps benefitted from.’ To echo that, cars in the section of the factory being ‘kitted’ – prepped for being crated and delivered to spanner-wielding customers – normally make up 20 per cent of sales, the other 80 being fully factory-built, turn-key Sevens. That ratio has shifted, kit demand increasing as people find time on their hands.

If they had more room, would they be interested in buying the rights to the Lotus Elise, production of which in Hethel ends this year? That’s precisely what the founders did with the Lotus Seven all those years ago. ‘You know, it’s something we’ve talked about,’ he says, ‘and I think, personally, it will leave a hole in the market. I’m sure if we got into negotiation with Lotus it wouldn’t be easy but I think there’d be a market for it. It’s certainly something that’s in the back of my mind. But who knows…’

caterham hq engines

A neat two-seat sports car with enclosed bodywork? Sounds a bit like the lost Caterham sister car to the Alpine A110. It’s easy to forget the A110 came about through a joint venture with Caterham, which ended before reaching production. ‘You know, I don’t have sleepless nights, but… I still think about that car fondly,’ Macdonald says, philosophically. ‘We developed the suspension and my team were insistent the car had to be small, lightweight and agile. The A110 has had so many great reviews and, of course, they all praise it for being small and lightweight! Sadly it [the joint venture] fell out of bed, Renault ran with it and what a great product it’s been.

‘It came out more expensive than they wanted, to build and retail, and I don’t think they’ve been getting the [sales] volumes they wanted,’ he acknowledges, ‘so I don’t know whether we’d have been struggling had it gone ahead and perhaps you’d be talking to a different Caterham CEO now!’ It’s clear his feelings are anything but sour towards Alpine, and he has half an eye out for a used A110 to replace his BMW M4.

What of the 2030 ban on sales of new petrol cars in the UK? Will low-volume outfits like Caterham get dispensation? ‘We will lobby hard but I think there probably will not be exemptions for us,’ he says. So is a plug-in Seven being readied? ‘We’ve done feasibility studies and we’ve actually driven a prototype on a track. It pleasantly surprised us; the experience of sheer torque, no gearbox. It was heavy, however: 800kg. And we reckon the price would be north of £100k were it to come to market today. As batteries and motors develop and prices and weight come down, we’ll start talking with partners. It’s not on the horizon for another four to five years, I think.’

caterham brands hatch

The latest Caterham model is the thoroughly un-electric, retro-inspired Super Seven 1600. Orders are healthy; many of the cars in-build are flowing-winged Supers. There’s one waiting outside, so we head out for a drive, Graham in the 1600, me in CAR’s 360S. He drives with a precision fostered by racing in Sevens. ‘I fund my own racing and take holiday for test days, and I get to see what my customers are going through. And racing is a great test bed; it really does feed back into the engineering of our road cars.’

We pause for a breather outside Brands Hatch. ‘I came into the business 13 years ago and I’ve been CEO now for eight years,’ he reflects, ‘and the last couple of years is probably the most stable we’ve been in all that time. I’m proud that we’re self-sufficient.’

The game will never be easy, but long may Caterham continue to play it on its own terms.

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 official mpg, 34.6mpg (tested), n/a CO2
Energy cost 17.6p per mile
Miles this month 385
Total miles 5564

Month 3 living with a Caterham Seven: mindfulness on the move

caterham ltt steering wheel

James Taylor (not me, the famous one) wrote his 1970 hit Sweet Baby James on a long drive in his Cortina GT, which didn’t have a radio. ‘If it had,’ he told Johnnie Walker in an interview, ‘I’d have been listening to other music instead of the songs in my head.’ I haven’t written any hit records just yet but there is something about driving in the radio-less Seven that allows your mind to wander creatively. And because you’re not in a sealed box and you’re more exposed to your surroundings, you feel more in touch with the world. Mostly, though, you’re completely absorbed with the business of driving.

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 official mpg, 30.2mpg (tested), n/a CO2
Energy cost 20.4p per mile
Miles this month 155
Total miles 5179

Month 2 living with a Caterham Seven: fight!

Caterham LTT versus

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

Former features editor for CAR, occasional racer