Driven: Caterham Seven 270R
The 270R is tough to beat for sheer driving involvement.
An engaging and immersive driving experience that has innate driver appeal
People smile when they see a Caterham. Children stop and point, whilst older generations gaze wistfully at the throwback looks of decades gone by. It is a car with very few enemies. It makes little odds that this one is acid-green, as the colour is simply the cherry on a 60's styled classic cake. And whilst it may, to an untrained eye, resemble something driven by Mr Toad, be in no doubt that the 270R is a thoroughbred sportscar.
When you drop down in to the barely padded composite bucket seats (which are bolted to the optional lower floor) and thread your legs under the half-scale Momo steering wheel, you're reminded that this car is something out of the ordinary. This notion is further reinforced as you scramble around for the four-point harness (which inevitably you haven't loosened before getting in!) and secure it at your naval with a reassuring clunk. The optional "Large Chassis" of this car is large in name only. You are cocooned in every dimension once the vinyl doors are popped shut, hugged by the seat padding and elbows wedged between the leather-clad transmission tunnel and sill-cum-armrest. I've had wetsuits that were easier to get in to, and came with more breathing room.
The glossy carbon dash is a welcome aesthetic touch to the spartan interior. Subtle touches such as the engraved handbrake level and gear knob show pride from the Caterham design office, and the 270R logo is boldly planted on the far side in case you forget where you are. Essentials only, meaning a smattering of dials stretching almost the full width of the car are interspersed with analogue toggle switches which were probably originally spec'd by Mr Chapman himself. One of these toggles is rotated 90 degrees and within easy reach of your little finger from a steering wheel grip. That's the indicators; a neat solution to keep clutter away from any frantic steering that may be required.
And next to that, a bright red (unlabelled) starter button.
Press it, and coax the 1600cc 4 cylinder in to life with a dab of throttle. Despite the modern Ford Sigma engine, the mapping requires you to keep an extra few hundred RPM manually whilst things warm up. The exhaust which is exit-right, makes is presence heard, although at low engine speeds maintains some sense of decorum. It isn't deafening, and draws little attention through those sleepy villages, but it does clear its throat goadingly as you roll off the throttle. An old-school soundtrack to this old-school car.
The top-mounted clutch is intuitive and has just the right weight behind it, allowing first to be selected, and pulling away is really rather undramatic. There is something very immediate about driving a car that has so little mass to move along the road. Even crawling out of the car park, you can feel that lightness, that lack of inertia, and the eagerness with which your inputs are actioned by the car. Everything gets exaggerated, from your throttle application to braking; you have to re-calibrate yourself before you can get comfortable behind the wheel.
Heading from Caterham's head office in Crawley to the Essex/Cambridgeshire borders required a jaunt on the M25. Needless to say, civility is somewhat lacking whilst in that environment, with wind blasts coming from seemingly every direction. This is no grand tourer, that much is expected, but any sort of long distance trip would really require you to put up the roof. This is also a car to keep both hands on the wheel of; the few degrees of unweighted steering around centre isn't compliance. It's tyre squirm. Explore it, and the whole car will shimmy along with you in response. With no power steering to dampen your inputs, you need to be on the ball!
As everything warms up, the oil pressure settles, and you can start exploring the upper reaches of the Caterham's stride. The way in which this little car picks up its skirt and hurries towards the horizon needs little exaggerating. Sure, with a 0-62mph (0-100km/h) time of a little over 5 seconds, its brisk enough, but the fact that you are sat below the headlights amplifies the experience. And all the time, the raspy 4-cylinder engine note accompanies you drowning another of your senses.
Slowing down on the otherhand is something rather different. It is, quite literally, breath taking. With so little inertia the middle pedal is incredibly potent at scrubbing off speed, and the Avon tyres bite down hard, refusing to lock-up. The result is that you are thrust in to the embrace of your harness with such ferocity that the air is forced from your lungs and not allowing them to expand again. You only make this mistake the first time, remembering on subsequent stops to inhale and brace.
Straightline performance in both directions around the speedo, is impressive, but that isn't what a Caterham is about. Caterhams are built for corners. With the lowered floor of this particular one, you are robbed of the ability to properly watch where the wheels are on the road, but you soon learn where the extremities of the car are. The ability to place the front wheels precisely is rewarding every single time you try, and the way in which the rear axle rotates to follow suit makes driving the 270R quickly feel inherently natural. The car becomes an extension of your psyche, where you simply will a direction change to happen, and feel it through the contact points with the car. Despite the frenetic happenings at the wheels, it is easy to remain calm and collected from inside the cockpit, immersed in a visceral experience that is more effective than a triple espresso at keeping you alert.
Every control in this car has been scrutineered and honed over decades of development to give the cocktail we have today. An uprated master cylinder gives a positive and confidence-inspiring feel to the brake pedal. The bolt-action like gear change works harmoniously with the pedals, spaced perfectly for heel-and-toe, which in themselves are beautifully in sync with a lightweight flywheel allowing for seamless, and immediate rev matching. The steering builds weight linearly as the slip angle increases, and those semi-slick Avons communicate their capacity for more torture clearly and concisely through the independent front suspension. As you reach the upper end of the speedo, a lightness creeps in to the steering. This is the wind picking the front wheels up off the tarmac, but at road speeds, this won't hassle you all too much.
The bobbing up and down of the wheel arches relative to the bonnet demonstrates the fantastic work done by the engineers to separate the sprung and unsprung masses. The adjustable dampers doing a brilliant job of making the ride quality surprisingly pleasant, and the limited-slip differential overcomes any shortcomings of the de Dion rear setup. The feedback through the steering wheel and seat are in a beautiful harmony, the former providing authority and the latter inspiring confidence. With such a direct link between arse-and-axle, turning the car with throttle becomes an ingrained element to the driving experience. As a package, the 270R has such approachable performance; performance that feels second nature, and gives the driver an overwhelming sense of control.
It will come as no surprise that Caterham has created something very special, or that the 270R is a back-to-basics drivers car. It is what Caterham has done for almost 50 years, and what Colin Chapman did for 15 years before that. It is uncompromising, but it isn't daunting. It is harsh, but it isn't brash. It generates smiles and thumbs-up wherever it goes, and it will always put a smile on a face of the person behind the wheel. Its shortcoming in terms of comfort and long-leggedness fall into obscurity because that isn't what the 270R is about. Its about an undiluted driving experience, and there isn't much out there that comes close to ticking that box, whilst remaining quite so accessible on the road.
Also published on www.torotex.com.