By Phil Bradley
In a World where power steering, ABS and self-cancelling indicators are expected in new cars, Caterham make their models a little different, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you've read a few of my reviews, you'll soon work out that I'm a huge Caterham fan. The back to basics, lack of driving aids and raw feel behind the steering wheel will make you fall in love with driving again. I haven't ever driven anything quite like it. When Caterham very kindly got in touch and asked if I wanted to review another car, I jumped at the opportunity!
For my third Caterham review, the guys down in Crawley let me borrow the 420R. I'd been wanting to try this model out for some time, as it's the most powerful, non-supercharged model that Caterham create, and second only to the ballistic 620 model. This 420R uses the same, 2.0L Ford Duratec engine as in the more powerful model, just without the supercharger. This gives it a respectable 210BHP and 203NM of torque. When it weighs just 560KG, the 420R really goes, and will reach 60MPH from a standstill in 3.8 seconds. Find me another car that costs from £33,000 that will reach 60MPH in under 4 seconds!
Visually, aside from small details, it's difficult to tell the difference between the different Caterham models. This 420R was finished in Gelbgrün, a Porsche paint-to-sample colour, finished off with matte black double stripes and gloss black pinstripes surrounding them. Caterham will finish your car in any colour you like, if you can give them the paint code. This model had the LED headlights, which are an optional extra, but simply a must when you compare them to the standard headlights that come with the car. Surrounding the headlights were the wheel arches, finished in exposed carbon fibre on this particular model, which complimented the green paint job well. The rear arches were protected by carbon fibre guards too.
The rear of the Caterham is where the car could really do with a modern update. The tail lights make the model look dated, and a component that looks like they had been taken off a caravan. It's high time Caterham put some LED tail lights onto their models!
Inside, this 420R had removed the standard carbon fibre dashboard in favour of an Alcantara dashboard. I preferred the carbon fibre personally, but it's nice to see what options buyers have. The switches and dashboard instruments remain the same as in previous models. A push button starter, indicators that don't self-cancel and a heater that could only be described as your own in-car furnace, (needed when driving without a roof at this time of year!).
Behind the two seats in the car is a small storage area, which I mostly used for storing the vinyl roof, but it can fit a couple of shopping bags too if needed. This model came with the comfort leather seats which were much comfier than the carbon fibre bucket seat options. I drove over 500 miles in the first day of picking the car up, and these seats made for a very comfortable ride.
The 420R leans more towards the performance end of the scale when it comes driving fast vs. cruising at lower speeds. Allow me to put this into perspective. Back in the Summer, I was fortunate enough to drive Caterham's 360R model. The 360R was a pleasure to drive, and comfortable when cruising at lower speeds, when you really began to push the car on de-restricted roads or on the race track, the power felt a little bit underwhelming. This was completely the opposite situation with the 620S model, last year. The supercharged 620 model seemed to hate driving slowly, and made for an uncomfortable ride at slow speeds when driving through villages. This is where the 420R seemed to have the best of both Worlds. It cruised nicely at lower speeds, but the power was also there when you put your foot down.
As a driver, this is exactly what you want in a fun car such as a Caterham. The ability to cruise at low speeds with ease, but the power on tap when required. In fact, the 420R pushed a little more to the power side of the spectrum, and too much of a blip of the accelerator can cause a few hairy moments from the rear wheel drive car. This is partly the fault of the Avon ZZS tyres, a semi-slick tyre meant for Summer use and on the track, not particularly suitable for October weather! With the amount of power that the 420R can put through it's back wheels, it seems silly that the 'wet weather' tyre option is a road legal, racing tyre. This is the same tyre used in Caterham Motorsport, but wasn't suitable for the greasy roads of the UK at this time of year. My advice for taking one of these out all year round would be to get a fresh set of Winter boots for it.
This point was only emphasised, when I picked up the car during amber weather warnings here in the UK. For those of you who aren't familiar with the weather warnings we have here, the amber weather warning is issued when the weather can cause roads and rail closures, power cuts and the potential risk to life and property. The Caterham is definitely a car made for the Summer months, but is still very much usable in the colder weather too. The vinyl roof keeps the occupants dry and the heater keeps them warm, it just needs a set of tyres that don't slip whenever you blip the throttle!
This aside though, you find that you constantly have a smile on your face when driving the 420R. The exhaust exit next to the driver's seat gives off plenty of delightful pops and bangs when you downshift, more so than any other Caterham model that I've driven. The noise that the exhaust puts out when you get the rev range past 5,000RPM makes a glorious sound that bounces off your surroundings. Remove the roof and the doors and you can hear about every noise, from the tyres going over bumps, to stones hitting the inside of the wheel arches. You really feel at one with the car.
The driving experience in a Caterham is second to none. Without driving aids, roughly 3 feet from the ground and with an exhaust loud enough to give you temporary hearing damage, the 420R is far from practical, but practicality isn't what these cars are built for. Instead, they offer raw driving thrills and fantastic performance that other manufacturers struggle to match, and something that I personally don't think Caterham get enough credit for. The naturally aspirated, 2.0L inside the 420 isn't as scary as the supercharged engine in the 620, but offers similar levels of torque and performance. At the same time, the car isn't geared so much towards performance that driving slower is uncomfortable. Get me a different set of tyres and the 420R is the Caterham model for me.
Images by @WB-IOM