Can a Caterham 160 with a design that’s almost 60 years old, skinny tyres and a three-cylinder, 660cc, 80bhp engine really offer a fun and economical driving experience? You may be surprised at the answer…
The Caterham Seven can trace its roots back almost 60 years, and the basic design has hardly changed in that time. That may be a seen as a bad thing, but the fact that it’s still around today must surely mean that it has some good points. Over the years some of the details have changed, most notably the engines, which have generally become more powerful. Which is why it’s all the more shocking that Caterham has dropped such a small power unit into the 160.
The new engine is a Suzuki-sourced, 660cc turbocharged 3-cylinder engine which produces just 80 bhp and 79 lb. ft. of torque. This sounds like some sort of April fool’s joke, but because it’s in a car that weighs just 490 Kg, it actually works.
Practicality is clearly not a strong point of the Seven, with just two seats, very little space to put anything, no doors, a piece of fabric for a roof, and a very, very old-fashioned and basic dashboard, but that is missing the point somewhat. The same is true for refinement. It’s hard to think of a car that is less refined with wind, road and engine noise aplenty.
As well as actually being faster than you would expect, the Caterham feels even quicker than it is, thanks to the tremendous sense of speed generated from being so close to the ground and having so little bodywork.
The 160 comes with basic steel wheels, which don’t look as good as the alloys that grace the rest of the Seven range.
The expectations for the Caterham 160, with its small engine and skinny tyres, are likely to be low. However if you can get to drive it on a series of fantastic roads, as we did, including the stretch from Ingleton to Leyburn in North Yorkshire, as well as in North Wales, then your view of the car will change very quickly – it is massively more fun and capable than you can imagine.
We were originally due to test the car in summer but to cut a long story short we ended up with it at the end of November. Wet, greasy and cold roads plus skinny 155-width tyres in a car around a third of the weight of the average hatchback, plus a surprisingly lively turbocharged three-cylinder engine, all result in the rear end having very little grip, however that is all part of the refreshing appeal of the 160.
Once you’ve recalibrated your brain to go back to what cars were like to drive 50 years ago – with no power steering, no traction control systems, no anti-lock brakes (and no doors) – then the 160 offers a truly refreshing and rewarding driving experience. When you’re wrapped up in pushing on in the car, you’re not aware that it’s a three-cylinder engine – it sounds good, it has great responses, and even the five-speed gearbox is effective – it has short shifts and the ratios work well. Despite the small engine, the 160 still has a 0-62mph acceleration time of 6.5 seconds, which makes it feel seriously rapid.
Of course you’re in a very, very small, lightweight, rear-wheel drive car, with direct steering, so it does feel like a racing car on the road. Normally the downside of this is a very firm ride, which may be okay on a racing track, but isn’t ideal on the roads of North Yorkshire, which are more akin to a roller coaster than a smooth circuit. So in the 160 you’re also pleasantly surprised at the way excellent handling is matched by a genuinely comfortable ride, despite a live rear axle; the lack of low profile tyres are certainly a factor in this. Yes you can get the rear end sliding everywhere, especially when pushing on in the wet British winter, but thanks to the car’s light weight and direct driving experience, it’s extremely controllable.
Although you can’t adjust the position of the seat and the steering wheel, the 160 actually has an excellent driving position. It makes you wonder why many other manufacturers still build new cars with dreadful driving positions.
It should be noted that the pedals are so close together in such a tight space in this narrow body (it’s not the wider ‘SV’ chassis), it’s virtually impossible to drive this car safely without wearing racing boots or very narrow shoes – with normal shoes you’re likely to press the clutch, brake and accelerator all at the same time.
We drove the car from Leicester to Cheshire to Wales to Darlington to Cheshire to Leicester in November, and although it’s obviously not the most luxurious of vehicles, the hood kept the rain out. The 160 was fitted with a heater but with the roof up, the engine heat ensures that the cabin is warm enough not to have to use it.
The biggest problem we had was driving over the Pennines for around 20 miles directly into the setting sun. With no sun visors this was very dangerous.
So we’ve established that the 160 offers a surprising level of performance and reward for the driver, however it also has one other trick up its sleeve – it’s capable of 57.6mpg (along with emissions of 114g/km CO2). As with any car, you won’t be experiencing the NEDC economy figure during spirited driving – and why would you buy a Caterham if you weren’t intending to use it for spirited driving. But if, like most people, you have to drive in normal traffic to get to the best drivers’ roads, then you can go a pretty long way on one gallon – unlike most other cars that offer this much fun on a B-road blast.
During our time with the 160 it was driven pretty much flat out on suitable roads and we averaged 36.8mpg overall. We can’t think of another car that would offer the driving thrills of the 160 that would come anywhere close to this economy figure.
As well as offering driving thrills, and good economy, the entry-level 160 is also affordable. It costs just £14,995 in kit form, or £17,995 factory-built. We would go for factory-built every time! There are of course other modes in the Seven line-up; the Roadsport, the Superlight R400, the Supersport, the 620 R and the CSR.
The Caterham 160 could easily be dismissed as being irrelevant. But it’s not, and here’s why. Yes, it’s essentially a vehicle that was designed almost 60 years ago, but despite this, it still offers one of the best driving experiences on the right roads, it’s also economical, and it’s affordable. The secret to its success is its light weight, and lightweighting is one of the most important issues for the global car industry to get to grips with at the moment. Cars have got heavier and heavier over the years. Yes they’ve also got more refined, practical and safer, but in the process they’ve generally lost the direct driving experience – ie. the ability to feel the road, and what the car is doing, through your hands and your backside. Making a car weigh less means it can have a smaller engine, it handles better, it doesn’t wear out its tyres and brakes as fast, and of course it uses less fuel. In our view it’s a much more relevant concept for UK roads than a supercar; we have a 60mph speed limit on most country roads, and the 160 offers more thrills from 0-60mph than any £100,000-plus supercar.
The challenge is for all vehicle manufacturers to take the best from the Caterham 160 and apply it to their cars. The other challenge is for Caterham to give us a car that has the driving sensations of the Seven, but in a more modern, practical and refined package.
Three years ago we tested the Caterham Roadsport 125. We think the 160 is a much better car. It’s lighter, more responsive, more fluid, and more economical. We know it’s not the most practical of cars – but it offers other manufacturers so much to learn from that it’s awarded a Green-Car-Guide rating of 8 out of 10.