30 May 2012 by Paul Clarke
Model/Engine size: Roadsport 125
Fuel economy combined: 40.9 mpg (estimated)
Green Car Guide rating: 7/10
The Caterham Roadsport 125 may not be an obvious green car choice, but its light weight means that it is one of the most efficient petrol sports cars that you can buy – as well as one of the most direct driving experiences on offer.
• Good: a basic driving experience
• Bad: a basic driving experience
• Light weight means efficiency
• 55-year old design means that it’s very old fashioned compared to virtually all other cars.
To cover the background for a Caterham you have to go back 55 years, to 1957. That’s when the car first appeared at the London Motor Show as the Lotus Seven. To cut a long story short, Caterham took over the rights from Lotus to build the vehicle in 1973 and almost 40 years later the car is still here. However there have been numerous improvements over the years, including in the area of its engines.
The Caterham is officially a ‘kit car’, which is why there are no officially-published fuel economy and emissions figures. However Caterham will build the car for you for £3000. Although you can buy a Caterham for the road, it’s also a highly popular track car.
We’ve already established that the basic design of the Caterham is somewhat old-fashioned, but the engineering has been updated over the years. So it still looks like it did over 50 years ago; this means a long, narrow body with no ‘proper’ doors. There are a number of variations on the basic model, mainly thanks to different engines. The Roadsport is the road-focused version, and 125 bhp is the lowest output – and therefore the most efficient. Our test car had a windscreen (with the smallest windscreen wipers that most people will have ever seen), fabric doors with side windows, and a canvas roof. There’s also a very small luggage compartment behind the seats. Press-studs are the key high-tech components that are used to fix the roof to the screen and body. The dashboard is extremely basic, featuring a (very small) steering wheel and a number of simple switches. This version of the car has a heater, but that’s about as luxurious as the equipment goes.
The process of being able to drive off in the car takes a while, as you have to open and then secure the fabric door, put on the harness-style seat belt, and then put the key in the ignition, which is well-hidden under the dashboard, wiggle the immobiliser key, then press the start button. Once you’re under way you’ll probably find that the mirrors on the fabric doors aren’t adjusted correctly as they’ll have moved when the doors were opened, and both these mirrors and the central rear-view mirror shake so much you can’t see what’s behind you anyway. Once moving you can’t adjust the mirrors because you’ll be pinned in by the seat belt. If you try to get in and out with the roof up, as we did, then you really do need to be a bit of a contortionist.
Our week with the Caterham involved a variety of driving: from Leicester to Manchester to Bedford to Leicester (much of it on motorways), various runs through the Peak District, the nursery run, and a Cholmondeley Pageant of Power press day at the BBC’s Manchester HQ at Media City, followed by a number of laps around the Pageant of Power race circuit – watch the video
. The drive from the BBC to Cholmondeley was with a collection of exotic machinery such as Ferraris and Bentleys, a McLaren, a Lancia Delta Integrale rally car, and the BAC Mono . This drive included a detour through the tunnels underneath Manchester Airport’s runway – watch the video.
At Cholmondeley, children from Liverpool’s Alderhey Children’s Hospital were taken around the Pageant of Power circuit. This circuit was a great test for the car and a number of laps, lasting one mile each, showed the key qualities of the Caterham.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the car is its direct driving experience. The steering, suspension and rear-wheel drive drivetrain all feel directly connected to the road – this sensation is about as far as possible removed from modern cars such as hybrids with CVT transmissions. An incredibly small turn of the incredibly small steering wheel results in an immediate change of direction. All the imperfections in the road surface can be felt through the steering wheel and the seat. As well as the ability to change direction through the steering wheel, due to the direct connection between the accelerator pedal and rear wheels, you can also influence the line through a corner with throttle inputs, although this is more difficult with this 125 bhp versions with sticky tyres on dry roads. It was possible to slide the rear end around the corners on the circuit, but there were also times when the car exhibited understeer. Thankfully the Pageant circuit is generally smooth (apart from a bridge near the end where most cars go airborne), because the Caterham, with its firm suspension, isn’t too happy on poorly-surfaced roads.
There’s lots of noise to go with the acceleration, along with the wind-in-your-face sensation thanks to the open top. It’s probably for this reason that the Caterham was the favourite car for most of the children, even compared to the Ferraris on the circuit. With just 125 bhp it’s unlikely that the Caterham was anywhere near as fast as the Ferraris, but to a seven-year child it certainly felt faster, and it looks like a racing car, and that’s the whole appeal of the Caterham, along with the fact that it’s fraction of the cost of a Ferrari.
There are no published economy or emissions figures for the Caterham but we calculated that the 1.4 Classic had a combined fuel economy figure of 40.9mpg, along with emissions of 166 g/km CO2, and Caterham claim that the Roadsport 125 has similar figures. We averaged 28.5mpg during our time with the car, a significant proportion of which was high speed driving. We calculate that we achieved around 38mpg on long runs – which is not too far off the 40.9 mpg figure. In 2006 a modified Caterham achieved 131mpg whilst taking part in the Shell eco-marathon, showing that high levels of economy are possible.
There are three basic model options in the Caterham range – the Roadsport, the Superlight, and the CSR. The Roadsport has three engine choices, a 125bhp or 140bhp 1.6-litre Ford Sigma, or a 175bhp 2.0-litre Caterham Motorsport Duratec. The Superlight has four engine options: a 140bhp 1.6-litre Ford Sigma Supersport, or a 175bhp, 210bhp or 263bhp 2.0-litre Caterham Motorsport Duratec. The CSR has a 260bhp 2.3-litre Caterham Motorsport Duratec. The higher output cars offer a better driving experience, but they’re not going to be as green or as cheap to run.
There are also lots of options. The basic price of the Roadsport 125 is £19,495 as a complete kit. Caterham will build it for you for £3000. Our car had an SV chassis which is larger than the standard chassis, and costs an extra £2,200. Even painted bodywork is an option. You can specify a six-speed box as an option (£2,995), and that would certainly have been useful on our motorway runs with the car. What you can’t have are any safety features such as traction control, ABS or airbags – which means that Caterhams need lots of concentration in the wet. And of course security is pretty non-existent as you can’t lock the passenger compartment or boot.
The Caterham Roadsport 125 offers a refreshing direct driving experience for people who find that modern cars are too insulated from the road. It’s also lightweight, and so it’s efficient. It’s also cheaper than most cars with comparable performance, although it’s easy to increase its price with various options. However the car is old-fashioned, basic, noisy and unrefined. You would have to be pretty committed to use a Caterham every day. But as a weekend plaything, it certainly offers an experience that very few modern cars can match. Despite all its failings, for its fun-factor, individuality and efficiency, it gets a Green-Car-Guide rating of 7 out of 10. If you want a similar sensation to the Caterham, but with more practicality, refinement and economy, consider the Lotus Elise .
Car Facts and Figures
Caterham Roadsport 125 data
Fuel economy extra urban: N/A
Fuel economy urban: N/A
CO2 emissions: 166 g/km (estimated)
Green rating: VED band N/A
Weight: 525 Kg
Company car tax liability (2012/13): 24%
Price: £19,495 plus build (£3,000) plus SV chassis (£2,200)
Insurance group: TBC
Power: 125 bhp
Max speed: 112 mph
0-62mph: 5.9 seconds
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