Caterham likes to name its cars based on their power-to-weight ratios. As such the range starts with the 160 and ends with the 620.
These are powered by a selection of Suzuki and Ford engines with horsepower ranging between 80hp and 310hp,
From the least to the most potent, none of the Seven models could be described as slow. Weight plays a big part in that – with less mass to move around, the fairly inconspicuous engine outputs available translate into serious speed.
Three-cylinder entry car
Think of the Caterham line-up as a sliding scale from road to track use, with the entry-level 160 being the easiest to drive on the highway. It uses a 660cc, three-cylinder turbocharged Suzuki engine that is good for 80hp. That figure may not excite but thanks to the car’s low weight, it shifts along at an admirable pace, accompanied by a rorty note from the side exhaust pipe.
Our only complaint is that the turbocharged engine doesn’t have the zingy throttle response we expect from a car like this, but 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds is nothing to be sniffed at.
Next up are the 1.6-litre Ford-powered 270 and 310 models, regarded as the purest and most accessible cars Caterham produces. The former comes with 135hp but the 310 packs in an extra 20hp, and 0-62mph sprint times are five seconds for the 270, while the 310 gets there a tenth quicker.
Caterham Seven 310 boasts a superb balance of talents
The 310 is a reasonably new addition to the line-up and features a modified version of the 1.6-litre Ford engine, with hotter cams and a different engine map. Not only does this add power, but it also revs a higher redline.
It also feels distinctly more like a motorsport unit than the 270, with a lumpy tick-over and keeness to both pick up and drop revs. The gearbox's ratios are so closely stacked though that barely any engine speed is lost between each changes, making the 310 feel relentlessly accelerative.
Where the 360 used to be the best balance for road and track use, we think the 310 is the highlight of the Caterham Seven range. It's fast enough on the road to entertain without feeling like you're missing out.
Middle-powered cars use a 2.0-litre motor
A pair of 2.0-litre Ford Duratec cars offer another step up in performance; badged 360 and 420, they promise hot-hatch power of 180hp and 210hp, but supercar 0-62mph sprint times of 4.8 and 3.8 seconds respectively.
The 360 takes the Seven up a notch if you plan to use your car regularly on track as well as the road. It’s powerful enough to keep up with most comers on a circuit but not so ballistic that you can’t enjoy it on the road too. From the 420 up, you’ll want to make friends with your local race-track owner to get the most from your Caterham.
Range-topping track-focussed models
Next up is the CSR – which Caterham describes as the ultimate roadgoing Seven. Its 2.3-litre naturally aspirated Ford engine develops 260hp, so 0-62mph falls in 3.1 seconds. This car features aerodynamic tweaks and special suspension that we’ll go into in the handling section.
Range-topping 620 models are split into S (road spec) and R (track spec) although both develop a mighty 310hp from a supercharged 2.0-litre Ford motor, and are more naturally suited to race circuits. As you’d expect, this power translates to some pretty eye-opening performance stats, with the 0-62mph time dropping from 3.4 seconds to 2.8 seconds in the racier R car.
All the regular Caterham Seven sports cars come with a standard five-speed manual gearbox, or an optional six-speeder. The 620R gets a special six-speed sequential gearbox (shifts one gear at a time in response to a forward or backward tug on the lever). The 620S and CSR only have a manual five and six-speed gearbox respectively.
Whichever manual you pick, it’ll come with an almost unbelievably stubby shifter that requires baker’s forearms to snick between ratios. It’s another physical but rewarding effort that modern car refinement has all but eliminated. Nailing a gearchange in a Caterham is easy and extremely satisfying, once you’ve remembered how to drive properly.
The Caterham Seven provides a very physical driving experience, even on the smallest and least-powerful 160.
Unassisted steering and heavy brakes require more effort to move but the rewards are obvious from the outset, with wonderful feedback from both giving you a clear picture of how much grip the tyres have.
A short, stubby gearstick snaps between its ratios with a satisfying action, but needs hefty inputs due to its lack of leverage.
Breadth of performance options
On all but the 160 you can specify sportier suspension and a limited-slip differential to tighten up the handling, but thanks to its lightweight design, even standard cars are a joy to drive.
Because the front wheels are suspended outside the main bodywork, you can accurately place the front of the car where you want it to go, watching as the inside wheel gracefully brushes the apex of a bend.
The only stability or traction control available is your right foot – there’s no electronic safety net waiting to catch you when things get out of shape.
Luckily the chassis is very communicative and allows you to approach its limits without suddenly biting your head off. That said, faster cars approach the boundary of grip much quicker, and demand more progressive, measured inputs.