Stop anywhere in a Caterham, and someone inevitably will ask, “Is that a kit car?” And you’ll have to answer, “Yes.” This may be the worst part of the entire Caterham Super Seven SV experience, because it puts the Caterham into that group of fiberglass composite backyard specials with Volkswagen Beetle drivetrains. The Super Seven SV is not that kind of kit car.
Designed by Lotus founder Colin Chapman, the Seven was introduced in 1957 and wore the Lotus badge until 1973, when Caterham Cars purchased the rights to build the Seven and in the excitement permanently added Super to the name. Built on an aluminum-paneled spaceframe, the Caterham is true to Chapman’s vision of a lightweight sports car; aside from suspension and frame tweaks, not much has changed since 1957. The most radical change comes in the form of the larger, more accommodating Super Seven SV.
At first glance, the SV looks like every other Super Seven; however, it has been stretched in nearly every dimension to accommodate larger drivers. The new car is more than four inches wider and three inches longer, and it sports a roomier footwell. If you’ve never been in a Super Seven, you’ll never notice the difference. But if you are more than six feet tall and wear a shoe size larger than nine, you’ll appreciate the extra space in the pedal box and the ability to move the seat back to a comfortable position. Even in SV guise, though, this is still a tiny car that moves like nothing else on the road.
Sitting inside the Caterham is a disorienting experience. There isn’t a lot between the driver and the road. You sit low-stick your arm out, and you can touch the ground. Stuck in traffic, all you can see are tires and bumpers.
Once the fear of getting maimed by the teal Ford Festiva in the next lane passes, you’ll feel like a fox among dim-witted hunters. Staying a step ahead is easy, because the Caterham is graced with quick responses. Any twitch of the eleven-inch Momo steering wheel will divert the Caterham from a forward path. When you continue to turn the wheel, the grip will astound. With only 1300 or so pounds stressing the tires, it’s likely that you’ll give up before the rubber does; but if you press on, you’ll find controllable behavior at the limit of adhesion. High limits and public roads usually mix about as well as children and Molotov cocktails, but the Super Seven removes the flaming rag and serves up Shirley Temples.
The advantages of low mass are obvious in the Caterham. Even with a 147-horsepower Ford Zetec engine, acceleration feels super-car quick. Caterham claims that 0 to 60 mph can be achieved in a BMW M3-trouncing 4.6 seconds. A full-throttle first-to-second shift will step the rear tires out in a way that will make you laugh and possibly will make your passenger cry. Fierce acceleration continues until about 80 mph, when the anachronistic exterior design begins to lose its fight against the wind. Further countering the Caterham’s speed are four solid-disc brakes that are completely unfazed by the diminutive roadster.
So you have to tell people you drive a kit car. Get over it. The Caterham is street-legal because of its kit status. Assembled cars do not require the same safety standards as production cars, and this loophole allows us to enjoy a bit of Chapmanian insanity.