Of course, this isn't much by supercar standards. But the CSR can do things that most supercars can't, no matter how expensive or fast they are. Put a Ferrari production car on a race circuit and it feels significantly less capable than even a crude race car. But Caterham earns one-quarter of its revenue from motorsports, and many of the cars that aren't raced, per se, are track-day regulars. So we figured the CSR would "do the business" at Willow Springs, as the Brits like to say. And we were right.
The Caterham is the purest and most honest street car I've ever driven. Period. No power steering. No power brakes. No drive-by-wire. Just a direct connection between you and the contact patch. The responses to steering, throttle, brake, and gearshift inputs are so nearly instantaneous that they verge on the telepathic. And I can see exactly what's happening, at least at the front end of the car, as the wheels turn and judder.
The Caterham is so brutally quick that it takes a few minutes before I can keep my foot planted on the gas pedal long enough to wind out the Cossie to redline. At 7500 rpm in fourth gear, the combination of wind howl, induction hiss, exhaust snarl, and adrenaline rush creates an intoxicating testosterone cocktail. And when I lift the throttle to snatch fifth, the momentary silence is punctuated by a staccato bark-engine overrun and the rotary throttle snapping shut-that's almost loud enough to pass for artillery fire.
But the aural delights of the Caterham are merely icing on the cake. The real selling point of the CSR is formula car-style performance. Old-school formula-car performance, that is: No ground effects on this baby, just oodles of tire grip, which translates into the kind of cornering any enthusiast can enjoy.
The handling is balanced and vice-free, so you can provoke understeer or oversteer as circumstances warrant. All things being equal, we'll take oversteer, thank you. With such wide, sticky rear tires (9 x 15 inches, compared with 6.5 x 15 inches at the front), the tail is easily controlled with judicious applications of steering and throttle. The car reminds me of a shifter kart, except that it doesn't beat me up. It's remarkably compliant, in fact, and this lack of race-car stiffness is a major reason why it's so forgiving.
I leave Willow Springs with a giant smile on my face. Sadly, it's dissolved into a grimace by the time I reach Riverside, two hours south. To my dismay, I discover that the last vestiges of Riverside International Raceway have recently been graded into oblivion during the construction of a shopping mall. But the really bad news is that I've now got to fold my aching body back into the Caterham for another hour on the interstate.
The CSR isn't built for long-distance highway travel. Although the ride quality falls short of punishing, I'd strongly discourage using the car for emergency surgery. The otherwise comfy seats move fore and aft, but the rake is fixed, which can be-and was for me-a real pain. Speaking of driver discomforts, there's no dead pedal for your left foot, and your right thigh gets a good grilling from the aluminum transmission tunnel. The snap-shut side curtains can't be raised or lowered like conventional windows, so you're either freezing or sweltering.
Sweat is streaming down my chest by the time I hit Palm Springs. Mind you, the Caterham is perfectly content in traffic as long as you don't mind your nose being at the same level as the lug nuts of passing eighteen-wheelers. (Integrated roll bar notwithstanding, it's best not to think about the consequences of any accidents.) But while wearing the four-point harness, I can't wriggle out of the sweater and overcoat I'd donned earlier during the colder part of the trip. Hence the internal heat wave.