Caterham Superlight R400
I've always been a huge fan of the Lotus 7 replicas, and it's great to finally have one of the best examples in the office. Caterhams have a huge cult following and a blast in this R400 shows why. Once you squeeze into the tight seat and try to fit your shoes into the pedal box (racing shoes are your only option), the car is actually quite comfortable. The ultra-light weight helps give the R400 amazing ride quality even over rough Michigan roads. The clutch is very aggressive and the engine likes revs when you are pulling away from a dead stop. The combination of a very high power-to-weight ratio and short gearing gives the R400 incredible acceleration. Caterham quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.8 seconds and that doesn't seem overly optimistic. The unboosted brakes work well, but you have to be careful trying to fit your feet on both the clutch and the brake pedal at the same time. The steering is quick and accurate but not nervous.
Sure, you can have the more usable Lotus Elise (it's funny saying that) for about the same money, but the Caterham is a huge step further into the realm of totally manic, totally fabulous sports cars.
Marc Noordeloos, Road Test Editor
This is one wild ride. It's amazing how much more fun you can have when a car is stripped of all the nonessential parts and every piece on the car is dedicated to making it stop, go, or turn better. I particularly love the sound of the exhaust during full-throttle upshifts at redline. Ride quality is very good and that's a good thing since you're sitting on a piece of hard plastic. And there's something about watching those front wheels bob up and down as you go down a bumpy road that's incredible.
Despite the fact that I've never been more frightened behind the wheel of any vehicle, I'm trying to figure out just how long it would take me to assemble one of these kits in my garage. There's no way to describe the fun you'll have behind the wheel. You simply have to drive one and experience it for yourself to really appreciate what cars like this can do.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
I can't stop smiling. The perma-grin that the Caterham induces actually hurts. OK, maybe it hurt because on Friday I drove home, with the weather-protection equipment tucked away in the cargo area, in 45-degree November weather. On the highway. At 85 mph. With no hat on. But it was a good hurt.
On Saturday, the temperatures were slightly cooler, but I installed the side curtains (which make a huge difference in comfort, especially on the highway), threw on a knit cap, gloves, and a warm fleece, and drove the open-topped R400 all over drizzly southeastern lower Michigan, giving rides to half a dozen shivering family members. Because of heavier rain, I eventually had to snap on the top, which hugely undermines the Caterham's classic look and makes it MUCH harder to get in and out.
I absolutely love the driving position. It's totally race car. The tiny steering wheel is positioned perfectly within fingertip reach of all the important controls: lights, wipers, horn, blinkers. The car fits around you like a tailored suit, so much so that you can usually steer by moving only your fingers, not your arms or even your wrists. I didn't have any problem with the pedals because I kept my left (size 9) Puma wedged against the left edge of the footwell, although I really had to stretch to floor the long-travel gas pedal. The view forward is spectacular, too, what with the bugeye headlamps; the exposed front suspension and fenders; the long, louvered hood; and the simple (optional!) windshield.
I can't even count how many "What the f*** is that?!" looks/comments I got while driving this neo-Lotus 7. On exotic curb appeal alone, this car is almost worth the $62 grand (although that is a lot of money for a car like this). How close to the ground is the R400? While waiting at a stoplight, I can reach over the sill and touch my first knuckle to the pavement without stretching. That's low.
What surprised me the most about the Caterham is how well it rides on crappy pavement, which Marc also noted. Unlike Marc, though, I found the steering to be a bit nervous at highway cruising speeds. That said, it has a really quick ratio and a small wheel, so it's completely tolerable. Plus, when you're driving an 1135-pound feather next to eighteen-wheelers, it's a good idea to pay constant careful attention anyway. Ditto Phil on this being the scariest vehicle I've ever driven. The R400 makes the Lotus Elise (which I also adore) look like an everyday commuter car.
I love the mechanical feel of the six-speed manual gearbox and the short-travel clutch, which help make heel-and-toeing pure, easy bliss. I've never driven something with gear ratios this close, either. 80 mph in sixth equates to about 4500 rpm; that's what you get with a 1.00:1 sixth gear and a 3.62:1 final drive ratio. The EPA doesn't test kit cars for fuel mileage, but I've seen published reports of drivers getting about 14 mpg.
I love the 2.0-liter Ford Duratec engine, too. As Phil noted, the R400 sounds incredible. Even if you jump on the throttle at 70 mph in sixth gear on the highway, the exhaust sings that unholy BRRRAAAAWWWW!!! that had me cackling and hollering deliriously on countless occasions during my time with the Caterham. I almost went hoarse. I'm not joking.
I want one. Bad.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Caterham Superlight R400
Base Price: $47,602As Tested: $58,690 + assembly (estimated at $4000)
Options-Full screen and weather equipment: $1718-Aero filler cap: $141-Push button start: $64-Titanium metallic paint: $2200
Engine: Size: 2.0-liter DOHC I-4HP: 210 hp @ 7600 RPMTorque: 150 lb-ft @ 6300 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1136 lb
Tire info: 195/45VR-15 -Avon CR500