Having whet his Caterham Seven whistle with the 360R last year, does our publishing editor get the same sense of satisfaction from the slightly less powerful 270R?
|Engine||Power||Torque||0-100kph||Top speed||Weight||Basic price|
|Inline 4cyl, Ford Sigma Ti-VCT, 1596cc||135bhp @ 6800rpm||165Nm (122lb ft) @ 4100rpm||5.0secs||196kph||540kg (250bhp/ton)||$29,800|
|Perfect handling and engagement, stillone of the purest driving experiences|
|Is it all a bit too easy?|
So it turns out size really does matter. Sorry chaps…
In its efforts to offer ‘a Caterham for everyone’, last year the company both expanded and simplified its iconic Seven line-up. The Roadsport, Supersport and Superlights were dropped to make room for the 270, the 360 and the 420, all of which are now bookended by the entry level Seven 160 and the supercharged 620 breathing fire at the other end. And while it’s tempting to see how ‘the most powerful production Seven ever built’ would handle the Middle East’s road network (the regional quote won’t be here until winter), our test model today is actually the second tier 270.
Like the 360 we drove a few months ago, the 270 is kitted out with the track-orientated ‘R’ pack, meaning an anti-roll bar, limited slip differential and sport suspension replaces Caterham’s traditional creature comforts like carpets and black leather seats (oh, the humanity). Unlike the 360 though, the 270R houses a 1.6-litre Ford Sigma four-cylinder as opposed to the 2-litre Ford Duratec equivalent, which produces 135bhp and 122lb ft of torque. Now while that may not sound particularly impressive – it’s 45bhp and 21lb ft down on the 360 alone – bear in mind that’s 10bhp more than the Roadsport 125 it replaces, that the 270 can still hit 100kph in five seconds flat, and weighs just 540kg. In terms of power-to-weight, the 270R is on par with a Porsche 911.
But as I stand alongside the side-mounted exhaust pipe – dainty Momo steering wheel in-hand – that’s not the crib-sheet snippet that’s concerning me. The 270’s cabin is actually one inch tighter than the wide-bodied 360, getting in which felt akin to slinking into a snug bathtub. How then is my 6ft 2in frame going to fare with even less room to work with? As it turns out, not particularly well…
Really? What’s the cabin and driving position like then?
Wallet, keys and iPhone are discarded just to get into the figure hugging race seats, whilst adjusting and clicking the four-point race harness into place is a process as maddening as it is knuckle-scuffing. Admittedly the asphalt-rubbing seating position is bang on for that intrinsic Caterham character, even if this does leave my left arm with little room to manoeuvre next to the snug confines of the bulkhead: most of the mid-corner heave will come from my right arm throughout the day.
The main culprit though is the footwell. It’s so tight, it feels dangerously close to claustrophobic, I can’t bend my knees past the carbon fibre dashboard at all, and to avoid riding the clutch pedal, I have to angle my ankle aggressively upwards. Cramp is an inevitability, and it strikes after just 15 minutes. On the hard shoulder, we do at least manage to push the seat back another half an inch on its runners. There’s no rest bite for my legs, but it does at least mean my right knee can no longer knock the key out of the ignition whilst on the move.
Now, I’m not expecting a huge amount of sympathy for my oafishness, nor am naïve enough to expect more from a Caterham’s ride quality: at over six-feet tall, I’m clearly not the whippet-like figure the designers had in-mind for the driver’s seat. Plus, for six decades, the company has been the figurehead for ‘accessible fun’, and I’m relieved to find the 135bhp 270R is no different.
Good stuff. So, what’s the Caterham Seven 270R like to drive?
Power delivery from the four-cylinder for instance is not explosive, though a lack of traction control means you will need to feed the power in gingerly off the line. Indeed, that bank of torque and mid-range poke means the 270’s agility and joie de vivre is so intoxicating, revving the engine out seems almost unnecessary: short shift through the manual five-speed box to keep the four-cylinder alert, and the performance feels more exploitable, and less ‘on edge’. It’s an utter hoot, even if perhaps it does on occasion leave me hankering for that added dash of power and the ever-so-slightly less predictable nature of the brawnier 360R.
Body control is similarly sublime, those R-spec Avon tyres offering the type of front-end grip you can really lean on in the corners. Similarly the non-power assisted steering is beautifully responsive, perfectly relaying information from those 15in front wheels and offering an unrivalled sense of connection. All the while those sport tuned double wishbones and dampers – working away in my peripheral vision – ensures turn-in is sharp, the front end almost darting in its unassisted eagerness into the apices in true Caterham fashion. The slightly more archaic Dedion semi-independent struts I’m sitting on don’t soak up the bumps quite as adroitly though, and at pace, can even bounce the rear wheels off-line.
Not that this is an enormous hindrance of course. The precision through the wheel and the solid amounts of power on tap make the transition to slip more progressive compared with the slightly more restless 360R. But again, as the sensation in my left thigh begins to disappear, I do wonder if perhaps the additional effort required at the wheel of the 360R is ultimately more satisfying.
What’s the verdict then?
Well actually, I’m still speculating as I hop one-legged out of the race seat and potter around with a leg full of pins and needles. Yes, the 270R is everything a Caterham fan would want from a Seven given its superb handling, progressive bursts of acceleration, and flawless sense of connection. To overly chastise the tightened cabin design of this track weapon for the road seems almost petty too. Even so, the 270R has not been my most comfortable Caterham experience, nor in all honesty has it been the most satisfying. Tremendously enjoyable and affirming, absolutely, but compared with the more powerful, edgier experience just one performance tier higher, the 270R feels a little too easy to grab by the scruff of the neck and hustle.
This might seem an almost ludicrous summation of one of the purest driving experiences you can enjoy on the road for under $30K, and while I would wholeheartedly recommend the 270R for anybody looking for that perfect combination of balance and engagement, the draw of the punchier, less effortless 360R is too great to ignore.
Technical specifications available on page 2