Last year, the lovely people over at Caterham Cars handed me the keys to a Caterham 310S, this year their generosity reached a new level when they let me loose in a 420R for a long weekend!
To the untrained eye, the 310S and 420R are almost identical, apart from the latter being finished in special Porsche Gelbgrun paint instead of orange but as you get closer you start to notice some subtle differences. First off, there’s carbon. A lot of carbon. The front cycle wings are completely carbon fibre along with the plates on the rear arches. There is also carbon leather on the tunnel top inside and the dash is finished in Alcantara. Other little changes that hint at the power upgrades include full 4-point race harnesses, a battery master cut-off switch and a quick release Momo steering wheel. All of these subtle changes equate to a very fast little weapon of a car.
The 420R is the most powerful naturally-aspirated car in the current Caterham pushing 210bhp out of its 2.0 litre Ford Duratec lump, which sounds modest, but remember this car weighs just over half a tonne (585kg), making the power-to-weight ratio 375bhp-per-tonne, and it feels rapid! 0-62mph is completed in 3.8 seconds but feels even faster when you are sat deep inside the coffin-on-wheels with your buttocks just millimeters away from the asphalt.
Like the 310S, everything about the 420R is snug, especially for the well-fed gentleman, but surprisingly, the 4-point harnesses are actually more comfortable and easier to use than the standard 3-point inertia-reel belt. Also, there is nothing cooler than jumping over the sill into the driver’s seat and strapping up a 4-point harness, it makes everyone feel like a proper racing driver. One thing I learned very quickly with these harnesses is to make sure everything else is in place before you tighten up your belts. I left the steering wheel in front of the windscreen twice and forgot to close the door once before I started checking properly, as once you’re strapped in, you’re not going anywhere!
The start-up sequence is similar to other models, but with this being a more track-focused model, there’s a battery cut-off switch added for safety. Push button starters are common as muck these days with everything from Ford Fiesta to Ferrari 488 using them, so you’d think they’ve lost their charm but this is definitely not the case in a Caterham. The Ford Duratec engine splutters into life as you press the big red button on the dashboard and after a second or so there is a wonderfully angry and fiery chorus and a few blips of the throttle send some childish pops and bangs straight out of the exhaust side-exit next to the driver.
A lack of driver aids make the first drive after 15 months in a car of this type a tad tricky, at low speeds, everything feels heavy and tight and no one wants to stall a press car right outside the office, so full concentration is required as you very quickly learn to master the very on/off clutch and absence of power steering. Fortunately, I learned to drive in a 1991 Rover Metro with no power steering and since then have driven quite a few cars without such a luxury. However, driving a Rover Metro back in the day never prepared me for the speed at which this little rocket can shift off of the mark. The sticky Avon ZZS tyres keep you glued to the road with minimal wheelspin as you click through the gears with military precision and as the speed increases you enter an almost warp speed pace. Being so low to the ground with no doors, no roof and a tiny windscreen make the experience all the more incredible, but it’s when you have the turn the wheel that the car really comes into its own. It goes round corners at speeds cars twice its value would struggle to match. The steering feels incredible, like no other car I’ve driven and you just feel like you are fully responsible for every little movement.
I quickly fell in love with the 310S as it was my first ever experience of these brilliant machines, but the more hardcore, faster and more track-focused 420R is by far the best of the bunch. I haven’t driven a 620R yet, and I’m sure it’s even more impressive, but the 420R is probably at the limit of my driving comfort zone. I consider myself a confident driver, both on the road and on the track, but I’ve also never had professional tuition and I don’t hold a racing license, and I feel that the balance of power and control is bang on with this model. There is no room for error in a car like this and every little adjustment you make to the wheel is instant, meaning you have to have your wits about you at all times, there is literally no room for error in this car which makes it both incredibly exciting to drive, and also a little bit terrifying.
When I had the 310S the weather was terrible, I had maybe one day without the full tent-style roof on and there was never a proper opportunity to open the taps, but this time the sun was out every day and the roads were dry so I really got to get to know the limits. Everything communicates with you through the tips of your fingers right down to your toes and the way the car speaks to you through your arse is similar to what I would expect from a proper single seater race car. After a few miles, you feel like you are a part of the car and it is a part of you. It is pure and visceral and if you’ve ever considered yourself a “petrol head”, then you need to treat yourself, at least once, and go and drive one of these. I’ve spent the last 2 years toying with the idea of getting a racing license and experiences like this don’t help me one bit.
The kit cost of a 420S is around £33,000, but once you’ve added the R pack, SV chassis, carbon extras, special paint and actually got Caterham to put it all together for you, the total cost of this particular car is a rather high £46,955, but I challenge anyone to find another car for the same cost that will give you the same experience.
If you’re interested in a Caterham or want to build your dream spec Caterham 7, head over to
https://www.caterhamcars.com/en where you can view the whole range and use their online configurator to create your ultimate race car for the road!