Road Tests

RToTY 3: Caterham R500

Time 4:09 pm, November 10, 2008

SATURDAY morning starts stupidly early. It’s cold, dark and damp (still) and we’ve got a 95-mile drive from our Lydstep Beach to rendezvous with snapper Dave Smith and deputy ed Rich in the Twingo in Crickhowell.

Having spent 10 hours in the DBS on the way here it’s hard to justify any more time cocooned in luxury, so the keys are reluctantly prised from my fingers by Dan and I head towards the Caterham for the early morning pan-Wales jaunt.

Contorting my six foot four frame into the tiny cockpit isn’t easy – especially when the roof is in place. Clambering in headfirst means legs have to bend in ways you can’t imagine they can just to slot into the carbon-fibre bucket seats.

If you’ve ever ridden a motorbike you’ll know how long it can take to get ready – gloves, jacket, helmet – and it’s much the same in the Caterham. Slot yourself in, fish the four-point harness from under your backside, adjust the straps, slot them home and then settle in. This isn’t a car you pop to the shops in, that’s for sure.

Once securely strapped in, comfy like a coffin, I’ve got to remember the starting procedure. Unlike other R500s, this press car doesn’t come with a keyless-go fob to fire up the ignition, instead you need to know the ‘secret handshake’. Press and hold a series of buttons and only then can you hit the starter button. Secure? Not very – just don’t show anyone else!

If any of the neighbours were asleep, they aren’t as we rumble out of the Haven site – even on tickover the Caterham is menacingly meaty. Coughing and burbling as the fluids warm, a sense of anticipation starts to creep in.

We potter out onto the twisting, damp back lanes of Pembrokeshire and I hang back – getting used to a machine as raw as this takes time.

When you’re driving the Caterham in anything but perfect conditions, there’s a real sense of fear every time you touch the throttle. And that’s not misplaced concern – this thing will spin its back wheels at the merest hint of a heavy right foot. Even in fourth. At 90mph.

An hour in and I’m starting to enjoy this animal of a car. Acceleration is every bit as savage, every bit as explosive, as you’d imagine. That 2.8 second time to 60mph is by no means a massaged figure either – it could very well be reality whenever you pull away.

As we get closer to our destination, we begin to thread dual carriageway stretches together at a rapid pace – and it’s then, when a hint of complacency, or perhaps an early morning lapse of concentration, sees the R500 nearly get the better of me. Following Duncan in the Evo X, we enter a sweeping roundabout a little hot.

The Evo – as it always does – simply ploughs on round. That’s not how things pan out in the R500. It all starts well with the Caterham making a decent job of keeping things in check. But then the road cuts sharply to the left as it opens back on to the A40 and with a little too much juice I’m sent skewing sideways. The R500 viciously snaps to the left, inside wheel touching the verge, and then whips back out to the right.

There’s no time to think as I fight to keep the car pointing the right way, but fortunately, as quickly as it began, things settle down. I pull over and the fear washes over me. It’s quite clear this is a car you have to treat with respect; like a loaded gun it can be lethal – but only if you pull the trigger. It’s a humbling moment and one that keeps me in check for the rest of the day.

As we head over the Brecon Beacons the sun creeps out from behind the battleship grey clouds and the roads begin to warm. We hook up with Rich and Smithy in a Shell garage in the middle of Crickhowell and head back to the hills for the cover shot.

It’s then that I really begin to gel with the R500. On the twisty, sheep strewn roads of the Welsh countryside it comes into its own; the small, but potent package really is perfect here. It’s clear that this is what the R500 is made for; roads like these, on days like these.

But don’t just think the Caterham’s all power-to-weight ratio – it’s a complete and competent package. Steering is direct and to the point like a no-nonsense traffic cop. The tiny, quick-release wheel is no bigger than a saucer, but it’s superb to use.

Feedback is blunt and obvious – every input is translated immediately to the front wheels right before your eyes. At slower speeds, it does need a fair old heave – after a spirited drive you certainly feel it in your forearms, but that’s an acceptable trade-off.

Power from the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec unit is quite incredible – how 263bhp can feel so hammer-to-the-head is hard to compute. It’s probably something to do with the equally astonishing 520bhp-per-tonne figure.

Copious amounts of carbon-fibre have helped the manufacturer keep the car’s weight down to a ridiculous 506kg – for comparison, an average VW Golf weighs in around 1,200kg. Like bank bail outs, this R500 is all about mind numbing figures and never-seen-before statistics.

Mid-afternoon, the sun’s out and driving is punctuated by pictures. With the roads dry and tyres sticky, the Caterham really is in its element. Where the DBS is a little wieldy and wide, the Caterham is lithe, scalpel sharp and sets about tearing Wales in half. The sound it makes when driven in anger is ear-bleedingly painful. Couple that soundtrack with the speed and sensation you get from being so low to the ground, and you get a sportscar made for adrenaline junkies.

At £36k, the R500 is an expensive play-thing – for that is essentially what it is. It’s a Honda FireBlade for those wanting the safety of four wheels for sunny Sunday mornings. But driving experiences don’t get any more unique than this.

Every one of us had our senses warped by the R500 during the weekend, which leads me to one bit of
advice: don’t ever drive one unless you’re going to buy one. Why? Because it will skew every sensation you have of speed; every thought you had of what a car could do and of how a car could make you feel. Every single thing you ever drive, before or after, will be compared to the Caterham. And that’s not always such a good thing. 



NEXT… Part 4: Renaultsport Twingo 133


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