Driven: Caterham Supersport R

"Good grief." This is my first thought as I pull out onto a B-road for the first time in Caterham’s latest. Actually, the exact words are a little south of that on the ‘censorious acceptability’ scale, but they’ll do for now. The combination of a ham clutch foot, cold tyres, and a wet road result in a series of lurid wheelspins, even at half-throttle. Changing up a gear doesn’t really help matters. They talk about cars being communicative; this one is saying, in no uncertain terms, "If you want to play in conditions like this, sunshine, you’d better buck up your ideas."

Nothing but the essentials - in true Caterham style
Nothing but the essentials - in true Caterham style
It’s the new Supersport R we’re testing today. It sits somewhere near, but not quite at, the top of the Caterham range, and is essentially a meeting of the hard-charging two-litre Ford Duratec engine from the Superlight R300 and the slightly less hardcore, more road-oriented chassis of the 1.6-litre Supersport. So, for the £24,995 kit price (£3,000 less than the Superlight R; £3,500 more than the Supersport) it does without the carbon fibre wings & dashboard and quad-piston calipers of the soon-to-be-discontinued Superlight, and there’s a five-speed gearbox instead of the six. But on the plus side, you get a limited-slip diff as standard, as well as the Supersport interior, doors and dampers. In all, the Supersport R weighs 20kg more than the equivalent Superlight, but also gets a 5hp power hike to 182hp, meaning that in real terms its power-to-weight ratio of 340hp/tonne is just 3hp/tonne less than the R300’s.

As the roads dry out and the tyres warm up, the need to hold back diminishes and we can explore the Supersport R further. And if you’re looking for a surprise verdict here, well, sorry to disappoint – the Supersport R is everything you’d expect it to be. Visceral, exhilarating, breathtaking – pick your superlative. Any will fit.

Supersport R in its natural environment
Supersport R in its natural environment
Ironically, given the Supersport R’s complete lack of electronic driver aids, grasping the little Alcantara steering wheel between your mitts feels like holding a game console controller. The weighting is just perfect – meaty, but never overly heavy.

The suspension is, of course, firm and unforgiving, but there’s subtlety there, too. Unlike some light, stiffly-sprung sportscars, it never feels like it’s crashing through divots in the road surface, and mid-corner bumps don’t unsettle it anywhere near as much as you might expect. Understeer is non-existent. Oversteer is easily attainable, though. It’s always ever so predictable and while you have to be quick about it, it’s an easy thing to gather.

2.0 engine is an absolute hoot
2.0 engine is an absolute hoot
The engine, in this form and in this chassis, is utterly sublime. With Caterham’s additions, including the company’s own map, a larger plenum, and a selection of internal upgrades. It feels as though it was made for a car like this, rather than a bought-in lump from a Mondeo. Throttle response is instantaneous. In fact, if you’re too gentle with it, the sudden shove forward will pull your foot away from the pedal, leaving you kangarooing down the road like an amateur. The only solution is to plant it confidently, which works out just fine, as there’s plenty of grip from the back end. Power and torque are both available in spades, no matter where you find yourself in the rev range. Hold onto the revs, though, and you’re rewarded with power almost all the way to the red line, the figures peaking above the 6,000rpm mark. The noise is ideal, too; a gnarly four-pot wail, punctuated with pops and bangs on the over-run.

The perfect B-road weapon?
The perfect B-road weapon?
Faults? They’re hard to find, really, if you take this car for what it is. Oh sure, it’s not all that comfortable (especially if you’ve a capacious backside like your correspondent), it’s noisy and there isn’t even a stereo. The doors are vestigial and the hood is still as much a gesture as it ever was. It isn’t a great companion on a motorway, and if you get out after a spirited drive while wearing shorts, you’ll probably burn your leg on the exhaust.

But to cite any of those as a reason not to buy one would be like suggesting you don’t drink milk because it’s got milk in it. Each can be suffixed by the phrase ‘You wouldn’t really worry about that if you were in the market for a Caterham’. You know what you’re going to get and you buy one because of that.

If your heart is indeed set on a Caterham, you aren’t going to go far wrong, no matter which model you choose. Each of them has the ability to leave you buzzing. But the Supersport R does the best job yet of offering monumental power-to-weight (and the ability to invoke involuntary adrenaline-induced swearing from time to time) in a more user-friendly, more road-centric package than the Superlight or CSR. The best of both worlds, in other words. As a B-road blaster, it’s hard to beat.

1,999cc 4-cyl, 16v, injection
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Power (hp): 182@7,300rpm
Torque: 143lbft@6,100rpm
0-60: 4.8 sec
Top speed: 130mph
Weight: 535kg
Price: £24,995 (kit form) / £27,995 (fully built)

Photos: Prime Exposures

P.H. O'meter

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