For cars with ostensibly similar - if not identical - aims, you could hardly hope to find more different two-seat British sports cars than the Caterham Seven Super 1600 and Morgan Plus Four. One harks back to the 1970s with its look and Jenvey throttle bodies; the other is a crucial element in its maker's ambitious new plan, and encompasses a BMW powertrain, all-new aluminium architecture and - get this - Bluetooth as well. The Caterham is manual and, by virtue of those throttle bodies, defiantly naturally aspirated; this Plus Four is automatic and powered by the four-cylinder turbo from your auntie's Mini Countryman. The Seven is half the weight and half the price of the Morgan - and only half the story.
Both are about enjoying British roads at British road speeds, which, as a palette cleanser to the latest swathe of 600hp, two-tonne performance cars, is just about perfect. As you might expect, both embrace the experience of motoring for motoring's sake, a notion that's alien to so many vehicles, owners and journeys, but at the heart of practically everything PH holds dear. Neither is intended as the raciest option in its manufacturer's lineup: they're mango and chilli sorbets on four wheels, for people who've likely already got a much heavier, much pricier main course. Or several of them.
The Seven, even one "designed to evoke the glamour, colour and joy of motoring in the 1970s", is like nothing else - probably then and now. Never do you just get in and drive; phone chargers, sun cream and snacks should be unpacked, with extra layers close at hand, shoes off to ensure one foot presses just one pedal and spindly lever heaved to adjust the "classically tailored" leather seat to fit. Time to get the k... D'oh. It's still wedged in your pocket. And the ignition barrel, as always, is nowhere to be seen, needing an ungracious fiddling around under the dash. With a twist and a wiggle and a starter button press, the Seven gargles into life. About nine minutes after you intended to set off.
Still, with launch procedure complete, the1600 is more than capable of putting a smile on your face. At the sort of speed where a mild hybrid V8 would be initiating the stop start, the Super 1600 is alive with feel and noise and raw energy. Of course that effervescence has its drawbacks when you have 300 miles to do, but for re-appreciating the joy of operating a car, a Seven has no equal.
The newly throttle bodied Ford Sigma plays a leading role, gurgling like a contented toddler even at low revs. Somehow it seems louder than a standard Seven, too, though that could just be the effect of a long hiatus. Certainly there's never any doubt that the retro Seven is more than just old fashioned wings and a period colour palette.
The first slip road with everything warmed up is almost sufficient to have you turn around, sign the finance agreement and keep the 1600 forever. It sounds that good. The amiable induction gurgle becomes a growl at middling revs, redolent of Escorts in the forest and classic Alfa touring cars, before maturing into a menacing bark as the needle points right. Over the final 1,250rpm or so, through the orange paint to the cutout at 7,000, the Seven snarls and rasps like it's a Revival racer, a classic four-cylinder soundtrack that takes a lot of beating. That it is complemented by a short, sharp manual gearbox which only heightens the experience, third offering an encore performance of second gear's joyous concert until up to cruising speed. To think the model's launch film was artily shot at Beachy Head; they should have just stuffed a GoPro under the bonnet...
More pertinent to this comparison, the Seven shows how crucial a soundtrack is to truly joyous motoring. A day blatting up and down gears in this 1600 was more rewarding than a month of two-second 0-62mph EV sprints. And while we should all be supportive of an electrified future, there has to be a sustainable way to keep engines like this on the road as well. Because they're an absolute treat.
On a motorway the Super Seven is like every other: loud, busy, windy, hot and cold simultaneously and pretty snug. It's why they're so popular as experience cars, like banana boats or base jumps, though not really a viable long-distance travel arrangement. A leather seat and wood Moto-Lita don't change that, no matter how many nostalgia buttons its maker is trying to push.
It's a familiar trade-off though, and right now might be the best time to be on the right side of it. With so many cars striving to deliver a synthetic, augmented version of driving thrills, the appeal of something this pure goes through the roof. And this is honestly one of the less intimate Sevens, with a wheel that feels like it belongs on a ship and seats that don't really grasp you tight enough. But no matter - this remains a narrow, exploitable, absorbing sports car, one with peerless steering, adjustable balance to suit your every whim and the sort of inertia-free agility that no amount of technology can replicate. In the sunshine, on a winding country road, roof stowed and the throttle bodies blaring, the Seven is an unmitigated joy. Not to the level of more senior Sevens, because it lacks a limited-slip diff and a propely focused suspension setup - but so far beyond any other modern-day sports car they barely warrant comparison.
Which is why the Plus Four feels like a Mustang immediately afterwards. It seems incredibly large, lavish, quiet and easygoing after the Super 1600; the power steering makes manoeuvring a cinch, the automatic dutiful, the leather soft and supple. This was never going to be a like-for-like test for obvious reasons, but to begin with the Morgan feels as relevant here as a Riva speedboat.
But give it time. Underneath the firm has taken the Plus Four places where Caterham can only dream of going. At nearly twice the Seven's weight, it was never going to thrill its driver in quite the same way - yet compared to an old Morgan (as many of its buyers will be well positioned to do) it's hard to imagine it was made by the same people in the same factory. Because while the old bruisers were never short of performance, they did lack finesse - you held on and hung in as much as anything. Such is the improvement in composure, grip and outright ability that the old-world styling sells the Plus 4's talents considerably short - anyone expecting a timeworn Morgan jiggling is in for a wholly pleasant surprise.
It's disadvantage in outright mass is also partly overcome by nearly 100 per cent more output, courtesy of BMW. So while the sound or delivery isn't as memorable or as well suited to a British roadster as Caterham's throttle bodies - blaring as it does like a heavily turbocharged touring car, with occasionally lobbed hand grenades from the exhaust - the performance is mighty and reassuringly modern. Under much less duress than it was designed to handle, any turbo lag is trivial, and once up and running the Morgan just doesn't stop; the intermediate ratios are chomped through, and it pulls as hard as in sixth as it does in third.
That the Plus Four can contain - indeed take wholesale advantage of - 295lb ft is one of the more notable things about this new breed of Morgans. Traction is inherently very good, and the always-accessible torque can be felt tightening the corner line on exit. It makes the Plus 4 a great countryside cruiser as well, which is not something you could ever quite say about the Caterham, which can't compete with the rolling refinement that the aluminium chassis has brought to bear.
It does want for a few details, though. The brake pedal is a bit on the long side, and the steering lacks the kind of elemental connection that every Seven serves up by default. Arguably it doesn't have the driving position nailed yet either - although it's hardly a fair fight with a Caterham (and anyone of advancing years will probably appreciate being no closer to the ground). The 1600 doesn't exactly ace every nicety either, as anyone who's every tried to put a roof on one will testify to.
Regardless, the salient point is that on a twisty road the Plus 4 is no longer an outlier in the long British tradition of lightweight roadsters: the progress made with the aluminium platform has made it so much more direct, entertaining and enjoyable, while not detracting one bit from the traditional Morgan experience - and that's the kind of hard-won triumph we can all admire.
Not for nothing either, but it also delivers door handles, a storage net, ABS, automatic headlights, remote central locking and will even play music. These are the kind of commodities that Caterham owners laugh in the face of - and then secretly yearn for years down the line. Also it's easy to imagine a romantic long weekend away in the Plus Four; in the Super 1600 you know there will be drama - and not all of it of the cheery, wind-in-the-hair sort. Owning a Caterham requires sacrifice; the Plus Four, less so.
That implies a winner-takes-all verdict, which would hardly be fair given the disparity in cost - not to mention personality. The real winner here is the niche itself, because whether the budget is Seven-sized or double it, there's a great roadster to suit. The Super 1600 fits the retro Seven vibe far more convincingly than the similarly priced Sprint cars did, chiefly by virtue of actually sounding like a classic car rather than a three-cylinder supermini; the Plus Four proves that a Morgan for the 2020s can convincingly combine contemporary performance with hand-built charm. Its achievement is longer lasting, sure - yet it hardly detracts from the appeal of the Caterham. That's what Twin 40s gets you.
Goodness knows where we will be in 2030 as far as cars like this go - low volume carmakers are starting to feel the legislative pinch from all sides - but for now trips to the beach or to the rural pub or deep into the countryside never feel as much fun as they do in a Morgan or a Caterham. If you're looking for a roadster to make rose-tinted memories in, either model does the job heroically well.
SPECIFICATION - CATERHAM SEVEN SUPER 1600
Engine: 1,598cc, four-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear wheel drive
Power (hp): 137@6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 122@4,100rpm
0-62mph: 5.0 seconds
Top speed: 122mph
Price: from £33,495 (kit)
SPECIFICATION - MORGAN PLUS FOUR
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive (8-speed auto optional)
Power (hp): 260@5,500rpm (260@4,400rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 258@1,000-5,000rpm (295@1,000-4,300rpm)
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds (4.8)
Top speed: 149mph
Weight: 1,013kg (dry, auto 1,009kg)
MPG: 39 (40, WLTP)
CO2: 165g/km (159g/km, WLTP)
Price: £62,995 (£64,995)
Image credit | Harry Rudd
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