Caterham R500

The Caterham R500: a Molotov cocktail on wheels, diminutive, outrageously loud, obscenely quick… We all have our treasured R500 references, whether we’ve felt the force ourselves or know it from devouring ecstatic prose and provocative images of a Seven teetering on the edge of lunacy.

The original Rover K-series-powered car has become a landmark, especially in even more highly strung Evo form. It’s a synonym for sheer accelerative ridiculousness: the car that offered a little bit more when there was already more than enough. And now the people at Caterham have done it again – taken a regular Seven narrow chassis (not the CSR model) and stuffed the nose with as many fireworks as they could find.

Actually, it’s a great deal more complicated than that. Caterham has put the already anorexic Superlight on an even more self-loathing diet, paring back an additional 9kg over the R400. Note the use of carbon-fibre for the wings and thinner aluminium for the bonnet, along with other detail tweaks such as aluminium rear light clusters.

Up front sits a heavily tuned 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine equipped with roller-barrel throttle bodies and, if so specified, a carbon-fibre airbox. Result: it produces a substantial 263bhp. However – and this is where Caterham is keen to draw a line under the old car – it has been mapped to provide a wholesome but progressive mid-range to make the car more driveable on the public road and more friendly to drivers of a wider range of ability. The initial – and optimum – mapping provided more power but was notably less friendly, apparently, which is frightening and strangely alluring in equal measure…

Adjustable Bilstein dampers are fitted as standard, with a track-biased Eibach set-up available as an option. In fact, you’ll be tempted to spend quite a bit on options for this car because they include a launch control system and a sequential six-speed gearbox for £2950. Let’s face it: who wouldn’t be tempted by that?

The R500 also features tiny carbon winglets on the nose cone and introduces a new dashboard with fancy back-lit buttons – not that you’ll give a damn once you’re underway.So, now to the big question: just how fast is it? Well, simple maths will give you a fair idea of the enormity of performance on offer here. So with apologies for my awestruck behaviour to the lucky few PHers who frequently experience a car with over 500bhp per tonne and who can therefore portray a cool air of mild indifference, for the rest of us I’ll say just this: it is completely outrageous.

Driving around and mining the mid-range power, yes, this car feels seriously quick. And thanks to the very loud exhaust fitted to this example, it sounds very quick in a wonderfully guttural, typically four-cylinder manner. But when the right moment arrives and the revs climb beyond 5500rpm, a whole new world opens up before you.

How to describe this sensation? Well, in this new world there is nothing but the road and you. Scenery – in fact, anything that exists beyond the kerb – is void, blurred through speed and the way time compresses right down so that only the vital functions associated with driving and surviving remain. There is no time to look at the scenery.

There is barely even any time to notice the shift lights. The Caterham guys told me about that particular aspect in advance but I didn’t really take it on board fully until I’d experienced it myself. Sure, the brain sees a few different colours flashing away in the peripheral vision, but there’s no time to focus on them, even for a microsecond.

When the R500 is in ‘the zone’ – yes, a cheesy expression but one that sums up the situation – it is utterly insane. It can do 0-60mph in 2.9sec and I’m not surprised. As you accelerate through this ‘zone’, things happen so quickly, especially on a public road with the close proximity of road furniture and scenery, that it becomes hard actually to see anything.

The vibration generated by that engine going nuts adds significantly to this sensation. Before you know what’s happening, you’re lifting your foot off the throttle a tad and pulling back firmly on the gearlever at 8750rpm without even thinking to use the clutch. The accelerative process then continues unabated well into three figures. This Caterham still pulls strongly well over 120mph.

The sequential ’box is fantastic. Yes, it’s pricey – and fearfully noisy all of the time, although I’ve always found that there’s something exciting about the whine of straight-cut gears – but you get used to its banging and clonking around town. In normal driving it’s recommended to use the clutch all the time but, as mentioned, you can forget it when you’re changing up in a hurry.

It is easy and understandable to be overwhelmed by the R500’s pace, but the chassis is nicely sorted, too. It has great Caterham qualities in the steering and chassis balance, and although it will spin the rears easily – it must be crazy on a wet road – it’s not snappy or too uncompromising in character. Presumably, as with the driveability of the engine, Caterham has worked hard to get the right balance between thrills and fear.  

During my time with the R500, there were times when I simply wished to drive it no longer. It defeated me, and I heaved my tired frame from the cockpit, lifted my stinking, sweaty lid from my head and staggered around, red faced, wide eyed, dry mouthed, more or less out of it. But on every occasion, without fail, as soon as the minutes started to tick by, I felt utterly compelled to jump back in again and experience that manic rush once more. Why? I suppose it is just part of the human condition: a primeval need to push oneself and experience life’s extremes.

Days later I find myself mourning the lack of an R500, wishing it was tucked up at home ready for a drive with no destination or particular purpose. It’s just that kind of car. It may well cost more than most of us can logically justify on such a vehicle, and it doesn’t offer twice the thrills of a good Roadsport (which is half the price), but if you can afford it the R500 is an essential experience.

On sale: now

Price: £36,995

Engine: Ford Duratec i4, 2.0-litre, 263bhp, 177lb ft

Transmission: 6-speed manual / 6-speed sequential optional

Performance: 0-60mph 2.9sec / 150mph

Weight: 506kg (516kg with seqential ’box)

Size: 2225mm w/b, 3100mm length, 1575mm width, 800mm height

Comments (66) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Dagnut 18 Jun 2008

    Is it better than the 300bhp Ariel Atom?

  • 1st_petrolhead 18 Jun 2008

    Hmmmmmmmmmmm, very tempting smile

  • 1st_petrolhead 18 Jun 2008

    Dagnut said:
    Is it better than the 300bhp Ariel Atom?
    Would be interesting to see a back to back test. Was in an Aton last thursday and very impressed with the power delivery

  • sprinter885 18 Jun 2008

    Loopy, bonkers beyond belief & I would never buy one.
    Doesn't stop me wanting a damn good thrash in one tho' hehe

    What about Atom V8 ??

  • Oli S 18 Jun 2008

    sprinter885 said:
    What about Atom V8 ??
    Watch this space!wink

    Edited by Oli S on Wednesday 18th June 12:33

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