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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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