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BBC Autos

Caterham 160: Bad or brilliant? Top Gear investigates

  • Seven up – or down

    Tom Ford: Understanding the Caterham 160 isn't hard. Here we have the simplicity of a "pure" driving experience made real: a bare-bones basic Caterham chassis with short wishbones, drum brakes and an LSD-less live axle. The aluminium bonnet hides a 660cc turbo three-pot the size of a couple of car batteries, and if you were worried about those drum brakes, don't be – it weighs under 500kg, and only produces 80bhp and a similar amount of torque. Rice pudding skin will rest easy. It even has 14in steel wheels – not seen them in a while – wrapped in 155/65 tires that have a smaller contact patch than most motorcycle tyres do. See? I understand. But having driven the thing, I simply don't get why you'd ever actually want it. And if people keep referring to it as "The Mighty Caterham", I'm going to have a less ironic sense of humour failure.

    (All photography John Wycherley)

  • Seven up – or down

    Charlie Turner: I understand that your reaction to The Mighty Caterham may be somewhat influenced by the fact that I built it. But it's important to remember that when I'd finished lovingly crafting it with a hammer, it was handed over to people who actually knew what they were doing – something to do with the legal requirements for the SVA. You just have to see it for what it is: the antidote to an over-complex, overtly digital, over-tired generation of cars that have partially divorced themselves from proper driving. Driving the 160 involves management of every aspect of the car. And, in this case, actual fear. It's old-fashioned fun.

  • Seven up – or down

    TF Fun? You don't have fun in the 160, you have a series of near-death experiences at glacially slow speeds. At one point on Castellolí's hairpin, I experienced understeer, a four-wheel drift and oversteer. Disconcertingly, it felt like it happened at the same time. It drives like a home brew. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what it is. What possessed us to bring it?

  • Seven up – or down

    CT It's here because it's the base control for all the complex stuff, the foil to a generation of cars dominated by technology. I'll admit that its back-to-basics approach isn't to everyone's taste, and that if you drive it like the chimp in Mario Kart, it probably won't end well. But take a breath, drive it like a car rather than a computer game, and there's a simplicity that makes you grin. There's a pure joy to it. You can't hate it. It's like being abusive to a wellington boot full of kittens.

  • Seven up – or down

    TF Yes. But let's look at some facts: no one fits in it, unless they are deformed. The pedals are so close they all-but overlap, and you have to drive it elbows out because Caterham thinks ‘ergonomics' are characters from The Hobbit. The weatherproofing kit costs extra and barely fits, the switches are from Maplin's bargain bucket and the headlights keep swivelling on their stalks. It's also £17,995. Which buys a lot of secondhand. It's not fast, and it doesn't really handle.

  • Seven up – or down

    CT You don't fit in it with your "fashionable" shoes, no. But I do and The Stig didn't complain. It's a cliche, but you wear the Caterham like a straitjacket or a coffin. I'll admit that a couple of times I did consider that if it did end badly, at least I'd be prepacked and ready for the eulogy. But no matter what I did, it never failed to put a smile on my face... and isn't that the point of a performance car? Simple, effective, accessible performance on every journey. Mighty indeed.

    A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2014 Speed Week issue of Top Gear magazine.