A few weeks ago Caterham invited me to spend a few days with a Caterham 620R – these were some of the most thrilling and scary motoring days I have ever lived. The 620R can only be compared to a well lubricated roller-skate that has been strapped onto a hulking great firework that would be the centre piece of any new years display. To say the power to weight ratio of the 620R (508bhp/ton) will test even the most skilled driver, is an understatement – applying throttle mid corner is something you have to be very brave to do. Caterham called me again a few days ago, this time to try a 310R (281bhp/ton) to see if less power and a conventional manual gearbox, not a savage race car derived sequential, would make the driving experience less intimidating and more usable.
Most Caterhams looks fairly similar, it is the details and badges that set the various models apart from one another – the stark anomaly being the 620R I had. There was no windscreen or roof, the interior was sparse and dominated by carbon fibre and switches that had no function. The 310R I am collecting is, in comparison, tame. There is a roof, windows and an interior with dials that you would find in any conventional car. It still looks like a go kart, just one that looks a lot more accommodating and welcoming.
Would these characteristics continue through into the driving experience? In short, yes. Unsurprisingly, having half (152bhp) of the 310bhp the 620R packs, makes a profound difference. The 1.6 litre Ford engine is more than powerful enough to fire the 540kg car down the road. 0-60mph is completed in a respectable 4.9 seconds, but that is not what this car is built to do, nor where it is at its best.
In the corners the 310R is an utter joy to pilot. The gearshift is so beautifully weighted, a pleasure to use and the power is so usable that you can use all of it most of the time. It just grips and goes and you’ll thread apexes together with unparalleled satisfaction being able to see the wheels running exactly where you imagined they would. The tiny steering wheel and the weight transfer make the 310R feel like a real life, street legal go kart. You’ll try and pin the throttle and steer the car in through corners carrying more and more speed. There is a rhythm that comes courtesy of having a modest power figure and a gorgeously light body that is just not available in modern day cars. It is spectacular and addictive. This is a car that feels alive being driven hard, it pushes you to test the levels of grip. It even makes a great noise – let the revs fall to 2,500 and the exhaust pops and rubles as if someone emptied a packet of popcorn seeds into it.
With the roof stowed in the back and the wind running through the cabin, the 310R is at one with the elements. You’ll occasionally lose yourself in the thrill of the road, it feels like you’re well into triple digit speeds and then you look down and notice you are going half as fast as you thought you were. You do not need to be flying along at illegal, dangerous speeds to make the most of it, and that is reassuring and refreshing. It is guilt free, uncorrupted glee and, as a result, it is the most fun I’ve had in a car in a long time. Caterham have banged home a point I am a strong advocate of – power isn’t everything. It is also incredible value for the experience it delivers at £27,900, but it feels and looks extraordinary. It catches attention and starts conversations with pedestrians and fellow motorists alike.
This is a car for the drivers, people like me that enjoy back to basics purity. With no ABS, traction control or power-steering, you know and feel like you are in control. This is a car we need to celebrate – there are very few cars that can be compared.