We drive a car with raw appeal, and put it where it really shines – on a race circuit
WHAT IS IT?
A petrolhead’s dream: old-school looks, manual gearbox, limited-slip differential, zero electronics and virtually zero weight.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
To remind ourselves that even in an age when cars are getting bigger, safer and less involving, you can still have some seriously fast, back-to-basics fun.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
In the right conditions, on the right road, this is driving nirvana. The rest of the time? There are some… issues.
PLUS: It’s about as pure as driving gets
MINUS: Expensive; impractical; tiring
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IT’S A recipe designed to make petrolheads drool uncontrollably from the chin; head-turning looks, manual gearbox, limited-slip differential, zero electronics and just 625kg. Welcome to the Caterham CSR 175, a hard-core, track-honed welterweight built solely to be one thing – fast. Which means it’s unforgiving and uncompromising.
Getting in and out of the snug cockpit requires the flexibility of a gymnast, you sit so low that, with the removable doors left off, you can literally touch the road, and you can forget niceties such as electric seats, sat-nav, ABS and power steering.
In fact, the entire interior, which is an ergonomic nightmare of buttons, switches and hard, exposed metal, is simply an interface to driving quickly.
There’s no traction control, either, which can be daunting on greasy city roads and semi-slick Avon tyres. Which is why, to fully wring the CSR’s neck, we’ve come to the Haunted Hills circuit in Gippsland.
But first, some background. The CSR 175 is an evolution of Caterham’s venerable Seven – a car that dates back to the 1950s – and is built on the company’s longer and wider SV chassis.
This particular model is fitted with an optional limited-slip diff and boasts inboard, F1-style push-rod suspension up front and a fully-independent rear end.
Power comes from a 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine producing 127kW/177Nm, which mightn’t sound like much on paper, but remember, this is a car that weighs just 625kg.
Turn the key and the whole car pops and vibrates, its lack of soundproofing (your underpants have more) making it sound as though an angry hornet’s nest lives under the bonnet.
Drop the clutch and the nest explodes, the rear 245/40R15 Avons spinning wildly before they grip and the CSR shoots forward like a rocket.
The clutch is heavy, the gear stick comically short and the ratios grouped so tightly you’re bouncing off the 7400rpm limiter before you have time to blink. Kiss the clutch, ram home second and you’ve got little more than two seconds before you need third.
It’s about as raw and visceral as driving can get, and around the tight, twisty turns of Haunted Hills, bloody exhausting. All the controls are heavy and unassisted, meaning you can easily recognise CSR owners by the size of their forearms, which will resemble their quads.
But driving the Caterham isn’t just a physical exercise, it’s mentally exhausting, too.
Because the car is so low and exposed to the elements, on the public road you’re hyper aware that should another car fail to spot you, you’re unlikely to emerge from an accident unscathed.
The CSR, then, is not a long-distance cruiser or a comfortable city car. It’s also not a car to take a pretty girl for a drive; with the roof off, her hair will be so windblown and full of wildlife that David Attenborough will want to investigate.
However, throw the CSR 175 at a circuit and you forget about the issues, including the fact that rocks from the front tyres hit you in the face and the cabin is so cramped you can’t turn the steering wheel without bashing your legs.
At a circuit, the CSR is phenomenal. The four-cylinder engine pulls hard, the steering is uncorrupted and the handling almost telepathic, if slightly edgy given the short wheelbase.
The question prospective owners will have to ask themselves is if they're willing to tolerate the CSR’s unforgiving foibles, which dominate 95 percent of the driving experience, to enjoy the five percent of brilliance. If the answer is yes, few cars are so rewarding, so involving or so enjoyable.
Model: Caterham Seven CSR 175
Engine: 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v
Max power: 177kW @ 7000rpm
Max torque: 139Nm @ 6000rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Kerb weight: 625kg
0-100km/h: 4.8sec (claimed)
Economy: 7.7L/100km (claimed)
Price: $89,990 ($106,361 as tested)
On sale: Now