2006 Caterham CSR260

2006 Caterham CSR260 2006 Caterham CSR260
Specialty File

The Lotus 7 minimalist sports car has been around in one form or another for almost half a century. It's a lot like the evergreen Porsche 911 — it can't be killed.

Lotus, though, certainly tried. The company stopped producing the 7 model in 1973, but an English dealer called Caterham took up the baton and bought the rights and tooling to the 7. The name was changed from "Lotus 7" to "Caterham 7," although the basic shape and layout of the car remained.

Caterham has built a pretty good but small business around the car. Over the years it has expanded the 7 line to include race versions and models with more sophisticated engines and suspensions. Last year, Caterham sold 497 cars worldwide, some as complete cars, some as build-it-yourself kits.

The latest news from Caterham centers on a new chassis, the CSR, and a Cosworth-built Ford four-cylinder engine. We sampled both during a recent drive in Southern California.

The CSR looks a lot like every other 7, but the appearance belies a significantly modified steel-tube chassis. The front unequal-length control-arm suspension now uses pushrod-actuated shocks that are mounted inside the narrow bodywork. And whereas previous versions used either a solid axle or a de Dion setup, the CSR has an independent suspension. Caterham says the new frame is 25 percent stiffer and the revised nose cone reduces front aero lift by 50 percent.

It's expensive, too. The CSR chassis costs $44,000, and that does not include the engine or transmission. You also have to build the car yourself since the Caterham does not meet U.S. emissions or crash standards, and that's why — in the U.S. — it's only available in kit form. We've built a Caterham before, and it's more fun than difficult because the kit comes with everything you need. If you wanted to hire out the job, think $2500.

There are several powertrain options that range from a $4650 100-hp carbureted four-banger with a five-speed transmission to the $20,000 260-hp Cosworth-modified Ford Duratec and six-speed combo of our test vehicle.

It's cool having a Cosworth engine and all, but it makes the CSR260 expensive. Our tester was $66,500, about the same as a 505-hp Chevy Corvette Z06.

Of course, the Corvette is nowhere near as agile. The CSR260 weighed only 1500 pounds, less than half what the Vette weighs, and that's why the CSR feels as if it had a caffeine IV from Starbucks flowing through its veins. You don't steer it as much as imagine where you want to go.

It's also wickedly quick, blowing past 60 mph in 3.6 seconds. We've gone a couple 10ths quicker to 60 in a Z06. The Caterham had an improperly set rev limiter that cut fuel at 7700 rpm, 300 rpm short of the redline and 2 mph short of 60 mph. At 7700 rpm, the Caterham is going 58 mph, so we had to do a time-consuming shift before hitting 60 mph. The Z06 clears 60 in first gear. With the correct fuel cutoff, at 8000 rpm, so could the Caterham, and it would likely hit 60 mph in the low threes.

The Z06, however, at 1.01 g can't touch the CSR's neck-straining 1.05 g on the skidpad, nor can it match the CSR's fantastic brake feel and 140-foot stop from 70 mph (the Z06 does it in 144 feet). Dynamically, we could find no fault with the CSR260.

The engine is another matter. It's powerful and responsive, but it's a big, 2.3-liter four-cylinder that doesn't have a balance shaft and revs to 8000 rpm, which is the same as the 2.2-liter mill of the Honda S2000. The Honda is relatively smooth; the big Cosworth is a buzzer. The vibration travels right to the cockpit, and it's severe enough that there's not much joy in winding out the engine.

If you're interested in a Caterham that can embarrass all comers at a track day, then the CSR with the Cosworth engine is your ride. In itself, speed is of course a lot of fun. But on the road, the CSR doesn't offer more of what's always attracted us to Caterhams — the agility and immediacy that serve to remind us why we love driving in the first place. Those traits are so satisfying that we're willing to forgive the Caterham's erect-it-yourself top and side curtains.

While driving around in the CSR260, we kept thinking we'd had more fun in the less-extreme, $38,345 (that price includes the engine and transmission) Caterham SV we tested in February 2004. If the CSR had had a smoother engine, we might have enjoyed it more, but unless you're after those last few seconds on a racetrack, it's hard to justify the CSR260's higher price.

Caterham USA, 1212 West Custer Place, Denver, Colorado 80223; 303-765-0247; www.caterhamusa.com.