What is it?
Described as an ‘unplanned baby’ by Caterham’s chief motorsport and technical officer, Simon Lambert, the Seven 310R is the result of a surprise discovery made by engineers involved in the company’s long-standing motorsport programme.
By simply fitting high-performance camshafts and revised mapping to the existing Seven 270’s 1.6-litre Ford Sigma engine, the engineering team managed to extract another 17bhp, increasing overall output from 135bhp to 152bhp.
Initially, Caterham planned to offer these changes as an upgrade for racers who were looking to move from the entry-level Tracksport championship to the more competitive Supersport category. However, after further testing revealed impressive all-round performance, the development team decided the engine was worthy of its own car. Enter the Seven 310R.
What’s it like?
There’s something ritualistic about driving a Caterham Seven; you don’t simply hop in and drive. For one, ingress is never straightforward. With the roof in place (this is the UK, after all), you have to contort your body into unimaginable positions to gain access to the narrow cockpit, and once you’ve wriggled yourself into the tight-fitting composite race seat, it can take a few minutes to get the fiddly racing harness on.
Once inside, you’re treated to one of the all-time great driving positions. You sit low inside the tub, with your legs stretched out in front of you and the steering wheel close to your chest. The position is even better in this particular Seven thanks to an optional lower floor (£395).
Reaching forward and pressing the bright red button on the beautifully finished carbonfibre dashboard fires the reworked Sigma motor into life with an instantly recognisable brap. Even at a standstill, it pops and crackles with an intensity that a turbocharged engine couldn’t hope to match.
Once on the move, the 310R is everything we’ve come to expect from a Caterham. Turn-in is sharp, the steering is beautifully communicative and body control is flawless. We were initially worried that the optional sports suspension would result in an unsettled ride on our undulating test route, but the brilliantly judged Bilstein road dampers soaked up everything we could throw at them.
Sitting over the rear axle also gives you a level of feedback that’s truly unique to the Seven – something we were grateful for when the heavens opened. On a cold and wet track, it didn’t take much provocation to get the rear end to rotate, but thanks to progressive handling and excellent body control, the 310R was surprisingly easy to control at the limit.
However, it’s in a straight line where you really feel the result of Caterham’s hard work. With an extra 17bhp, the 310R is noticeably quicker than the current 270, and thanks to the aforementioned high-performance camshafts and revised mapping, the engine now pulls from lower down in the rev range.
In fact, we often found ourselves putting the 310R into a higher gear than the 270 might have comfortably pulled during give-and-take motoring and leaving it there, using the increased tractability of the engine to power from corner to corner. Granted, with only 124lb ft, the engine isn’t exactly torque-rich, but short gearing and a kerb weight of just 540kg help to ensure instant forward thrust regardless of where you are in the rev range.
That said, the 1.6-litre unit is happiest at high revs, with peak power being produced at a dizzying 7000rpm. Compared with the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine found in the more powerful 360, the Sigma demands more effort to keep on the boil, but it’s a rewarding challenge made all the more enjoyable by the truly exceptional optional (£2500) six-speed gearbox.
Aesthetically, there’s not much to differentiate the 310 from its stablemates. Our car came in striking Exocet Red with a pair of go-faster stripes, but these options can be had on any Seven. Ultimately, the only telltale sign that helps you to identify that the 310R is indeed an all-new model is the albeit optional (£800) LED headlights – a first for Caterham. The whole Seven range is expected to also get them later this year.
Should I buy one?
Costing from just £21,995, the 310R looks like a bit of a bargain – especially when you consider that it costs just £1500 more than the 270. However, by the time you cough up £3000 for Caterham to build it for you, and another £3995 for the must-have R Pack and the limited-slip diff it brings, you’re looking at a £27,490 package.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. In its press release, Caterham stated that if it were to make only one car for the rest of its days, the Seven 310R would be it, and we can appreciate why.
If you truly care about driving, there is no other car on sale today at the same price point that delivers the same pared-back driving experience. Not only is the revised Sigma engine more characterful than the Duratec unit found in the 360, but the grip-to-power ratio is perfectly judged and the 310’s adjustability on the limit is mesmerising. Factor in Caterham’s legendarily strong residual values and the 310R is a truly compelling package.
2016 Caterham Seven 310R
Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £21,995 (kit); Engine 4 cyls, 1595cc, petrol; Power 152bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 124lb ft at 5600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual (optional); Kerb weight 540kg; 0-62mph 4.8sec; Top speed 126mph; Economy na; CO2/tax band na; Rivals Ariel Atom; KTM X-Bow
What is it?