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New 620S takes racing origins and tunes them for road use

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When a car company’s very own website uses the phrase ‘mildly saner’, you get an idea of the kind of product we’re dealing with here.

Neither BMW nor Audi, you suspect, would advertise one of its sports car as ‘mildly saner’ than another; nor even, for that matter, would Ferrari or Porsche. Welcome to the world of Caterham. And welcome to the Seven 620S.

Caterham’s engineering nous for the R600 led to the creation of the 620R

We’ve been waiting a little while for the 620S, which sits atop a recently revised Caterham range, whose numerals equate roughly to each model’s power-to-weight ratio, if you’re feeling a bit generous and assume a half-tonne kerb weight.

The range starts with the 80bhp 160 – the 660cc Suzuki triple-cylinder-engined model, which was the last Seven we road tested, in 2013.

Then there are 270 (1.6), 360 (2.0) and 420 (2.0) models, each with half that number in brake horsepower. There’s also the road-focused 2.3-litre CSR, which you can still buy (but few do).

And then there are the 620 models. First came the 620R, a car not overtly different from the stillborn Caterham R600 racing car. With its supercharged 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine, it was designed to create the premier Seven race series and be Caterham less highly stressed than a naturally aspirated R500.

But although competitors liked the R600, most of them preferred to stick with the similarly less stressed, albeit less powerful, R300 race car; and that remains the top Caterham race series today. The engineering of the R600 went looking for a home and found it in the shape of the 620R road car.

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At its launch, Caterham promised us that a less focused – yes, ‘mildly saner’, if you like – S version of the 620R would follow; no less powerful, just a touch easier to drive. And now it’s here, tested in arguably its softest form, with full weather gear and an ‘SV’ wide body. We’ve eight pages to see just how sane, or otherwise, it is.


Caterham 620S rear

When discussing the design of a Caterham Seven, you might as well be discussing the design of a kitchen sink. It has a bowl-shaped bit in the middle with a hole in the bottom and a tap above it because it works that way.

Similarly, when Colin Chapman created the ‘Lotus Austin’ by fitting special bodywork and suspension to an Austin Seven, tuning its engine to the nth degree and giving his competitors no chance of keeping up with him, he created a template that he’d follow with various Lotuses, which were eventually to get bespoke chassis.

The Caterham’s roll bar isn’t just for saving your skin, experienced weekend-awayers will use it to strap extra luggage to it

The template was the same as now: an engine in the front driving the rear wheels, with occupants seated either side of the transmission and everything else packaged as minimally as possible around all of that.

Eventually, Chapman devolved himself of the Lotus Seven and sold the rights to dealer turned Caterham Cars founder Graham Nearn. While Chapman chased bigger dreams, the Seven has been content to continue, continually updated and revised, in a more modest reality that includes people getting bigger.

So the Seven was first offered with a long cockpit option, and later – as tested here – with the SV wider body option.

In search of more power to go with a modestly increasing dimension and the weight that comes with it – this Seven tipped our scales at 650kg – Caterham has tried forced induction once or twice before but could never get sufficient air through the engine bay.

With the 620, though, it has finally succeeded, fitting a supercharger to the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine and liberating 310bhp at 7700rpm, with 219lb ft at a similarly heady 7350rpm.

Instead of the six-speed sequential gearbox of the 620R, the S gets a good old-fashioned five-speed manual. The wider of two front track widths is standard on both 620 models, as is a limited-slip differential.


Caterham 620S interior

Like many features of the Caterham experience, the car’s petite and broadly rudimentary cabin tendsto provoke a love/hate response. Quiet, spacious and comfortable it is not.

The finish has improved recently, but no one would wager their pension scheme on the dials not falling out during the oil’s first lifecycle.

Think hard about the colour, because if you're not keen on polishing the 620S then opt for a bright colour that won’t lose its lustre

Nevertheless, it is a place of singular purpose and conviction. There are two seats, a steering wheel, a gearknob, a handbrake, a bank of purely functional toggles and a heater. That’s it, and that’s the way its customer base tends to like it.

The Caterham Seven is for indulging your pleasure of driving, not your contemporary notion of convenience.

However, whereas the standard 620R took this ethos to a track-focused extreme, the S walks the notion back a little. It shares the carbonfibre dashboard layout – Caterham’s most expensive, and best, configuration of dials and buttons – but changes much else.

Although our test car came with heated buckets (an exceptionally brilliant, if pricey, innovation) the standard model does not but instead swaps the R’s no-compromise seating for a more normal padded leather affair. With them goes the eyeball-threatening aero screen, replaced by the welcome sight of a proper, heated windscreen.

With that in place, Caterham can offer the car with its usual vinyl doors and fiddly hood – a combination that drastically increases the model’s usability (as does the heater, which was also relegated to the option list on the 620R).

As a result of more usability, something is inevitably compromised, which in this case is the visibility, as it can hinder the view out, and the wing mirrors can be difficult to adjust without the help of a passenger.

It is the recent availability of the SV chassis, though, – not previously offered with the R500 – that helpfully broadens the model’s appeal. Try as they might, occupants much over six feet tall won’t find the orthodox S3 chassis a good fit.

Ditto for anyone who hasn’t been skipping desert since their late teens. But the SV, as was intended at its introduction, expands just enough to make the Seven’s interior a more accommodating affair. It’s still not ample or generous, but that’s as it should be. 


2.0-litre Caterham 620S petrol engine

Although the rise of the turbocharger is all around us, even on sports cars, it’s lovely to get back into a small, lightweight vehicle that has throttle response uncompromised by the need to spool up a turbine.

A supercharger – driven off the crank rather than exhaust gases – is a neat fit onto this 2.0-litre Ford Duratec, which is then dry-sumped and given a lightweight flywheel.

Reaching out of the 620S's cabin to check the rear tyres means going near the hot exhaust - not advisable

Throttle response, therefore, is quick, linear and positive. A prod of your right foot gives an immediate rev, and the more you prod, the more you get, in utterly expected amounts.

Those amounts, mind, are only an ankle-flex away from being tyre-rippingly severe, especially in cold, damp conditions.

That’s why we couldn’t coax the 620S to 60mph in anything less than 3.8sec, but given the conditions and the need for a gearshift between standstill and 60mph, we weren’t too unhappy about that.

We also test two-up and full of fuel, although that can be an advantage in a Caterham Seven, because it improves traction from rest.

The in-gear figures are similarly startling. No 20mph increment in second gear wants longer than 2.0sec. In third, beyond 30mph, each takes less than 3.0sec. And it’s telling, in third, how this engine delivers its power: 30-50mph takes 2.9sec but 70-90mph takes only 2.2sec, despite the Seven’s appalling aerodynamics playing a bigger part as speed rises.

The five-speed gearshift is a positive delight, too, allowing you to switch between ratios with little more than a flick of your fingers, while well-aligned pedals and that supremely predictable throttle response mean that heel-and-toe downshifts are as natural in this as in any other car in production.

The SV chassis even brings you a bit of extra room in the pedal box, so even those with feet bigger than a size eight won’t necessarily have to go shoeless.


Caterham 620S cornering

The better accessibility and convenience of the 620S’s performance is mirrored in the overhaul of the chassis.

There is nothing necessarily complicated about Caterham’s replacement of the 620R’s ‘race’ suspension with its ‘sport’ alternative. This is, after all, the distinction drawn between ‘S’ and ‘R’ across the current Seven line-up.

Small wheel and a cramped cockpit make it hard to grab serious amounts of lock, so best to avoid kicking the tail out quickly or wide

But just as the manual gearbox provides a louche and likable side to a car previously limited by its own savagery, so the less aggressive springs and dampers unlock the 620’s lighter side.

Despite wearing 15in Orcus anthracite alloy wheels as standard (we remain loyal fans of the Caterham Seven’s classic 13in wheel, which is a £200 option), the car now rides with measured aplomb.

Where the R has a tendency to gripe at less than perfect surfacing, the S remains largely benign, the pliancy of its wheel control now tailor-made to suit erratic B-road asphalt.

Larger deflections remain a problem and are felt (and heard) as almighty rear-end clonks from the back axle. But limits to comfort levels are inevitable when the chassis is still required to marshal the same 310bhp available in the R.

Here, not unsurprisingly, the S must yield some of the lateral grip and tenacious poise delivered by its track-focused stablemate, which is not without disadvantage (see ‘Track notes’, left). Yet away from a circuit, the handling balance achieved is a blast.

Enhanced compliance means the car can be driven at three-quarter pace (decidedly briskly) without the anxious distraction of the R’s tense and restive roadholding.

Better still, the chassis – on the road, at least – very rarely feels overawed by the power on tap. There’s a wired gusto to the tail end, certainly, but if your in-public exuberance is limited to dramatic getaways and empty roundabouts, its level of adjustability is intoxicating and just enough of a challenge to make it fun without being overly unforgiving.

It is this exuberance – and the muscle-car-blatant availability of it – which makes the appeal of the progressively sprung 620S so thrillingly broad.

On a very cold and, in some places, damp circuit, it’s hard to get the tyres much more than lukewarm, which, combined with 310bhp attempting to make its way onto the asphalt, has predictably hilarious consequences.

It’s possible to set up a Caterham to handle pretty much how you like it, to an extent: with a little understeer, broadly neutral, or a bias towards slight oversteer. With the 620S, though, you can do what you like to the geometry, but this car prefers to go sideways with any kind of serious throttle application.

That’s okay, mind. A Caterham is a progressive car when it starts sliding. Even on these progressive springs, there’s decent body control, and even with the bigger chassis, there isn’t so much weight as to make the 620S a handful.

It simply goes where you point it as you turn in, and allows any kind of throttle to adjust that line thereafter. The weighty steering isn’t made for throwing on several turns of lock — there aren’t that many, for a start — but keep your hands on the wheel and mild slides are easy to come by.


The Caterham 620S lightweight

Arguing the pros and cons of a Caterham that (in test-driven trim) exceeds the starting price of a Porsche Cayman S is a decidedly dicey business.

It could be persuasively argued that, given the basic materials involved, no Caterham Seven has the right to be so costly – no matter what its performance potential may be.

The swap from ‘racing’ to ‘sports’ suspension makes the 620S more pliant and balanced on the road

However, to the right buyer, such an argument would be as redundant as pointing out that you would get more days use per year from Porsche’s coupé or far more luggage space.

The niche-within-a-niche customer tends to be clinically disinterested in practical or economic concerns – and Caterham doubtless understands this type of potential owner well enough by now to know how much it might charge them for indulging their high-end fanaticism.

Nevertheless, one commonsensical item ought to remain of interest: the 620S, courtesy of its supercharger, comes with a thirst.

The cost of the petrol may not be important to some potential owners, but the impact of 25mpg average economy on the model’s touring range might be.

For a Seven well capable of cruising, the potential (needle-indicated) draining of the 32-litre tank in 135 miles means visiting petrol stations far more frequently than one would in a more modest Caterham. It’s hardly a fatal or surprising blow but worth considering if you had serious touring in mind.

However, if you are serious of buying the 620S and nothing will sway you otherwise, then we would spec it up with a narrower body, heated carbonfibre seats, black 13in alloys and a quick release steering wheel to complete the package.


4.5 star Caterham 620S lightweight

For nearly £50k, one might conceivably contend that buyers have the right to expect the zenith of the Caterham Seven experience – and, for our money, the 620S doesn’t quite represent that.

There are times, particularly on a circuit, where less power and narrower tyres would probably deliver a more manageable, likable car, and one capable of delivering no lesser thrill.

Supplies fun intravenously with a mix of freneticism and road-going usability

Caterham, though, might reasonably point out that it caters well for this elsewhere, and that the 620S – by definition – is primarily for more ‘leisurely’ pursuits.

In this, the new model succeeds splendidly. It combines not only giant-killing pace with that extra dose of usability, but also supercharges (quite literally) the model’s frantic capacity for instilling entertainment delirium in its driver.

In that sense – as important as any other in flyweight car buying – anyone willing to meet the asking price is most assuredly getting their hands on the superlative end of the good stuff.

As a result the Caterham 620S makes our top five lightweights, with only the mental Ariel Nomad and the Morgan 3 Wheeler getting the nod ahead of the 620S, mainly due to their uniqueness factor and lower price points. The Caterham may gain more kudos if the 620S is fitted with a quieter exhaust, a half hood and making the 13in wheels standard.

However, the 620S is a more rounded proposition than the Ariel Atom Supercharged and the Zenos E10 S.

Caterham Seven 620S First drives