Caterham Superlight R500
Even an ultra-supercar like the Pagani Zonda F still weighs 2,750 pounds, and the Lotus Elise has grown to over 1,500 pounds, so at 1,115, the Caterham Superlight R500 really is what the script says on its bodywork.
With 263 hp to propel that weight (1,137 with the sequential gearbox option), the R500’s power-to-weight ratio approximates that of the mighty Bugatti Veyron. Of course, other factors like gearing, aerodynamics and rev limits come into play, so although the little Caterham rockets to 62 mph in 2.95 seconds, it runs out of steam at 150 mph, well short of the Bugatti’s v-max.
However, on a racetrack, especially a tight one, the nearly four times heavier Bugatti would be out of its depth. Here, and on challenging country roads, the Caterham is in its element.
Getting into this rocket-powered rollerskate is an art in itself. You climb in over the sideavoiding the exhaust pipes if the car has just been drivenstep on the seat and then slide down into the seat. It feels like strapping the car on rather than getting into it.
Even someone of average size will find the Caterham’s cockpit a tight fit. Once in place, you hold the small steering wheel with both elbows bent, and one spilling out over the side. And if you have a passenger, you had better be on good terms as you will share the drive experience in very close proximity.
A significant option on the Superlight R500 is the sequential gearshift, which makes a huge amount of sense if you are intent on track attack times. Not only will this help you to shave your lap times, it will also ensure that you never misshift and buzz the motor.
From the first corner, your senses tell you that the Caterham operates with a different set of physical rules from other cars. For starters, it is so much narrower that you can take much straighter lines through bends, allowing you to carry more relative speed.
The steering is brilliant in terms of feel and feedback, communicating exactly what’s going on at the front wheels. I had fears that the small steering wheel and 1.93:1 ratio rack would make the car twitchy, but because the chassis is set up perfectly, it feels all-of-a-piece and totally secure in slow and fast bends alike.
The last Caterham I drove on a track was shod with normal road tires, and as it had far more handling than grip, I ended up drifting it through all the bends. The Avon CR500 track-day tires on 6- and 8x13 alloys, plus the R500’s lower weight and uprated suspension, put it into a completely different league, and it took me a couple of laps to find out just where the higher levels of mechanical grip ran out.
Although the other cars are light by roadgoing standards, you always feel you are managing understeer, oversteer and weight transfer in them. In contrast, the Caterham simply goes where you point it, and is by far the most accurate weapon here when it comes to clipping an apex within an inch of where you want to go, each time, every time.
The sequential gearshift totally keeps with the immediacy of the car’s character. You still have to use the clutch for each shift, but with no across-the-gate movements, speed and accuracy of ratio change is fast, precise and consistent.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect is the rather flat soundtrack of its 2.0-liter Cosworth Ford Duratec four-cylinder. While it delivers a healthy 263 hp at 8500 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at 7200 rpm, it is best described as effective rather than charismatic.
But even the lack of aural brilliance won’t stop you from coming back from a few hot laps in the R500 with a grin on your face as broad as the proverbial Cheshire cat.
Being open-top, the Caterham brings you that much closer to the elements. This alfresco exposure, compact size, low weight and responsive control collectively delivers a visceral experience that makes the other cars feel a level or two removed from the proceedings. You really know you’re alive when you drive this car.