Testing a Caterham 310R in the midst of winter? Madness, you cry. Yet despite the icy grip of winter, the British race car for the road was just about livable, as Ben Griffin found out during his week-long road test.
When Caterham dropped off the 310R at my house, I was told that if the British manufacturer could only make one car for the rest of eternity it would be this one. The logic is that you get serious performance in a car that weighs less than your average weekly shop, and without having to tame the heavier, more lethal 2.0-litre found in cars further up the range.
My first taste of Caterham ownership came at the launch of a Lego model of one of its cars. Being a motoring journalist, I promptly asked to drive the absolute fastest one available, which was the 620. Fearing for my safety, I was pushed gently guided to the Seven 160, which is the slowest. By far. “Short straw for me,” I thought, but then I ended up finding it hugely fun. Subsequently I got one in for a week and decided that it would be in my best interest to buy one.
In keeping with the theme of personal safety, I decided to keep working my way up the Caterham ladder. This time, it’s the turn of the 310R. To be fair, not one of the range is particularly slow but this particular model is where things get pretty serious. Four-point harness, sub-five second 0-62mph levels of serious. To say I was keen was an understatement and the ‘R’ part of the name, which indicates race-specific additions such as a limited-slip differential, did anything but curb my enthusiasm.
Obviously though Caterham does not give away a faster, more lethal car for free. In fact, you have to pay quite a lot more as it is not a Kei-sized car like the Seven 160 and it has around double the horsepower. Does that make me want to buy one any less, though?
Come on then, what is the Caterham 310R?
Apart from being rather cute, because circular headlights are always brilliant, the Caterham 310R is actually more of a weapon than a toy. It only weighs 540kg, which means you only need to eat a particularly crouton-heavy salad before upsetting the careful balance and power to weight ratio of 250bhp per tonne.
The rather noisy, all-too eager 1.6-litre Ford Sigma engine develops 152bhp but that only tells half the story. You see, to get all of that you need to reach 7,000rpm, which means enjoying even more noise. And rattling. To say it is a refined car would be the biggest lie ever told.
Torque comes in at an even bigger figure, 123.9lb/ft to be precise, but again you need to wait until 5,600rpm before you get all of it. That means keeping your foot buried until you begin to wuss out or hit traffic, which is almost always before you reach the zenith of oomph. Yet this is never frustrating because the engine is gutsy at all rev-levels and, thanks to a six-speed gearbox with gears so close you would think they were joined at the hip, the acceleration is more than punchy.
Even at 30mph in sixth, the little naturally-aspirated 310R snaps forward, smacking your passenger’s head into the race seats, which can be moved forward and backwards unlike in the Seven 160. Refreshing is an understatement in a world of often laggy turbocharged engines, especially as you can (and will) happily rev past 7,000rpm.
As practical as a lead life jacket, right?
Yes and no. The fact I was trying to film the car really highlighted the fact that, on public roads, a four-point harness is serious hassle. Even when you learn to do up the harness quickly, you can never avoid sitting on one of the straps because it is too short to go over the transmission tunnel. You can tuck in the other strap into the gap between the frame and canvas door and the shoulder ones are easy to keep out of your way, but you still need to faff around for 10 minutes while you dislocate your joints so you can finally lock everything into place.
How large you are will, of course, have a bearing on all of this. My arm length meant I was unable to do up the right section of belt with the door closed, not that undoing two poppers is any great hardship (or the best security method). Luckily the fact you are sitting about one inch above the road means you actually have decent head room and even the leg room is bearable for those at six-foot and under. And that the seat, though barely padded, is surprisingly comfortable.
In good weather we can imagine life would be considerably easier, as getting into the Caterham 310R with the optional weather pack on should be an Olympic sport. The ingress area is rather small to say the least and inevitably you end up leaving a huge clump of mud on the lovably basic dashboard as you try to get your foot in.
Then there is the start sequence, which involves putting in a red key not too dissimilar to a gas box lock in shape and twisting to turn on the power, then tapping the key fob on the ignition to kill the immobiliser and lastly hitting a red start button. In cold weather you will need to restart the engine at least four times and avoid touching the accelerator to create a ‘false idle’ (not to be confused with a false idol).
Then begins the wait for the heating system, which has two settings, hotter than the sun and off, and the windscreen heater, which works slightly better, just so you can see through the letter box that is the windscreen. Heaven forbid it rains because the wipers, about two inches in length and prone to coming loose, prefer to smear most of the water as opposed to move it.
As for everyday usability, how useful the Caterham 310R is depends on how many people are travelling. There is a sort of boot area, which fits a canvas bag nicely, but that is occupied by the canvas roof in good weather. If it is just you in the car, you can, of course, fill up the passenger seat with at least five bags of shopping.
Suffice to say, this is a car that requires you to psyche yourself up to drive. You need to be in the right frame of mind and, ideally, in the right weather. Relatively few cars can be considered hardcore these days, but the 310R is exactly that.
The Caterham 310R isn’t for shopping, though, is it.
Lord, no. Though you could commute to work in the Caterham 310R and shopping is technically feasible, this is a car for the weekend. For when you want to experience what a proper race car must feel like (or come somewhat close). Because by heck is it capable of cornering hard despite having Avon ZZS tyres that are modest-ish in width.
Point, shoot and repeat until you can smile no more. That is the way you roll in a Caterham. Such is the level of firmness in the suspension, body roll is just some myth. Its ability to change direction on a whim is unrivalled by most cars and so corners come and go in rapid fashion.
Driving around in the 310R actually reminded me of the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, another car built for the track but usable on the road. At first, the lack of power steering combined with a bone-shakingly harsh ride makes for a steep learning curve. Hell, there was a brief moment on the first day, having spent ten minutes trying to ease over one of those square speed bumps without losing the entire bottom of the car, that I wanted to wave a white flag.
But like the 4C Spider, your body and mind adapts. On day two the steering gets lighter, by day six you realise that it is so telepathically communicative you start to assume it can read your mind. The pedals, which are as close as the gears, are something you mash in the faint hope you find the right one but eventually (with the right shoes) you stop pressing the brake and accelerator at once.
Its harsh ride quality never stop eroding your spinal column, though, and the noise is never anything but headache-inducing, with the transmission and rear axle joining in to deafen you at higher speeds. As engine notes go, it is decent enough. But that is fine because all you have to do is find a decent stretch of open twisty road and you will be in a zen-like state of enjoyment and concentration.
The precision steering, perfect balance, snappy performance and low-down seating position just make it feel so bloody fast and so bloody capable that you almost forget about needing to dislocate your leg to get in.
The downside is that sometimes the 310R feels a little too capable, in that sliding the rear out takes commitment and is harder than you expect despite the fact the little Momo steering wheel makes corrections easy. Going for the bigger 2.0-litre is where you would see more sideways shenanigans, if you are into that.
So how much is the Caterham 310R?
You can buy it from £23,495, technically, in the same way you could buy a broom minus the handle. But to get the full experience in the UK you will probably want the weather pack, which adds £1,250 to the bill. Then there is the £895 ‘on the road package’, which is self-explanatory, £2,500 to have it built for you, £2,495 to have a six-speed manual instead of a five-speed, front ventilated discs with quad piston calipers at £675 and £495 to have the floor lowered.
That only touches the surface of what was fitted to our test car. Having the roll bar in yellow costs £350 and the ‘Magic’ black paint, which looked brilliant, is another £1,000. As for the R pack, which includes a limited-slip differential, 15-inch wheels, superior braking, polished exhaust and carpet in the boot, that means another £4,495.
And so the grand total of the Caterham 310R we tested was, wait for it, £40,965. You could buy a Porsche for that. Or a house in Yorkshire. But then neither of those things will make pedestrians smile and wave out of either admiration or, more likely, because of those circular head lights.
Should I buy the Caterham 310R, then?
Depends on what you want. If you want a car that can do daily life and go fast every now and then, no. You are better off in something far heavier. But if the thrill of driving has you yearning for raw, unbridled motoring – fumes and all – the 310R is about as good as it gets. Despite bad weather, it was one of the best week’s I’ve had in a car. Ever.
They say those who considers themselves to be a petrolhead should drive an Alfa Romeo, but I think it should be a Caterham. Or even an Ariel or Radical. To really learn how to get the best from a car and to experience a fraction of what it was like for race drivers in times gone by, you need something that forgoes air conditioning and Apple CarPlay.
It is expensive and may induce tears on some days, but it only takes one good drive to make everything better – and for the cycle of love and hate to start again. There are relatively few cars that stick in the memory. When it comes to the Caterham 310R, I’ll probably still be banging on about the experience when I’m old and grey.