My SUPERLIGHT R
All along, Caterham ownership was only a matter of time for me, a question of being ready and it being suitable to my lifestyle. After the 340r there were no limitations in my mind in terms of practicality so no cars to rule out no matter how hardcore or uncompromised. What I was after was a thoroughbred, proven trackcar that could post laptimes as good as the fastest track machinery out there but also do it in a very stimulating, rewarding and involving manner. But perhaps most important, after owning the EVO6 which performs all sorts of wizardry at the limit, I wanted a car that was much more exploitable in a bend than any elise variant. Uninspired by the 340r's on-the-limit behaviour on the circuit, I was looking for something that offered more creativity and entertainment beyond the confines of the car's out and out grip, with the ability to tell you far more clearly where those limits are and allow you to step over them in complete confidence and control.
WHATS THE ATTRACTION AFTER THE 340R
The elise is a great handling car and on the road its in my opinion one of the very best sources of fun you can get but on the circuit when the car is closer to the edge its "handling" is by no means the last word. The 340r for example feels fantastic, it brakes so quickly, turns in sharp, feels lovely and light on its toes and demands so little of its driver... it is very much a racecar feel. The joy of the precision, fluidity and effortlessness of the car is ecstatic ...... but in my opinion only up to a point, until that is, you learn and develop the sheer bottle to start exploring the cars limits on track.
Although an elise's setup can vary enormously from car to car, the general story starts with mild understeer (aargggg I HATE that word !) and backing off gently will restore neutrality but if you're not careful it can mean violent snap oversteer. Sure, once you know the 340r and you learn to be pretty dam quick with the lock you can catch the tail but its a very awkward and fumbled experience, its not something that you try to repeat, and its certainly not an inherent and pleasurable part of the driving experience (see movies below). Ultimate 4 wheel balance, ultimate precision, slow-in/fast-out is the name of the game and whilst this means that the elise is arguably the very BEST car to learn circuit driving in and many would like a car to behave this way, for me personally it does get very boring after a while. And more to the point, to go 10/10ths, to come home and know that you really did put in a good days skillful and close-to-the-limit driving, wrung the very very best out of your car and posted some truly competitive laps takes a hell of a lot of experience, run-off and nerve.
So there you have one of my big reasons for the Superlight R. I am not saying that anything is better than anything else here, merely that the elise dynamic is knife-edge with no window, no creativity or tomfoolery on and around the limit and at the moment thats just not my bag. On the road where you shouldn't really be at the limit this doesn't really apply but on track I started to tire and get frustrated by this type of behaviour. After witnessing the EVO6 I decided that I wanted a car that had all the lightweight advantages but was more exploitable & progressive on track, something that I could impose my will on more and be more aggressive with as opposed to something which was dictating to me, constantly trimming me back and keeping me in check with spine-chilling warning signals. In addition, you can never have enough power and after getting used to the 340r acceleration and also feeling frustrated by its long gear ratios I also started to yearn for a car that was even quicker.
To get an idea of what I ranting on about, take a look at these 2 clips witness the natural behaviour of these 2 cars at the limit: (clips redistributed here through the kindness of www.jimbocam.com)
The SLR arrived end of April 2002. It was a cherished 18 month old example with just 2900 miles on the clock. The car has a lot of worthwhile extras like battery master switch, plumbed extinguisher, honeycomb protection, FIA rollbar, throttle & clutch stops, aeroscreen & full weather equip, R500 Kevlar race seats and perhaps most importantly, the later spec PTP VHPD engine with the straight Phantom inlet manifold and revised ECU. Power should be around the 192bhp mark (maybe even more as its decatted) as opposed to the old 186/187 bhp VHPD spec.
So whats it like ? Well lets treat road and track completely separately here. For a start, on the road the Superlight R is blindingly quick. The VHPD engine seems so much more sorted than all previous ones I have driven in elises. For a start there is no restriction of any sort and power is estimated at beyond 190bhp. It seems to breathe so much more freely and the engine note is absolutely glorious with real proper cackling overrun when you lift off.
Remember that Caterham mate their own 6 speed gearbox with the K series and this is exactly what this engine needs. There's never any lull to speak of and the thing is always on song, ready to lunge you forward at the slightest waft of the throttle. With the doors and windscreen fitted the acceleration experience through say 2nd,3rd and 4th (that will be 20- around 110mph then) is just so vivid and brutal. It almost feels too fast for the road and you would never really want for anything more. 0-100 in late 9 seconds certainly sounds enough and if for some reason it fails to light your fire then just leave the house with the doors off, or even just one door off or if you're feeling real up for it, detach the windscreen and put the aeroscreen in place instead. Then, you really will be in for a crazy mind-blowing experience. In the 1997 Autocar said that the the McLaren F1 feels as sharp but no sharper than the SLR when you open the taps wide in a low gear up to about 90mph. Of course there's the R500 now and we all know how quick that thing is but it gives you some idea of the intensity of accelerating in one of these things. Depending on the road there can be a lot of shaking, your vision can blur and the sheer violence that erupts from the exhaust toward every shift makes everything feel twice as fast again. Trust me, its very very addictive. Given that the car is approximately 400bhp/ton, you would need to supercharge an Exige/340r or put a Lancer EVO6 engine in a standard elise to even get close !
Okay, so what about the general drive. Well on the road the Caterham manages quite well considering its heavily track biased nature. The real bumpy country lanes are best avoided as its quite easy to scrape the sump but anything else and the suspension copes pretty well and never really threatens your sense of security. On country back roads the car does jostle quite a bit though. You can feel that the suspension is tracking the bumps and that the rubber is firmly on the tarmac but in general you tend to avoid the real EVO6 type rally stages and head for smoother surfaces.
The seating position is so very snug and everything is just so immediate. Of course this is one of the great things about the elise but in the SLR this closeness and proximity is taken yet another stage further. Because you do feel so bonded to the whole car you also feel safer in the thing than you might imagine.
The gearbox certainly deserves special mention. The shift is nearing perfection here. It has the short snickety racebox feel of say a TVR but a little looser and therefore more useable and quicker. Next to the Honda S2000 its the best thing I've ever tried. The ratios are fantastic as I've already mentioned and there's no waiting for the VHPD to do its stuff.
The steering of the SLR is as much feedback as a lotus but you feel even more directly wired to the car and its even sharper. One main difference is that quite a bit more effort is required to turn the wheel. Whilst I love the extra weight it does mean that dabs of opposite lock can sometimes be a bit of a handful, especially when your knees are in the way of the wheel ! I suppose that the steering combined with the stiffer gearbox and pedals all adds up to the fact that the seven is definitely more physical to drive. Not nearly as much as something like a 5 litre Griffith for example but if you are hoping for the delightful and effortless "fingertips & toes" experience of the elise then look elsewhere. The Caterham is more old school, more butch and out on the open road whilst it responds like lightening to your commands it needs a bit more muscle and work put in.
Lets get to the corners. Well firstly, the SLR slices in like no other. It dives for corners in a way that even makes the 340r seem a little muddy. Once in its beautifully balanced and as you play with the throttle you can feel the car move deliciously underneath you. If you are generous with the throttle then the car takes on an oversteer attitude but with the huge rear Avons on the SLR you have to be pretty heavy to get the back right out. Prod the throttle on the way into a tight bend or roundabout and because there's so much power on tap the back will swing round as if it were wearing only skinny bicycle tyres. This is an endless source of fun though as its never beyond recovery, just lift a little and the rear comes in nice and tidy and you are away. If your entry speed is steady but too fast then my car will sometimes understeer but to be honest I have only experienced this in the tightest of roundabouts and hairpins. The beauty is that you don't need to back off, just squeeze the throttle and convert it into a nice 4 wheel slide or pure oversteer .... that's front engine/rwd for you !
So there's the overall handling for you. Because gradual oversteer is the name of the game there is a big window within which to drive the car around a bend. Sure, you can do it all neatly if you prefer, get the car settled and plant it through the apex completely neutral if you so desire... but if you're feeling heroic you also have the option of launching the thing willy-nilly into the bend and playing havoc on the throttle and the resultant angles of the car. Completely up to you. Whatever you decide, rest assured that the car always feels so well planted and sorted, there's no slack there or ponderous movement, just direct dial control on both the steering and right foot. The cars movement underneath you is so well relayed through your backside and all the time it feels quite exquisite, informing you exactly of what the rear wheels are doing.
VERDICT ON THE ROAD
Back to the general overview, the SLR gives you a country lane blast that is completely on a level of its own in terms of intensity and stimulation - the 340r is somewhat gentle and refined by comparison. The closeness of everything, the snugness of the car and controls at the immediate periphery of your extremities, the murderous howl of the engine, the final lightwarp up to 8000, the intimacy of those constant short gearchanges and meaty blips on downchanges and the almost overwhelming feeling of exposure and union to the outdoors and the elements... all these things add up to one seriously vivid and intense drive. The experience is almost surreal at times and believe you me, it will have you laughing and smiling like a complete half-wit.
One word of caution though. The Caterham experience, certainly in hardcore SLR guise, is one that requires commitment. In the elise you can choose to go full throttle or just sit back and treat it like any other car. In the SLR there is only one religion and nothing in between. The rewards you get back are overfilled with intensity and energy but you do need to be up for it. Also, do not expect just an experience that is one more level intense above say a 340r. No, the Caterham, for all its prowess is basically quite crude in comparison. It will corner as hard if not harder that any elise suspension/tyre combination and it will stop in a shorter distance too but in my opinion the elise - on the road - has a kind of magical fluidity that really is difficult to define.
I have been told that the integrale possesses something similar but have yet to drive one; its that sublime milky feeling where everything flows into one and becomes somehow super coherent and sensical. In part, this has to do with the delicacy of the elise and its lightness of touch. Also, I believe that it has something to do with the suspension of the car which is simply brilliant in solving the handling versus ride equation. And finally, it strangely seems also to be due to the elise being underpowered, or rather "not insanely quick". When you accelerate the elise it is never brutal, it never spikes, it just gathers speed efficiently but in a way that's not so urgent that it interferes with the fluidity of the rest of the drive, whether that be braking, gearchanging, turning in or whatever. No, the SLR is way more exciting but it does not have the same ever-flowing sublime quality that the elise has. Its coherent alright, and it flows and gels but underneath it all you are aware that the car is less baised to the road and has been engineered with other priorities in mind.
I have said it before and here it is again, some of the back lane drives that I've had in the 340r are among the most poetic, the most exquisite and the most memorable drives I have ever had. Its a truly mesmorising road car and one that would be very very difficult to completely eclipse.
ON TRACK !
Okay, now for the good news. Once you take the SLR on track then you realise that this car has the elise magic, that coherence and fluidity, but it exists right here on the circuit as opposed to the public highway. Yes the SLR is just so sorted and at home on the track that it blows even the 340r to another altogether inferior league. Quite simply, the way it turns, goes and stops is in a class of its own. It dives for bends with such scalpel-like precision and immediacy where a 340r would feel mushy and uncooperative. The way it brakes for me at Paddock is so much more composed than any car I have ever tried there. The 6 speed box means that there is never a dull moment and best of all, the nature of the handling means that even a seven novice such as myself, has the confidence to launch the car at ludicrous speeds into any type of bend, safe in the knowledge that a small bit of lock here or there will not only save the day but also make for an even more enjoyable and natural-feeling corner. The caterham experience at the circuit is just so utterly addictive !
This is where the SLR exudes its very own sense of magical fluidity. These things were built for the circuit and the first lap you take in one, its like suddenly being let into a big secret, you finally know why you see whole battalions of them at each and every trackday that you go to. On your outlap, you're cruising and not even using the brake pedal but you're quite comfortably staying with the usual trackday weaponry like elises, porsches, M3's etc. "Devastating" is the best way to describe the ability that the SLR possesses. Once up to speed the only things that will pass you are Caterhams with even more BHP or proper race cars.
My mission for this year was to find a trackready vehicle that was enjoyably driveable on and beyond the limit and one that could hold its own with the very best. If you have similar requirement then look no further than the Superlight R.