Is the juice worth the squeeze? It’s one of my favourite sayings, as no matter the scenario, it distils complex decision making into six little words.
In an automotive sense, it explains why hot hatches are so popular – they provide plenty of reward for very little effort or compromise. Things get a bit more complicated when dealing with cars like the Caterham 485.
It’ll surprise no-one to hear that the compromises inherent in such a car are substantial. You could feasibly use the Caterham every day, in the same way you could cycle to Alice Springs – it’s possible, but there are easier ways to get the job done.
Driving the Caterham in peak-hour traffic takes you back to what it’s like to be a small child. Everything is large and terrifying. It makes you a better driver, as constant vigilance is required lest you be squashed like a bug by that merging semi-trailer. This must be what it’s like to be a motorcyclist, without the convenience of being able to lane split.
Little things like popping into a shop quickly or paying for fuel take on new significance, too, as with no doors you are effectively leaving your possessions at the mercy of passers-by. The everyday experience is made more difficult by the 485’s side-mount exhaust.
Exiting just below the driver’s right elbow, heat and fumes are a constant companion, and there’s the ever-present threat of barbecuing your leg should you be clumsy in your egress from the car.
We’ve started on a bad note, but no-one is seriously going to consider the Caterham as everyday transport. It’ll be bought as a weekend toy, to deliver old-school driving thrills on a sunny day. Once you're ensconced in the driver’s seat, it’s actually quite comfortable; like sitting in the bath, with your legs stretched out and the tiny steering wheel close to your chest.
The new dash layout, scattered with push buttons, is reasonably intuitive, and looks beautiful in bare carbon fibre. A push of the starter button fires the Ford-sourced 2.0-litre four-cylinder into life with a rasp. It may have started out in a humble Focus, but by the time Caterham is finished with it, it revs to a heady 8500rpm and produces 177kW/206Nm.
Weighing just 675kg full of fluids, the relative lack of torque is no issue, particularly as the closely-stacked ratios of the six-speed manual gearbox result in 4000rpm in top at 110km/h, which makes highways a fairly buzzy affair.
The engine itself is an angry nest of wasps, with a voracious appetite for revs, a hard-edged, race-bred exhaust note and a full volley of cannon fire on the overrun. A Sport button seems completely ridiculous in a Caterham, but pushing it sharpens throttle response even further and switches the engine to an even more aggressive map.
Caterham claims 0-100km/h in 3.4sec, which feels a bit optimistic, but it's definitely brisk and manages the trick of feeling faster than it actually is, which is better than the other way around, in this country at least.
The gearbox requires some muscle, but gets better the faster and more positive you are in your shifts, though heel-toeing on downshifts can be a little tricky thanks to a tight footwell and the fact the brake sinks lower than the throttle when under pressure.
Contrary to what you might expect, the Caterham actually displays a lovely level of compliance over bumps. Driving it is a physical experience – you steer the car with your shoulders rather than your wrists – but not at all harsh. It manages the all-important trick of working with the road, rather than fighting against it.
With so much of our time spent in modern cars, driving the Caterham is a wake-up call. No electronic assistance, not even ABS, means you are completely on your own, which dials back your commitment level a bit, as you never know when you're going to hit a patch of gravel or a suddenly-tightening corner.
Traditionally, this wouldn't be a problem, as Caterhams are all about enjoying a vehicle's limits at relatively slow speeds, but unfortunately a couple of specification quirks robbed the 485 of some of its playfulness.
The Caterham's standard tyres are super-sticky Avon race tyres with a treawear rating of 20. In comparison, the Bridgestone RE050As on a Megane RS275 have a treadwear rating of 140, and that's a soft tyre to begin with!
With the car having so much mechanical grip, it was difficult to feel where the limit was on the road, and on track it made the car less adjustable than it would be on harder rubber, though it helped its speed, the 485 lapping at a similar pace to a Cayman GTS.
The other strange decision was omitting a limited-slip diff, denying the driver the ability to steer the car on the throttle. On the track this was especially frustrating; a natural understeerer (at least with this setup), any attempts to neutralise the balance with turn-in oversteer resulted in the inside rear wheel scrappily spinning power away.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but in a machine all about raw driving thrills rather than pure speed, we've no doubt harder tyres and a slippy diff would increase the fun-factor tenfold. Hopefully we'll get a chance to find out in the near future and report back.
So we return to the original question: is the juice worth the squeeze? At about $60K, it would make a lot of sense as a weekend track toy, but unfortunately, at $122,034 as-tested, the answer is no.
Some will buy the Caterham and absolutely love the experience it offers, and with a slightly different spec perhaps we would've felt much more strongly about this one, but as it stands there are too many very capable rivals (Cayman S, 4C, Lotus Exige) that require nowhere near as much compromise.
3 out of 5 stars
Engine: 1999cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v
Power: 177kW @ 8500rpm
Torque: 206Nm @ 6300rpm
0-100km/h: 3.4sec (claimed)
Price: $108,990 (see text)
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