The Caterham 170S’s 660cc three-cylinder engine doesn’t promise much and, despite being given a turbocharger that lets off on each gearchange as if it’s a Mitsubishi Evo in a Tesco car park in 1998, delivers no more. There’s 84PS (62kW) at around 6,500rpm and 116Nm (86lb ft) of torque about 2,000rpm lower. Which is probably slightly more power than a hairdryer.
But that’s the magic of the tiny little Caterham, you don’t need 800PS to have fun, you don’t need four-wheel-drive, you don’t need sophisticated traction control systems, you really don’t need a heater. The 170 weighs around 460kg in S form, or 440 if you opt for the more sporty R package (complete with limited-slip diff) and lose the windscreen and doors. That means its power to weight ratio is around 180PS per litre. That’s about the same as an eighth generation Volkswagen Golf GTI.
But all of these stats and figures are a bit of a red herring. The Caterham 170 is not a fast car, it won’t rip your skin or rearrange your organs when you floor it. This is a car for the opposite of a straight. The 170 weighs so little, its tiny hamster engine slung right out toward the front axle to better distribute what little there is, that you can basically just turn into any corner without any thought for speed. The tyres are laughably small, 155 profile on the front and 165 on the rear, but that’s more than enough of a contact patch for something that almost confuses gravity. The little Caterham will grip, and then when it doesn’t there’s an instant connection to your brain telling you what’s going on and what should be done about it through the tiny, but wonderfully unassisted, Momo steering wheel. If you really try, and it’s something you’ll keep trying over and over again I promise, you can force understeer on turn in, but it’ll correct itself quite easily. A lift will bring everything back into line and then power, such that there is, will rotate the car through.
Combined with brakes with no servo but unreal feedback it becomes addictive. You can easily lose hours to the same stretch of road, perfecting just how hard you can chuck the little Caterham in and still gather everything together. The gearchange is clunky, mechanical and short and paired with pedals so close together you can hit all three with ease. Heal and toe is child’s play, but it’s actually a big toe-little toe process given you can fit both pedals on the ball of one foot with some overlap.
All the time you’re never going to be at speeds to threaten your license, because if you do it will become quite an uncomfortable experience. The tiny engine really needs to rev to accelerate, and with just five gears (four of which are geared to the shorter end of the spectrum) it’s really working by the time you hit 70mph. At that speed you’ll be exploring the fifth cog too, a slightly taller gear that the engine really isn’t a fan of. But you can just about do some longer distances in this, just maybe think about keeping them under an hour.