Motoring: The verdict: Not for the faint-hearted

Readers find the Caterham Seven impractical, wilful - and pure fun. By Michael Booth. Photographs by Teena Taylor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
can't imagine what Her Majesty would have

thought had she been peeking from behind her nets

when I lost control of the Caterham 7 and spun it through 360 degrees outside the gates of Buckingham Palace ("Philip - do come and look. One of one's subjects seems to have misjudged his cornering"). Certainly, several hundred Japanese tourists were as startled as I was by the car's misbehaviour. They gathered themselves for an impromptu round of applause as I, beet-red, restarted the car and pointed it in the right direction.

It was a timely reminder that a combination of 150bhp driven through the rear wheels, super-quick steering and a featherweight chassis can be, in the right hands, a recipe for the fastest and most thrilling experience this side of a racing car. With a clumsy oaf at the controls and a touch of rain it can also be a recipe for Caterham kedgeree.

At a shade over pounds 20,000 (pounds 18,495 in easy-to-assemble kit form) the Caterham Seven 178 VVC, though basically the same in silhouette as the Lotus Seven, is technologically a far cry from Colin Chapman's spartan original first raced by Graham Hill 50 years ago. The Caterham is powered by the MGF's 1.8-litre VVC (Variable Valve Control) engine, has a convertible roof (more of a canopy, really) and comfy leather bucket seats which hug even the most slender driver as tightly as a body cast.

One of the first questions I usually ask our testers is "Would this car be practical for your life?" I didn't bother this time. To judge the Seven on grounds of practicality would be like criticising a hammer because it can't split an atom. These are wilfully impractical racing cars for the road; even the indicators, operated by a dash-mounted toggle switch, are a grudging concession to reality. In central London you sit in traffic with your nostrils at exhaust-pipe level, the stiff suspension (such a joy cornering at speed) shakes you like a paint mixer and in the rain - well, the Spanish Inquisition would have been hard pushed to devise a greater torture than the Caterham's misting windows. If you are over 6ft your knees will touch the steering wheel, and the only way you're going to able to operate the closely-packed pedals is by removing your footwear.

But what the Caterham does better than any other car, and well enough to render gripes about comfort nothing less than limp-wristed bleating, is to provide its owner with unparalleled driving pleasure. Twitch your right ankle and you are doing 60mph (at 0-60 in 5.3 seconds it is quicker than the Aston Martin DB7). The steering is quicker still, the brakes are reassuringly communicative and the speedo does not even have a red line. With the carbs hissing, the petrol pump buzzing and the exhaust popping and snarling, should you be foolish enough to close your eyes, you could be taking the flag at Monza.

I have never been so exhilarated by a car's performance, or so terrified by it. This is a car that you drive with your brow furrowed in concentration and arrive at your destination with a great big grin, marvelling that someone still manufactures a product as pure and uncompromised as this

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

Andrew Williams, 43, from New Zealand, support worker. Currently carless

As a motorbike fan, Andrew immediately felt at home with the raw appeal of the Caterham. "I really like the way this thing handles - it's so precise. It's a toy basically, isn't it, a bike on four wheels? It's definitely not practical, but the great road-feel makes it real seat-of-your-pants driving. I like cars like this that you can throw around and perhaps lose the back end a little. It must be great fun to tour the countryside in on a sunny day. I like the sound of the engine and the steering is very responsive but I'm not too sure about the retro styling."

Sarah Norman, 27, from New Malden, London, civil servant. Currently drives a Renault 5

"I'd never heard of a Caterham before," admitted Sarah. "But a friend of mine who knows about these things said they were really good. I imagine they'd be bought by someone with money to throw away - a city trader, perhaps. I'd probably think they were a bit of a prat. It's obviously a car for someone who likes to have a good time, though. I was surprised by how docile it was: the power is quite manageable, but I found the gears a bit of a struggle. I like the tiny steering wheel - it makes the whole thing feel like a Dinky toy. But it's a bit of a bore not having a self-correcting indicator."

Mark Totty, 32, from Purley, London, teacher. Currently drives a Land Rover Discovery

Mark had to remove his shoes to drive the Caterham but, once on the move, he was instantly smitten. "By God it's fun!" he said. "I'd buy it just for the driving pleasure alone. I love the switch-like gear change, and the steering is amazingly instant. The power-to-weight ratio must be outstanding - I can't imagine why you'd want a more powerful version. I've read about them for years in car magazines but didn't realise how good they were, and once you're sitting in it you don't feel intimidated by the lack of protection. It's the sort of car that, if I saw one, I'd know the driver was a real motoring enthusiast."

John Helion, 44, from Kingston upon Thames, control assistant with London Ambulance Service. Currently drives a Rover 111

By coincidence, John is distantly related to the actor Patrick McGoohan (fans of The Prisoner will appreciate the significance of this - McGoohan drives a car very similar to the Caterham in the opening credits). "Driving appeal is important to me so I like this already," said John, who at 6ft 3in struggled to fit in. "I don't know whether to look over or through the screen." John thought he might be tempted by the Caterham as a second car. "It suits my personality but I'm afraid this would be classified as one of those things I'd like but can't afford."