With cold Norfolk air beginning to destroy my face, I flipped my crash helmet’s visor down, ready to get to grips with a track-focused car that very soon could be mentioned in the same breath as cars like the Ariel Atom, KTM X-Bow and maybe even the Caterham Seven. I’m at the wheel of a prototype version of the E10, the brainchild of recently-established sports car firm Zenos. And it’s good. Very good.
It’s quite rough around the edges, with the body panels coated in nothing but primer, chips and scratches all around, and a cluster of wires visible under the dashboard. It’s "warts and all, as a prototype should be," as Zenos co-founder Ansar Ali had told me just before I slid into the polycarbonate bucket seat of the doorless, roofless machine and strapped myself in.
The first part of the drive was an uneventful trudge through town, but soon enough, buildings made way for countryside and gloriously twisty roads. Time to see what’s what. Dropping down to second gear, I put my foot flat to the floor, which resulted in an angry bark from the 2.0-litre GDi Ford engine behind me. On the day I drove it, I had a temporary 5000rpm rev limiter to contend with, so I wasn’t able to experience the full might of the 200bhp mid-mounted engine, but it felt punchy enough without being intimidatingly quick. With the unit running at its full potential, the E10 will do 0-62mph in under five seconds.
The stout gear change on the five-speed manual ‘box is a thing of mechanical beauty, with each shift slotting in with a gloriously accurate feeling
The unassisted steering may have made navigating out of the industrial lot where Zenos is based a bicep-building experience, but it was an utter joy to use on the country road I eventually found myself on. It’s hard work in tight corners, but the car rewarded me with an abundance of feedback. And not just through my fingertips; the clever recycled carbonfibre chassis tub transmits all you need to know about the road beneath via your buttocks.
Through the corners it feels beautifully balanced and has plenty of grip. It really didn’t take long to gel with the the E10; it’s a little bit like driving an enlarged, grown-up go-kart, and that’s exactly how this sort of car should feel.
The stout gear change on the five-speed manual ‘box (a six-speeder will be optional) is a thing of mechanical beauty, with each shift slotting in with a gloriously accurate feeling. The lever is a little too high on the prototype, but the position of this is something that’s due to be changed for the production car. It’s the same case for the awkward centrally-placed LCD instrument display, which will be moved to behind the steering wheel.
As I started to get into a good flow with the E10, the thus-far inescapable fact that this was a one-of-a-kind prototype that absolutely must not be binned finally began to fade from my mind, and I enjoyed myself immensely. The thought soon crept back into my mind when an idiot van driver pulled out in front of me, but that did at least give me a chance to give the brakes a good test. They’re powerful, but require a jolly hefty stamp on the middle pedal.
“We haven’t gone out to make an ultra-focused car. It’s equally comfortable on the road as it is on the track”
For all the balance, the great steering and the punchy performance, though, the aspect of the E10 which impressed me the most was the ride. You’d expect a car like this to be bone-shattering away from the track, particularly on the UK’s poor excuse of a road network, but the ride is remarkably comfortable. Sure, it’s no Jag XJ, but for the ride to feel that cosseting after I’d been driving about in a Mercedes C-Class with balloon-like high-profile tyres all day, that’s commendable indeed.
It’s the first thing I mention after pulling up in Zenos’ factory and taking my helmet off, which comes as no surprise to Ansar, with whom I sat down for a post-drive chat. "We haven’t gone out to make an ultra-focused car. It’s equally comfortable on the road as it is on the track," he explains. Ansar was formerly CEO of Caterham Cars, and left along with CCO Mark Edwards to found Zenos in 2013. Both also have stints at Lotus Cars under their belts along with Zenos development head Chris Weston. Not a bad set of CVs to have when it comes to making a lightweight sports car for road and track.
Seeing the trend of all cars - including focused sports machines - gaining weight and complexity, Ansar and Mark’s goal was to make something not just of low weight, but of a simple design with a low purchase price and reasonably realistic running costs. "We felt there was a unique market opportunity for a company that delivered lightweight, fine affordable sports cars, and some of the key protagonists in the marketplace weren’t exploiting it."
This ethos of simplicity and affordability really shows when you look closer at the E10’s design. Yes, there’s a carbonfibre composite tub - built around an aluminium extrusion - but it’s not ordinary CF. It’s a material made by one of Zenos’ technical partners from recycled carbonfibre off-cuts and trimmings which normally go to waste.
These are ground up and reproduced into two separate sheets, which are held together by a core of thermoplastic. It has 70 per cent the torsional rigidity of ‘virgin’ carbon, isn’t quite as lightweight, but can be produced at just a tenth of the cost. The whole car weighs just 650kg.
The bodywork is very deliberately made from 19 panels. "We want people to play hard with our cars, and when things are nudged, a corner can be replaced for a few hundred pounds rather than a few thousand for front or rear clam," Ansar explains. The tub makes up five of those panels. As it’s not a single piece, you won’t necessarily have to replace the whole lot in the event of a prang. And as the engine in that chassis is from Ford, it’s not exactly going to be a struggle to get spares for it.
The lack of doors also helps reduce complexity. As Ansar points out, engineering doors properly requires considerable time and financial commitment, so without them, the team can focus on simply making a car that’s great to drive whether you’re on the road or the track. If all goes well, I’m told project ‘E11’ will be an evolution of the E10 with doors. Meanwhile, the future ‘E12’ project is still to be decided, but it’s likely to be more of a GT, potentially with a longitudinally-mounted six-pot and if the technology allows, a lengthened version of the E10’s chassis.
The factory looks a little spartan at the moment, being only populated by 12 people and the E10 and E10 S prototypes at the moment, but that’ll all change at the start of next year when production kicks in. The team will more than double in size, and the factory floor will be filled with E10s as they’re put together, taking about 65 man hours each to build.
Starting a company like this is always a risk, but with Zenos, all the right ingredients are there. With prices for the E10 starting at £24,995 and the recently announced turbocharged 250bhp E10S weighing in at £29,995, the E10 is keenly priced. It’s great to drive, performance is punchy, and the car comes from a group of people with exactly the experience needed to pull it off.
Ansar tells me that 68 deposits have already been taken from around the world, so the team’s aim to sell 150-200 cars next year seems achievable. The E10 is hugely promising and we like the way the guys at Zenos think, so we for one hope they succeed.