In 2012, a rumor circulated; yet another British sports car company had been born and set to shake up the market—shoulders shrugged. How often do we hear a group of British fanatics with an exemplary engineering background (but no business experience) has come up with a back-to-basics roadster to reignite the forgotten passion of driving? For once, though, the situation is different. Four years after the news spread, I'm actually walking through the workshop of that very company, looking at roughly a dozen from among more than a hundred cars built so far. Not only are we talking about the newest derivative that has just been released, but even hearing about E11, E12, and E20 that will come at some point in the future. Zenos is here to stay, and it's going to make it big—probably.
What differentiates Zenos from all the other automotive startups is a very solid foundation and a deep understanding of the market at a basic level. The company was founded by Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards, who had previously been senior employees at Lotus and Caterham. In the latter company, they played an instrumental role in selling the small British garage to the business mogul Tony Fernandes and subsequently taking it to Formula 1. Soon, their visions of the make diverged from Fernandes' and the Brits decided to leave Caterham and start something new of their own.
Judging by how quickly things developed shortly after their departure, Ali and Edwards must have had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do. Contrary to how a lightweight British sports car is usually perceived, the pair started with market positioning. They outlined a plan to keep the price less than £24,995 ($31,500) with a view to filling the niche left by the competition, i.e. their former employers, Lotus and Caterham, with both of the brands striving to progress upmarket. By a wicked twist of fate, the two men had to start their own business to finally build a car that Lotus and Caterham are supposed to define, a truly affordable, easy-to-maintain, old-school, and yet forward-thinking runabout. In a nutshell: the 21st century Lotus Seven.
Setting a goal that will win the clients' hearts is one thing, but keeping the promise is where the struggle gets real. To design and build the car, the company had to assemble a capable team. Who better than Ali's and Edwards' colleagues from their previous ventures? Conveniently, Zenos' garage had been established just a stone's throw from Lotus' Hethel premises.
What this newly founded legion of engineering deserters did next was just pure magic. If there's anything worth calling real progress in the automotive industry, it is projects like this one. In a world of ever-increasing complexity and spiraling costs, Zenos strikes back with a very refreshing idea of approachable solutions that doesn't steal any of car's appeal, ending up with something like a car equivalent of Ikea. To limit the R&D budget, the company focused only on the bits that really make the difference, leaving the rest for some tested off-the-shelf componentry. This comes mostly courtesy of the Ford Focus, which contributed its hubs, bearings, gearbox, axles, and last but not least, the engine. The E10 started its life with a naturally aspirated 2.0L GDI inline-four producing 200 hp and 155 lb-ft, but the clients quickly proceeded to the E10 S seen here, which benefits from an upgrade to a Focus ST-sourced 2.0L turbocharged Ecoboost engine with all of its 252hp and 270-lb-ft glory. Recently, the two engines were joined by the third option of the 350hp Focus RS 2.3L. In a car weighing just 1,600 pounds, this brings the performance to truly supercar levels but takes the price up along the way, too. The E10 S stays in the sweet spot of the range.
What makes the E10 stand out is the parts that are unique to it. As the Zenos name indicates, the central "spine" that runs the length of the car is the key thing here. Citing the company press release, the name comes from "zen," representing purity, and "os," Latin for spine. Our journalistic investigation revealed that "os" actually means just a bone, but you get the picture. So, this columna vertrebralis (there may be a good reason why the Zenos guys preferred the simple "os"...) is a kind of aluminum extrusion that carries a tub made of honeycombed carbon fiber, much the same as you'll find in the mass-produced BMW i8. Both Zenos and BMW chose it for its unbeatable quality-price ratio. To put it bluntly, it's just recycled carbon fiber, made of smashed offcuts and laid out into sheets stuck together with ordinary thermoplastic. The result is a tub that has 75 percent of the stiffness of the super-expensive "virgin" carbon fiber, but comes at one tenth of its cost. I call it a fair deal.
In some even better news, Zenos is relatively cheap not only to buy but also to repair if you crash it. Since it's a track car, the chances you'll crash it are pretty high. Keeping this in mind, the designers came up with solutions that allow you to explore your limits behind the wheel and to take it lightly if you go beyond these limits. The carbon tub is made from five individual sections, while the body is not a clamshell, but consists of 18 replaceable panels (and a removable windscreen), so even a reasonably big crash doesn't mean a write-off, since it can be repaired like a Lego toy for reasonable cash. What sum is reasonable in this case? "More like hundreds instead of thousands of dollars per part," claims the manufacturer. Even the suspension, consisting of double wishbones all round with Bilstein dampers, has an in-board pushrod arrangement in the front to protect the pricier bits during collisions.
After getting the structure finished, it was still not the body's turn on the drawing board, but the driving position's. The E10 was engineered based on an inside-out methodology; surprising that it should look so admirably good, then. It could be easily taken for a fresh concept coming from any of the big manufacturers and certainly doesn't look like one of the soapboxes built in a British shed by a group of chaps from the pub. It's a thoroughly modern design with some lovely finishing touches that indicate high-quality work. While I don't want to be a spoilsport, I need to admit when looking at the body very closely, it's easy to see that it's not necessarily the supercar level of finish. Not to say it looks cheap, but let's just admit it: We can understand why the BAC Mono 2.5 costs five times the price of the basic Zenos.
The sort of people who are into this kind of car probably couldn't care less. Otherwise, they couldn't live with lack of side windows, doors (which would add considerable cost), or air-con (or heater, for that matter, as such would add both cost and weight; only a lighter option of heated seats and heated windscreen goes). Before the closed-cockpit Zenos arrives in the near future, all you have at your disposal to protect your hairdo from an unexpected rainfall is a "get-me-home" type of tonneau cover, which is installed in a quick and surprisingly creative way; you zip it into the rail on the top of the windscreen, rather than clipping it. Yet more proof of Zenos' ingenious design.
A look inside the cabin reminds you just how raw a machine you're dealing with, but once again solid foundations shine through. The only extreme thing about the E10's dashboard is its plainness; there's little more to find here than two small TFT multi-function displays that do an admittedly good job of providing all the vital information like revs, speed, gear you're in, oil pressure, and so on in a clear and techy way. Until recently, the effect was somewhat spoiled by the elevated gear lever taken straight from the mediocre Focus, but now all the Zenoses (Zeni?) are equipped with a far better-looking anodized gear knob. With the lever mishap sorted, there's still the issue of the buttons positioned under the armrest that manage all of the car's functions; they never become intuitive and even the owner will spend some time learning how to operate them without looking.
There are more snags you must embrace when you want to drive the car more often than only in perfect conditions on a racetrack. Today, we're not on a racetrack and the conditions certainly aren't good, so instead of getting to know the car, I'm figuring out how to defog the windscreen without a heater. I decide moving air is the best solution and we're on the road; it's time to handle the raindrops sliding to the direction of the A-pillars only to ricochet and, by some inexplicable magic, pelt my eyes and forehead. Oh, and the idea of driving in a four-point Schroth race harness did sound really cool in the morning, but now, as I'm fixed tightly to the plastic-molded seat, I cannot reach for anything with my hands or move my head in any direction. How one can see oncoming traffic or reverse in this car, I don't know. Time to install a backup camera, perhaps?
But enough of the moaning; it's not entirely a Ford Focus after all, so let's stay focused (sorry for the pun) on the parts that really count. Here, the E10 is back to form. The driving position is nigh on perfect; the steering wheel and pedals are perfectly in line with the driver seat (which, in fact, can't be taken for granted even in mass market cars). Once again, the decision to design the car starting from the driver's position has paid off. The cabin's airiness balances between the feeling of being reassuringly cocooned and entertainingly exposed to the elements. The looks don't play up to the same wow factor as the engineering-fetishized Lotus Elise or exhibitionist Ariel Atom, but the E10's passenger compartment is far wider than those found in most of the elbow-rubbing competitors; it also noticeably has room for your feet.
Fire up the engine and you instantly understand that although this is built with a Focus ST engine and components, this car is half the weight and has a quarter of the soundproofing, moving the experience to an entirely different level. The OEM components make the E10 far more accessible than the rough track cars that require expert knowledge from the very moment of starting the engine. Move the gear lever, release the clutch pedal like in any other car, and you're off; no starting procedures, no paddleshift gearboxes. It's so easy that it may even come as a disappointment to someone who expected F1 levels of drama. No one's ready for what's about to come next, though. Mash the throttle pedal and the light car zings into the horizon with little break from the punchy turbocharged engine; one moment you are standing still, 4 seconds later you're cutting through the air at 60 mph—the wind gushing through the barely shielded cabin and engine screaming right behind your back. It's nothing like the Focus ST; in the E10 it's loud, charismatic, and boasts newly found depths of performance. The Zenos team has done a great job of recalibrating the ECU, fuelling, valve timing, and boost to match the power curve to a lightweight sports car. The engine may still feel a bit flat at the top of the rev range, but it's never short of emotions as the nearby exhaust happily bangs and pops, while the turbo's peripherals vividly whoosh and hiss next to the driver's ear, creeping me out with every gear change.
Apart from the wicked soundtrack, the rest of the car stays mostly mature. The torque peak comes later through the rev range and is built gradually, so that the big power comes without any delay, and yet it never disturbs the rear axle. It's not a natural drifter; the way to take pleasure in driving the E10 is to enjoy its great balance and nimbleness and play on the edge, knowing it won't bite back. The stiff chassis easily controls the low mass, and locating the engine in the middle amplifies a sense of agility and immediate response to steering wheel inputs. The power is deployed in such a controllable way that the manufacturer decided to delete the option of the limited slip diff from the option list, deeming it unnecessary. Even in downright scary weather conditions in which I am experiencing the car, I tend to agree with this decision, and I would even go as far as saying I'm not necessarily missing the traction control system, either. With engineering like this, you don't want any electronics to interfere.
Mind you, the E10 is not an extreme track tool exactly, as the suspension is more supple than rock hard. Bilstein dampers send the car into a minor shake on an occasional pothole caught on the B-road in the Lotus County, but they give the ride a sophisticated fluency even when driving at ten tenths. Neither the steering nor braking system is aided, so in the world of carefully filtered driving models, Zenos just floods the driver with the feedback from the wheels. The steering is masterfully precise, but it takes some time to get accustomed to the completely servo-free brakes, which during the first encounter will seriously shock a newcomer with the force they need from the driver to stop the car. Once he gets used to it, though, he'll learn the benefits of this solution.
A congested, bumpy road located somewhere in rural England should be the last place where a car like Zenos shines, but somehow even in the heavy rain and temperature approaching low 30s, the fun of wrestling with the small suede steering wheel is indescribable. Some may play down the E10 as nothing more than a slightly more advanced bathtub, but something like this would just prove how right the founders of Zenos were; it really is the 21st century Lotus Seven. It's better looking, more advanced, and generally smarter, and when it comes to the British school of performance cars, only a motorcycle comes at a better speed-per-dollar rate. This is a car that many enthusiasts around the world secretly hoped for, but didn't have the courage to stand up for their needs, being too busy pretending they want something more challenging and expensive.
Best of all, Zenos is coming to the United States. Zenos North America is currently building up a dealer network that will grow from its current two dealerships located in Indianapolis and New York into a bigger structure covering the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Just like the Caterham U.S. importer, Zenos NA can officially import a fully wired roller, but the responsibility for the final assembly is on the customer, although the company developed a whole program that will help its clients with sourcing and installing the engine for the car. We say it's worth the effort. A new British sports car icon is being born.