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Does the Zenos E10 have enough to oust Caterham and Lotus off their throne

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The genesis story of Zenos feels like an old one by now, but it’s a good one, so let’s recap.

In 2000, Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards met as senior employees at Lotus. Five years on, having helped to engineer a buyout of Caterham Cars, they became that company’s CEO and COO respectively. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough grounding in the dark art of lightweight, affordable British sports cars. 

There are 18 exterior glass fibre body panels on the E10, which Zenos says are easy to replace and you could do yourself

By 2012, with Caterham under the control of Tony Fernandes, both made their exit. The following year, Zenos was born. Its claimed objective? The production and sale of lightweight, affordable sports cars for the right-minded enthusiast. So how is it different? Well, the brains behind the firm – and that includes a team plucked from Caterham, Lotus, Cosworth and elsewhere – insist that the eventual owner of the end product has at last been placed front and centre of the development process. Access and involvement in the brand is considered crucial, to the point where customer testing of prototypes has been adopted as part of the business model. 

Zenos also insists that affordability – the concept often besmirched by the eventual on-the-road price of a Lotus Elise or Caterham Seven – is a starting point rather than a marketing concept. The starter version of the E10 can be had, in admittedly spartan form, for £24,995 – more than £5k less than an entry-level Lotus Elise. Its pokier, more powerful brother, the turbocharged E10 S tested, is cheaper still than its supercharged Norfolk rival. 

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Then there’s the car under the sticker price. Born of its makers’ experience at past employers but not beholden to it, the E10 is closest in resemblance to the Elise. It is mid-engined, owes its strength to aluminium, its lightness to composites and its dynamism to double wishbones. Yet the differences, as we’re about to find out, are pronounced. The Zenos is very much its own thing already. Is it as enlightened as its name suggests?


Zenos E10 S rear

Most car designs start with a sketch or a packaging idea. Zenos, however, started with a number, or rather a price: £24,995. Everything else hinged around Zenos’s ability to offer the E10 for that amount of money.

When it came to the mechanical make-up of the E10 that price, as much as any engineering ideal, is responsible for the way it is set up. Zenos sources the 2.0-litre Ford Ecoboost engine and manual transmission from powertrain supplier Hendy Power and retains the driveshafts, hubs and bearings. That, in turn, dictates that the engine sits behind the occupants and sets the width of the car.

Just like an Ariel Atom or a Caterham Seven, the full windscreen is an £1695 option, which includes washers and wipers, but pass it up and you get a full-width aero screen instead

Ahead of the engine bay sits a monocoque with a single central extrusion at its core, around which is bonded a composite tub that features a thermosetting plastic core and recycled carbon fibre skins. You have to clamber over the latter in order to get in, because there are no doors. Zenos claims that the skin material itself retains 75 percent of the rigidity of a pure carbon fibre tub and possesses a torsional rigidity of 12,000Nm per degree. And because the carbon fibre itself is made from offcuts, it only costs a tenth of the price of virgin carbon fibre.

In order to lower repair costs the E10’s tub is made from five individual parts, so you don’t necessarily have to replace it all in the event of an accident, as this is a track-focused car meaning the chances of off-asphalt excursions are relatively high. To ease the repair of smaller nerfs, the body consists of 18 different replaceable panels, here topped by an optional windscreen, which can be swapped back for the standard aero screen in about 45 minutes. You can also specify a ‘get you home’ hood and a tonneau cover.

The E10’s front and rear suspension are double wishbones and the brakes and suspension are both unassisted. It’s a set-up that’s meant to make the Zenos weigh only 725kg dry, but our test car was a pre-production example wearing some non-standard materials, which upped that figure a bit. However, given that it was also laden with fuel and sported the larger turbocharger that lifts the E10’s power to 250bhp to make this the ‘S’ variant, a kerb weight of 900kg is reasonable.


Zenos E10 S interior

Usability is a relative concept in a lightweight sports car. Most are designed for sufficient practicality for short-hop weekend use and track days only. And for most owners, that’s probably usable enough.

However, where a Caterham Seven offers a modest but useful boot, the E10 does not. It’s a minor shortcoming, perhaps. Even so, the E10 remains quite practical for its breed, with plenty of occupant space even for larger drivers, and – in as-tested specification at least – decent protection from the elements.

A bloke my size is always happy to find a removable steering wheel on a compact sports car – and even happier to find that he doesn’t need it. The E10’s cabin is roomy enough even for me

Our test car was a late-cycle prototype that was a couple of inches short on leg room compared with series-production cars, but even so it offered enough space for one 6ft 4in tester to get comfortable. The steering column is fixed but well placed and the pedal box generous, with large pedals positioned at a respectful enough distance from one another that you needn’t worry about fouling the wrong one accidentally.

The E10’s seats are necessarily quite hard, simple affairs, although they’re comfortable enough over longer trips. The car’s primary control ergonomics are good, with one exception: a shortage of space for the driver’s right elbow. Although taller drivers will be able to prop up their right arm on the side of the cockpit when touring, doing so only limits your leverage on the steering wheel as much as the slightly restrictive shape of the cockpit did before. Something as simple as a cut-out in the cockpit’s side moulding would easily solve the problem.

The only major omission from the Zenos’s specification is a cabin heater, which might be of limited or even questionable use for heating an open car anyway, and part of that requirement is fulfilled by the heated seats that come as part of the optional Track Pack. That’s fair enough, as they work very well. But go for a full windscreen in your Zenos and the only way to dry or demist it on a dewy morning is with the built-in heater element – which doesn’t work half as well for the screen as the aforementioned heated seats do for your backside. We’d therefore recommend carrying a demister pad in the lockable glovebox found in the E10’s footwell.

Multimedia display

There are no entertainment or communications features in the bare-bones cockpit of the E10 — although the 8.0in TFT central display may lead you to think otherwise. The screen simply conveys the digital instruments that would otherwise be littered across the fascia as individual dials and gauges — and in the main, it does so quite well.

The multi-function screen’s digital display shows boost pressure, water temperature, oil pressure and fuel gauges and a trip computer, among other functions, but the most useful is a full-size analogue-style rev counter that’s easier to read than the smaller one ahead of the driver — even at its greater range.

The smaller colour screen ahead of the driver also houses a digital speedometer,  which under-read on our test car by about 5 percent, a gear position indicator and indicator repeaters lights.

Overall, you’d say the digital instrumentation is clear enough and just about readable at a quick glance. It’s also a world away from the traditional analogue equivalents you’ll find in other lightweight sports cars of the Zenos’s ilk — and probably not so by accident.


Zenos E10 S engine bay

There was a time when it was unusual to find a turbocharged sports car as light as the Zenos E10 S.

With only minimal mass to move, matching horsepower with equally generous torque hardly seems necessary. And yet if you’re a start-up sports car maker looking to give your debut model as much bang for the buck as you can find from a customer engine in 2015, you’d be inclined to opt for something with forced induction. Of course you would. The car industry as a whole has, after all, collectively backed turbocharging these past couple of decades.

There’s not a lot wrong with the shift quality of the six-speed gearbox, but it’s nowhere near as enticing as that of a Caterham. A shorter shift lever would improve it

And besides the abundant, mind-focusing pace that it provides, Ford’s 2.0-litre Ecoboost engine also gives the E10 S an unexpected kind of character that’s unusual among its immediate rivals – and it’s not unlikeable, either.

First and foremost, the E10 S is quick – which must have been exactly what Zenos was aiming for. The car’s sticky Avon tyres have no trouble at all transmitting the engine’s torque onto dry asphalt, making it easy to get the car to 60mph in less than 4.5sec and on to 100mph in little more than 11 seconds – considerably quicker than anything made by Caterham, Ariel or Westfield for the same money.  That kind of advantage could be key, whether you want track-day lap time superiority or just Breakfast Club bragging rights.

What about the quality of delivery? The whistling, whooshing and hissing of the E10 S’s induction system is certainly loud enough that you’ll never forget about the presence of a turbo here. That said, throttle response is also crisp enough to avoid becoming an obstacle to enjoyment of the car. Turbo lag is barely noticeable even at low revs, and the engine spins quite freely to the 7000rpm redline.

What it will also do, while plenty of rivals refuse, is haul through a high gear from low revs with true urgency. Trickle onto MIRA’s mile straight in fifth gear at around 20mph and flatten the accelerator and the car wastes no time at all in picking up speed. By the end of the measured mile, you’ll be at 130mph – hardly any slower, believe it or not, than you’d be travelling if you’d done a full-bore standing start instead.


Zenos E10 S front quarter

It can be devilishly difficult making a lightweight car grip hard, handle keenly and ride well all at the same time; it’s harder still to achieve when it’s your first attempt at the feat. But given that Zenos Cars is a manufacturer run – and staffed in no small part – by former employees of both Lotus and Caterham and well connected into Britain’s network of expert engineering and development agencies, it was unlikely to go too far wrong with the E10’s steering and suspension set-up. And so it proves.

We tested the car on its uprated Bilstein ‘track’ dampers and therefore in the firmer of two states of suspension tune offered from the factory – although you’d seldom describe the car’s ride as stiff. Lotus itself would be rightly proud of the moderately sprung delicacy of the E10’s close body control and the tenderness of its initial damper response. It takes a very sharp intrusion to make those Bilsteins max out and force the car’s body upwards. Over most lumps and bumps, the ride remains remarkably fluent and supple.

E10’s body control and balance are both excellent even at high effort levels on a circuit

However, it’s not so supple that it threatens the precision of the E10 S’s handling. The dynamic repertoire isn’t without a little bit of roll and pitch, but while the presence of that medium-wave body movement makes the E10 feel like a slightly larger, heavier sports car than some will be expecting, it’s always an immaculately managed body movement. When the E10 rolls or jounces, it does it once, does it discreetly and is seldom deflected from its line. The car feels lithe, purposeful and athletic. If anything, the ride may be too sophisticated for a customer base who might prefer to feel like their backside has been magnetised to the road.

Those thrill-seekers won’t find much to take issue with in the car’s steering, however; it’s direct and deliciously weighty at road speeds. It’s endowed with just enough contact patch feedback to feel tactile and lively, but not so much as to suffer with stability-bothering bump steer. It loads up with weight as cornering forces rise, to the point where the E10 becomes quite a physical car to drive fast. But the car’s body control and balance of grip are both excellent, even at high effort levels on a circuit – and the speed it can carry, from entry to exit and beyond, is considerable.

Living with the Zenos on track

The E10’s Avon ZZR tyres work very well on a dry track, but getting them warm isn’t the work of a couple of corners. After a handful of laps, then, you’ll find that the car’s front end has become notably stickier, its steering response even crisper and that its brake pedal feel has markedly improved. On cold front tyres and with no ABS, it’s quite easy to lock the E10’s brakessomething Zenos mitigates with a heavy brake pedal. But once the rubber is warm, the car’s stopping power is beyond reproach.

The car corners flat and with characteristic mid-engined poise, marking the edge of adhesion by bleeding benignly into trailing-throttle oversteer rather than power-on understeer. Heavy steering can make that oversteer a bit tricky to tidy up neatly, but they’re effort levels you can get used to and work with.

Wet grip isn’t great — the Avons struggle with standing water — and the heavy brake pedal makes it hard to assess grip. The E10 is pleasingly stable and communicative even here, though.


Zenos E10 S

The experience that Zenos’s proprietors have brought to the business has made the E10 an outstanding ownership proposition. The car’s £24,995 entry-level price is certainly eye-catching, but it’s really just the tip of an iceberg that will make this car appeal to buyers with their heads screwed on.

Having said that our advice would be to stick with the turbocharged engine, unless you are a real purist, and match that with the six-speed gearbox (£1595), uprated brakes (£1195) and suspension (£795), alongside a windscreen (£1695), heated driver’s seat (£195) and a tonneau cover (£155)

The headlights are not exactly powerful, but it's unlikely E10 owners will be doing much driving after dark

By keeping the number of distributors small and offering a solid trade-in price to every returning owner, Zenos is planning to keep the residual values of its cars high – much as Caterham once did. And in that respect – and also by only fitting proven long-lifecycle parts and making the cars cheap to repair – Zenos will keep ownership costs low. It’s also offering a factory warranty extension to cover track use, which is something very rare indeed, mitigating the need to take out additional track day insurance.

Zenos has even teamed up with peer-to-peer financier RateSetter to offer a factory finance package on the E10, making it even more accessible. An entry-level E10 with ‘on the road’ package can be bought with a £5000 deposit and £399 per month over a 60-month repayment period, leaving you plenty of residual value after the end of the term, we’d imagine, to move into a more rarified-spec car for the same monthly outlay. It’s sports car ownership made simple – and singularly attractive.


4.5 star Zenos E10 S

The E10 may look like another of the UK’s cottage-industry kit cars, but under the David Lynch sci-fi glassfibre panels there’s a car of singular focus and execution. A work in progress, sure, and there’s a little way to go before Zenos can match the material quality and motive charm of the best of its rivals. But on real-world pace and dynamic maturity, its work is already done.

An unrelenting focus on value for money has delivered something at once fast, exciting, modern, sophisticated and usable, and all for not far north of that £25,000 target price.

Not as characterful as some, but fast, fine handling, great value and a welcome addition

The tractability of the turbocharged engine and the balanced civility of the suspension also make the E10 S easy to drive fast on the road. Whether it makes it as rewarding as a car with perfect throttle response and a mechanical, heavy-set gearchange can be debated. But debate it all you like. While you’re busy arguing, plenty of petrolheads will find their ideal match here, in a car that offers real pace, track smarts and affordable fun to burn.

Even so the Zenos still finds itself lagging behind the less powerful, but more expensive Ariel Atom and Caterham 360R, which the E10 S has taken on below, both of which offer the driver much more character than the Zenos currently offers.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Zenos E10 First drives