What is it?
No other country on earth props up a national car-building cottage industry with the enthusiasm of England. Beneath the larger firms you’ve definitely heard of - Caterham, Ariel, Lotus - there are dozens more tinkering and imagining and kit-creating in an oil-stained niche of splendidness. Few, though, threaten to break the big time.
Zenos is different. Its story we’ve told elsewhere, but the bare bones are that it was started by old hands and known faces, both well weathered from years of toil in Surrey and Norfolk. Crucially, they began with a clear vision and concrete bottom line. The E10, in its more powerful S guise here, is what has popped out 24 months down the line.
Built around an innovative ‘backbone’ of aluminum - with a carbon-composite tub and an extruded rear subframe to house the engine - the car is a mid-engined, rear-driven and track-enabled but also road-focused two-seater. There are no doors and there is no roof. So we’re talking strictly second car, summer fun adventure here. But we’re talking a lot of it, with power coming from Ford’s 250bhp 2.0-litre Ecoboost unit.
We’ve already had an introduction to the E10 on circuit, in prototype format. Now, with the model moving into the manufacturing stage, we get a chance to try it out on the road for the first time - which is where Zenos expects the majority of its customers to spend most of their time. Served up without race dampers but with the optional six-speed manual gearbox (over the standard five-speed), uprated brakes and heated windscreen, the car is very much as the initial 100 or so buyers have reportedly chosen to spec it, too.
What's it like?
Important to characterise the car’s innards first, because - rather pointedly - they’re quite unlike anything else currently on offer at this price bracket. Where the Elise is all extruded aluminum and sharp edges, an Atom scaffolding and a Caterham the 1950s, Zenos has moulded a thermoplastic tub of clever angles and miniature TV screens. Not only does it feel like something born in this decade but it also fits together with the kind of harmony that suggests it was considered integral to the car’s appeal from the outset rather than merely somewhere to sit and steer.
No, it’s not put together with a McLaren’s tolerances, and there’s a bathtub flex to some of the panels, but that’s to be expected. Likewise the parts-bin gear lever and indicator stalks. But the driving position is near perfect. The readout in front shows revs, speed and gear - so all you’ll ever need, then. Crucially, the right arm - cramped in an Elise; virtually the crumple zone in a Seven - slots onto the windowless sill with an at-homeness normally the preserve of a Range Rover.
The ergonomic finesse is no coincidence. Despite an obvious lack of shelter overhead, Zenos has sought a tremendous degree of usability from the E10. As standard, the car comes with an aeroscreen, but the full windscreen seen here was conceived very early in the design stage and therefore tallies perfectly with the styling. It also affords a decent amount of protection: there is wind in your hair, but not of the teeth-shattering potential you’d equate with a doorless Caterham.
There is noise, however. A huge amount of it. While Zenos may have (sensibly) left the engine tune alone, the Ecoboost’s turbocharger has been rendered a gulping, hissing, Group B-emulating monster. And because Ford has it come online so early, even gentle throttle inputs will have it sucking the oxygen from beneath your eardrums. In a helmet, it’s a phenomenal soundtrack. Without a buffer, it’s just phenomenal - although your drowned-out significant other may conjure up a different adjective.
The noise, of course, signals the E10's defining party trick: an almost lag-free industrial bungee rope of torque. The S has a torque-to-weight ratio well in excess of that of a Porsche 911 Turbo. However, the thing to get all incredulous and giddy about is the way that this manifests at the back axle. The mechanical grip and traction levels summoned up by the chassis (and some sticky Avons) is startling. In the good weather we were afforded, on the public road, the quality of adhesion makes full throttle exploits endlessly manageable.
That confidence is crucial because, with speed limits restricting the amount of pace you can legitimately carry, fierce acceleration is second only to handling on a featherweight wish list. Happily, the E10 has the latter covered, too. The steering, a massive wrist-straining effort at low speeds, is more Caterham than Lotus - and although not quite as quick as the former, I’d take the Zenos's communicative and very direct brand of heft over the latter.
Conceivably, the unassisted connection to such a surfeit of grip may have rendered the car a little too benign on the road, but the sense of supreme balance - the mass at the midriff, you rotating around it - is unmistakable in something 150kg lighter than an Elise. It’s a more elemental experience, too, that early whiff of understeer and subsequent straightener tweak of oversteer being more pronounced - if short of the kind of kart-like adjustability you get from an Atom.
Comfort-wise, it doesn’t quite manage the counter-intuitive, magic carpet ride you’d get from the Lotus. But on its more congenial street dampers, the E10 S manages to be something engagingly in between its mid-engined rivals. And you rather feel that’s the point. Attached to the supreme tractability of the engine, and the mass-produced simplicity of its six-speed gearbox, the car’s resistance to intrusive bumps and wayward tracking makes it equally capable of something approaching mellow. With ear plugs, that is.
Should I buy one?
Zenos, in just two years of fettling from clean piece of paper to production model, has landed its first go with laser-guided accuracy. At the one end this is the Lotus rival we imagined; born of Norfolk, by people imbibed in the same culture, meaning it rides well enough for its owner to consume mile after mile, and steers well enough to remain totally engaging while doing so.
But, equally, it feels as though those same people have been free to express themselves in the wider experience. Ideas that have clearly been percolating for years have been brought to bear. It therefore aims slightly away from the Elise, at a patch of open market space begging to be filled with something supremely fast, usable, exploitable and, crucially, affordable. It may very well be the English sports car hundreds of us have been waiting for.
Zenos E10 S
Location Bedford; On sale Now; Price £29,995; Engine 4 cyls, 1999cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 250bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 725kg; Top speed 145mph; 0 60mph 4.0sec; Economy na; CO2 and tax band rating na