Cars are inanimate. They do not have personalities. That’s why suggestions in magazine stories that you’re about to read a grudge match between sparring protagonists is, on the whole, utter drivel. The cars don’t care, because they’re unable to. They’re just cars.
The people who make cars, though? Now that’s a different matter, and there’s form here. The sleeker of the two cars you see here is a Zenos E10 S. It’s new from the ground up, as is the company, but in co-founders Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards, there is a back story.
They were, respectively, CEO and COO of Caterham Cars, which makes the fact that a Caterham Seven 360R sits alongside the E10 a particularly interesting proposition. There are closer mechanical matches to the E10: a Lotus Elise has a more similar layout, but Lotus couldn’t arrange us a car and, besides, we’re happier for this story to have a little edge.
Edwards and Ali were executives at Lotus, too, and the Zenos is built in Norfolk. So perhaps it’s no surprise that there are similarities in layout between the Zenos and Lotus. The E10, like an Elise, has its engine in the middle and is a two-seat roadster with double wishbones all around and unassisted steering.
There’s aluminium in both, too, but less in the Zenos. Instead of an extruded and bonded aluminium monocoque, the E10 has an aluminium central spine – not unlike the early Lotus Elan. But to add stiffness, Zenos has specified a carbonfibre-reinforced plastic composite for the passenger tub. Sounds expensive.
But here’s the thing: it’s made from recycled carbonfibre – offcuts from virgin carbonfibre production, in effect. They lose the large-sheet stiffness but retain 70% of pure carbonfibre’s strength, at only 10% of the cost.
And cost is at the core of everything Zenos does. There are plenty of would-be manufacturers who have made a pure and brilliant sports car. But the maker is the only one who ever wants to own one and the price is off the scale. The Zenos isn’t like that at all. It’s built to its price, and Ali and Edwards are unashamed about it.
In its middle, then, is a 2.0-litre Ford Ecoboost engine, turned around from its Ford application to drive the rear wheels. The six-speed gearbox is the same; the driveshafts, too. It even has Ford wheel carriers.
At the front, things are simple. The suspension is mounted directly to the central spine, so there’s no front subframe assembly to add cost. That makes the wishbones long, so there are pushrods and inboard dampers, reducing unsprung mass a bit and protecting the dampers from damage.
There isn’t a great deal inside: two seats, a conventional handbrake and a neat twin-screen set-up. The one in front of the driver does the essentials: road speed, revs and a warning light. In the centre of the dashboard is the rest – stuff that’s important but which you don’t need to see all the time.
The driving position is good. It’s low and straight, although you’re sited quite low relative to the gearlever. Truth be told, that’s fine. If it were a sequential ’box in a race car, that’s where they’d put it. It’s just unusual to find an H-pattern ’box there.
Meanwhile, fit and finish are okay but no more. Zenos has built this car to a price where it thinks there’s a market, remember. The base price is £24,995, for a 200bhp version. The E10 S tested here brings with it, among other things, an additional 50bhp, for £5000, and other options, and on-the-road costs take the total of this car to £36,135.
More, but not disastrously so. Caterham is no stranger to an options list, either. The Caterham 360R is the mid-point of Caterham’s recently revised line-up. It has a 2.0-litre engine, again from Ford, but a Duratec naturally aspirated unit making 180bhp.
Caterham’s opening gambit suggests that it’s an appealing £23,995, but if you want the factory to build the car for you, it’ll cost another £3000. The R pack adds £3995 and includes wide-track sports suspension, a limited-slip differential and a lightened flywheel.
Another £200 gets you smaller but more desirable 13in wheels and, all in – including paint, a heater, shift lights and so on – you’re looking at a £36,335 Caterham. For my money, though, this is just about the perfect Caterham specification. And, as with an Ariel Atom and a few other specialist cars, depreciation on a Seven – and probably the Zenos – makes ownership more affordable than you might think.
We’re at Bruntingthorpe, in Leicestershire, which is an old airbase turned automotive proving ground and aircraft graveyard. We won’t be needing the whole runway, because that’s good for 220mph in a Bugatti Veyron, but later we’ll use a short circuit that cuts through halfway along the big straight. It has a decent mix of corners and a pretty poor surface that, like the surrounding roads, is particularly good value for assessing the chassis of cars like these.
The Zenos first, then, and even as you nose out of Bruntingthorpe’s main gates and onto the nearest B-road, the mechanical layout of this car is quite clear. The front end is relatively lightly loaded and the steering, at a touch over two turns lock to lock, has a precise, positive response. It’s not as free from kickback or as pure in its messages as an Elise’s rim, but it’s good.
The ride is firm, well controlled and just about supple enough to avoid being crashy, and the E10 S’s general demeanour isn’t unlike – and I mean this as a compliment – that other mid-engined car from Norfolk.
There are obvious differences. The E10 feels more open, and although throttle response is good for a turbo unit, meaning that it doesn’t feel overtly blown, the noise is all whizzes and fizzes. If you’re not wearing a helmet, wear earplugs.
Niggles? There are a few. The brakes require absurd efforts to get the Zenos slowed, although that’s not such a bad thing on a circuit. The gearshift is no better than when it left a Ford Focus, and the E10 is wide in this company, at 1870mm, because it can’t be packaged any smaller.
What that does mean, however, is that it’s rather roomier than the Seven. Those who are tall and wide will be able to get comfortable, even alongside somebody else tall and wide. All in, the Zenos is enjoyable at any speed – essential in a road car.
But so is a Seven, for all the usual reasons. It’s so light and compact and keen that you simply know not to expect a supple, mature ride on the road. The steering is sharper than the E10’s and the whole car is more alive and alert.
That isn’t surprising. Caterham quotes a dry weight of 560kg for the 360R and Zenos 700kg for the E10 S, so the Seven is a daintier thread down back roads. Its throttle response and noise are out of the old school of British sports cars, too, while its five-speed Mazda MX-5 gearbox’s shift is out of the Japanese school of sports cars, and all the better for that. According to the bald figures, the Zenos is faster – at 4.0sec to 60mph versus 4.8sec. But keep the Seven wound nearer the redline and there’s nothing in it.
A Caterham isn’t without its niggles, though. Finding room in the footwell is a drag, and space in the rest of the cabin is at an equal premium. If you want to feel open – and move your right arm around a bit – you’ll want the doors off, but then you’ll be battered mercilessly by the breeze. You can have full weather gear, though. You’ll still get the odd drip inside in a downpour, but you’ll stay a darned sight drier than in the roofless Zenos. And sit in a more pleasingly finished interior.
Contemporary hardware has dictated these cars’ respective mechanical layouts and sizes. But because Lotus founder Colin Chapman created the Seven to win in motorsport and Zenos has no motorsport ambitions, the E10 has been allowed greater habitability than a Seven can ever have.
That doesn’t mean the Zenos is a stranger to a circuit. This E10 S has an open rear differential, but a limited-slip differential is an option, as are track springs and dampers. I tried the E10 on the circuit with both the road-tuned suspension and, more extensively, the track set-up. The uprated springs and dampers add another £795 but can be swapped for the road ones in under half an hour.
On either, it’s good. The track set-up gives, as you’d expect, less movement and tighter body control. You’d want it if you were on circuits a lot, but in either form the handling balance is sweet. There’s some initial understeer, which is as it should be, and from then you’ve a few options.
Lift and wait, or trail the brakes into the turn, and the E10’s rear will break away to help the cornering line, too. Get back on the gas there and the E10 will slide a little but, eventually, you’ll smell rubber from the rear inside tyre – especially with road dampers – telling you that it’s spinning up a touch, and then it’ll go neutral.
The good thing, though, is that there are no nasty surprises. This is a short, wide car with an engine mounted in the middle and relatively high. It could have been snappy and nervous but isn’t. In fact, it’s supremely well sorted.
Your corner exit, though, is to an extent dictated by the decisions you made on the way in. The Seven isn’t limited like that. Instead, it behaves more like a conventional track and race car. There’s less noticeable roll, more immediacy and delicacy, and it gives more options from the mid-corner onwards. It grips until you decide, with the throttle, what you want to do next. Is that more fun? Sometimes. Does that make it the winner? Not necessarily.
There are those for whom nothing but a Caterham will do, and in a direct choice between these two, I’d be one of them. But the Zenos is intriguing, interesting and good fun and feels of its age. The Seven is 58 and is every bit as honed as it should be by now.
The Zenos was still an idea only two years ago, yet it already exudes capability and glows with even more potential. So I have no qualms in calling it an honourable draw. And if neither deals the knockout punch that overblown rhetoric suggests they should, just remember: they’re only cars.
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1999cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 250bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerb weight 700kg (dry); Top speed 145mph; 0-60mph 4.0 seconds; Economy na; CO2 / tax band na
Caterham Seven 360R
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1999cc, petrol; Power 180bhp at 7300rpm; Torque 143lb ft at 6100rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual; Kerb weight 560kg (dry); Top speed 130mph; 0-60mph 4.8 seconds; Economy na; CO2 / tax band na