25th January 2009 The Sunday Times
It's small, it's orange - but it's quicker than a Ferrari F430, is British and costs just 40 grand.
The Zolfe Orange might sound like a car made in Germany or Switzerland, but it's actually an all-British project built in the West Midlands. And before pessimists dismiss it as a non-starter in the present climate, consider this: it accelerates faster than a Ferrari F430, costs less than a Porsche Boxster and has been developed by the man responsible for the Caterham 7 - the most fun four-wheeled machine in the world. Suddenly, the compact little Zolfe looks like being an affordable sports car at just the right time.
Because it's so light, the £31,625 base model gets to 60mph in just 5.3sec, while the higher-performance £40,250 version makes it in 3.8sec. City traders faced with the novel concept of a budget should take note: that's well within supercar territory.
The key to its performance is size: the Zolfe is small, but it's perfectly formed. Everything you need to have fun behind the wheel is there, anything you don't has been thrown out. Slightly smaller than a Mazda MX-5 and a little narrower than a Lotus Elise, the Zolfe has a nicely planted, low-to-the-ground stance.
The styling is pleasingly retro without being an embarrassing pastiche of past glories. Indeed, the attention to detail lavished on the Zolfe is impressive. Who, for example, would take a perfectly acceptable set of wheels - an off-the-shelf item - and machine them down to save weight? Zolfe would, as they're designed for a much heavier vehicle than this flyweight 698kg two-seater. The fully independent suspension was developed with the help of John Miles, a former grand prix racing driver and engineering expert, who worked on Lotus road cars.
The result of all this is a car with simply tremendous potential. Better still, anyone can drive it. Where most sports cars are designed around racehorse jockeys, the Zolfe is capable of accommodating a 6ft 4in driver wearing a crash helmet. The chassis is slightly stiffer than a Lotus Elise's, which is very good indeed, and the weight distribution is a near-perfect 52% rear, 48% front (with a driver on board).
AP Racing supplies the 288mm disc brakes, which are generous considering the titchy weight of the Zolfe. That's comforting, as the 285bhp 2.3-litre engined Zolfe won't stop accelerating until it reaches the heights of 161mph.
The Zolfe uses Mazda gearboxes, offering a choice of a five or six-speed manual. Because the company will sell cars in America, an automatic gearbox was deemed a necessary option. And the base model will be, well . . . very basic, but air-conditioning and electric windows will be available as options. There are also plans for a roadster.
The Zolfe, which will be known as the GTC4 in America, is an ambitious project, but unlike so many dreamily conceived sports cars, this one has the right people behind it, as well as up-and-running development prototypes. The car started out a few years back as an idea cooked up by Nic Strong and his colleagues. Strong runs Spatz Arlon, a Worcestershire-based plastic components company, but his real love is cars.
His inspiration for the Zolfe was the classic Lotus Elan, a car that combined a small, lightweight body with a rigid chassis to deliver decent performance and brilliant handling. Strong recruited Jez Coates, the former technical director at Caterham Cars, where he developed some of the best-handling cars ever. Coates set about re-engineering Strong's original design to accept conventional four-cylinder engines, in this case, Ford's 2 and 2.3-litre Duratec units.
I ask what other engines might fit under the Zolfe's bonnet, and Coates hints that they are looking at a General Motors LS7. That's a 7-litre 505bhp V8. In a 698kg body. Which is silly, but at the same time really quite marvellous.
So the Zolfe is an all-British project that helps keep alive many of our precious engineering skills. It deserves to succeed - even if only for that.
Hot Wheels specs
ENGINE 2261cc, four cylinders
POWER 285bhp @ 7500rpm
TORQUE 210 lb ft @ 6000rpm
TRANSMISSION Six-speed manual
FUEL/CO2 Not available
ACCELERATION 0-60mph: 3.8sec
TOP SPEED 161mph
TAX BAND Not available
VERDICT Shaping up to be a brilliant driver's car
RELEASE DATE Orders taken from spring 2009