Driven: Zolfe GTC4

"When the VCs turned up, everything changed and became a bit weird," explains former Caterham man Jez Coates, a wistful smile radiating across his face. He's talking freely about what happened to the company for which he worked for such a long time, and why he decided it was time to move on.

What does a Caterham man do next? This!
What does a Caterham man do next? This!
By VCs he means the venture capitalists, under whom he says Caterham has changed significantly with a new - unnecessary according to Coates - production line and a cost-cutting agenda. "It wasn't a process I thought was appropriate, or wise, so that's when I decided to move on. And this..." he says, gesturing towards the small, very obviously orange but undeniably pretty car standing beside us in his driveway " where I am now."

At first glance there's a distinct whiff of Chevron to the intriguingly named Zolfe GTC4. The big rear wheel arches, for instance, look decidedly like those of a B6. Indeed the whole car has a distinct 1960s racer look to it and, when I voice this opinion to Coates, he explains this was the precise intention behind the car's styling.

Retro roots
"We wanted to come up with a shape that's reminiscent of another era, something that was not so much a copy but a homage to yesteryear - even though the car is reasonably cutting edge beneath the skin," says Coates.

Similar ethos to a Ginetta G40 but quicker
Similar ethos to a Ginetta G40 but quicker
And it's true, the more you spend gawping at the Zolfe, the more apparent - and appealing - its retro outlook on life becomes. And it looks great, damn it, in a way that no other all-new car I can think of right now does.

The idea behind its dynamic personality isn't exactly lacking in seduction either, because there are no frills whatsoever in this car. Anti-lock brakes, power steering and traction control have each been eschewed in the name of purity. The fun factor is what counts, just as it was when Coates was in charge at Caterham. It's the sort of car that's designed to make you burst out laughing when behind the wheel, in much the same way as Ginetta's new G40R is.

Duratec-based engine in 2.0 or 2.3-litre options
Duratec-based engine in 2.0 or 2.3-litre options
Duratec to the core
The engine is a straightforward 2.0-litre, four-cylinder unit, supplied by either Mazda or Ford depending on how much poke you want. As much as possible is the correct answer, our test car boasting a 2.3-litre Ford motor with 280hp, both engine options developed with respected Duratec specialists Raceline. A bespoke induction system and sump means Zolfe can maintain the nine-degree slant to the installation as per the MX-5 from which the gearbox and other running gear are sourced, improving the packaging and easing the fitment. Suspension is by double unequal length wishbones all round running Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs while the brakes are huge ventilated discs grabbed by AP calipers.

The killer stat, however, is the Zolfe's kerbweight. Anyone who knows Coates from his days at Caterham will be aware of his obsession with kilograms, and in this case the number is a deeply impressive 698kg. And that's not a cheat figure minus paint or fluids - that's a genuine all-up number that, if you do the maths, equates to a whopping 401hp per tonne on this car. And that's not bad for a starting price of £32,000, swelled to nearer £38K with the naughty engine installed, it's fair to point out.

AP, Bilstein and Eibach complete package
AP, Bilstein and Eibach complete package
More power, less weight
There are two more key aspects of the car about which Mr Coates is particularly chuffed. One, the chassis is over four times stiffer than that of a Caterham Seven. Two, despite its diminutive proportions, this car can accommodate a 95th percentile male who's wearing a crash helmet and all the trimmings. So it's nowhere near as impractical as it may seem, to the extent there's even a decent size boot behind the seats which, on production versions, will be accessed via a folding rear hatchback a la TVR Sagaris.

The whole idea behind the Zolfe is to offer a car that's practical enough to be used on the road, but which will blow the socks off most other stuff at track days. It's very much in the mould of the G40R in that sense, not just in its size and price but in its intended audience too. Except for one key difference: with a 280hp engine powering the rear wheels and a kerbweight the right side of 700kg, the Zolfe is a whole lot meaner than the G40R, similar target audience or no.

Sutcliffe is a fan it would seem!
Sutcliffe is a fan it would seem!
What's it like to drive? Bloody marvellous, if I'm being honest, although much more refined than you might expect. There's a level of sophistication to the ride and damping, for instance, that you categorically don't expect from a machine as small and mental looking as this. Similarly, the steering is alert and alive in the way you'd expect it to be, but also refined in a way you would not.

Laugh a minute
But what's more impressive still is the agility of the Zolfe on the road, and the lack of space it needs in which to operate. And what happens when you nail the throttle and hold it there for a while. The gearing is quite long, so even at the top of first there's a decent amount of traction. On a dry road. On a wet one you'll crab sideways in most of the first three gears if you give it some, so much grunt is there on tap.

Zolfe is just as good on the road as the track
Zolfe is just as good on the road as the track
Even so, it's not a snappy car to throw around in the wet. Quite the opposite in fact. Despite the (optional) limited-slip diff and short wheelbase, the Zolfe glides gently when it starts to slide. There are no sharp edges to its handling response with which to ruin your day. It's thoroughly hilarious, truth be told, but also very, very quick.

And because the ride isn't crazy-stiff and the suspension has been set up to be usable on the road, you can cover ground at a fairly astonishing rate - while at the same time having a ball behind the wheel. Too often it's a case of one or t'other with cars like this, but the Zolfe gets that balance between pure speed and basic driver involvement just right.

It's a lively thing but lively in a very good way
It's a lively thing but lively in a very good way
So much so, in fact, that it's the sort of car in which you can lose yourself and get completely carried away if you're not careful. I found myself driving at one point it in a manner that I haven't done for a very long time on the public road, and I guess that's what tends to happen when you have this much power and performance available in such a well sorted package. And nothing in the way of electronic intervention to dilute the experience.

If you've had a few Seven-style cars in the past and the novelty of getting wet or losing fingernails trying to put the hood up in a hurry has worn off the Zolfe is very much worthy of serious consideration. And for anyone wanting to learn what car control is all about it's absolutely the real deal and a very impressive debut.

2,300cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 200@6,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.5sec (approx)
Top speed: 140mph
Weight: 698kg
MPG: 26mpg (test)
CO2: n/a
Price: £32,000-£38,000

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (124) Join the discussion on the forum

  • MCBrowncoat 23 Mar 2012

    Sounds like a winner, good luck to the man.

    I'm not sold on the styling though; why design a new car then stick wide arches on it? Why not just have them flared in the first place?

  • GroundEffect 23 Mar 2012

    He needs to work on the styling.

    Otherwise, solid effort.

  • soad 23 Mar 2012

    GroundEffect said:
    He needs to work on the styling.

    Otherwise, solid effort.

  • LotusOmega375D 23 Mar 2012

    Looks like a poor modern re-hash of the 1970s TVR M series.

  • ImDesigner 23 Mar 2012

    Performance and dynamics aside, this looks like a poor effort to my eyes. Build quality looks iffy at best and who else noticed the cracking in the wheel close-up image? I'd take a Seven if I had the cash.

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