- First Drive
- Nov 29, 2011
Zenvo ST-1 [w/video]
The soundtrack of existence is mostly thrum and clatter, the day's small deeds and smaller conversations usually having no more affect on you than the burbling of a refrigerator. And then there's a noise that makes an impact and catches your attention. For us it was: "The Zenvo ST1 will be in town, want to drive it?"
It was three years ago that we first wrote about the outlandish coupe, with specs like a 7.0-liter, twin-charged (that means it's supercharged and turbocharged) V8 hammering out 1,104 horsepower forcing the admission, "Attention officially granted." Then there was that body, penned by a cabal of intergalactic villains, Predator and Klingons handling the ridges up front that fade into Robotech and Romulan sleek out back.
What's more, there's the fact that it's from Denmark, a land continually offering up enduring icons of understatement: the Egg Chair, the Sydney Opera House, The Little Mermaid and Helena Christensen, among others. That means, even with 1,104 horsepower, the Zenvo ST1 cannot escape the pull of its own heritage. Obviously, then, it is the wildest looking, most wildly understated supercar ever. Or, as another scribe concisely put it, "One helluva good time."
There are easily apparent angles from which to consider the Zenvo ST1: its cost, its looks, its specs, its ride. The most superficial is its price, around $1,225,000. That's 15 Porsche 911s or three Lamborghini Aventadors and change or one slightly used Pagani Huayra or one less-slightly-used Bugatti Veyron. Three of those cars, the Porsche, Lamborghini and Bugatti, have the benefit of outstanding heritage, decades of OEM engineering and hundreds of millions of dollars applied to their development. The other one, Pagani, along with Koenigsegg, comprise the small club that Zenvo plans to join: small supercar companies taken seriously.
The ST1 is a proverbial back-of-the-napkin car. Dane Troels Vollertsen, Zenvo Automotive's Chief Technical Officer and the man who oversaw the creation of the ST1, engineered components for DTM and rallycross racers and owned a business designing performance upgrades for Mercedes-Benz vehicles, such as superchargers for the SLS AMG. Fellow Dane Jesper Jensen, now Zenvo's CEO, owned an IT firm and had taken his Mercedes CLS to Vollertsen for tuning. Vollertsen happened to mention an idea for building a car, Jensen had recently sold his IT firm, and the discussions began. Jensen said it took about six months for the two men to put all the pieces together and decide "Ja," and ever since then, unsurprisingly, "It's been more than a full-time job."
Six years have gone into the development of the ST1, and the two men were so determined to get it comprehensively right that they kind of built it backwards. Instead of penning a drop-dead design and then making it go stupefyingly fast, the body wasn't designed until six months after the internals had been set in place. One of the biggest benefits of the reversal is said to be the lack of cooling issues – remember that sky-high running temperatures meant the Veyron's original front end had to be reconfigured to make room for larger radiators, and the rear of the Audi R8 V10 had to be reworked due to occasional fireballs. With the ST1's running gear tested and approved, Zenvo brought in designer Christian Brandt to body it and told him, "That's what you have to work with."
Six years have gone into the development of the ST1, and the two men were so determined to get it comprehensively right that they kind of built it backwards.
"That" is a steel monocoque with steel-tube subframes attached front and rear, surrounded by carbon fiber body panels. Underneath is a flat floor made with aluminum honeycomb panels provided by the aerospace industry – Vollertsen said he tried using carbon panels but they rattled at extreme speeds.
Raising the front cover reveals a triangular "trunk" that can fit a two-piece set of Zenvo luggage (luggage is extra – it does not come with the car), or, as a European journalist discovered, 36 bottles of champagne. In front of the hold are two fans that suck air up and over the car, which Vollertsen says provides more downforce than is necessary, and they're aided by a rear diffuser that begins just aft of the doors. The ST1 is speed-limited to 233 miles per hour, still plenty fast enough for one to be wary of stray breezes getting into spaces they shouldn't, even though the ST1 sits just 4.3 inches off the ground.
Terminal velocity is dictated by the tires, which are the same off-the-shelf Michelin Pilot Sport 2s that supported the Porsche Carrera GT – the rears are even the same size as the Carrera GT's rubber, 335/30 20-inchers, but the ST1 uses a 255/35 19-inchers up front instead of the Porsche's 265/35. Emphasizing the "everyday" part of everyday supercar, Zenvo didn't want buyers to have to order special rubber to keep their treasure on the road. If owners can find a tire shop, they can probably find a tire. A final tie-in with the Carrera GT is that the ST1 shares its wheelbase. When it comes to width, the Zenvo exceeds the Carrera GT by about two inches.
Raising the rear cover reveals glory, glory hallelujah. This is not a bought or borrowed engine, but an in-house lump. The block, heads, intake and exhaust manifolds, and dry sump of the 7.0-liter V8 are all Vollertsen's design, as is, of course, the monumental plumbing linking the turbocharger and supercharger to the engine. Air enters the intakes and goes to an air filter, then to the turbo, then to an air-to-air intercooler on the driver's side, then to the Magnuson supercharger, then to another internal intercooler, this time water-to-air, then to the eight-cylinder belly of the beast.
The ST1 is trumpeted for its 1,104-hp rating, but that is actually just one of three power settings – Wet, Race and Sport – adjusted with a knob in the cabin. The 7.0-liter will put out "only" 650 hp in Wet mode. Crank that to Sport and get about 850 hp. One more click to Race spools the turbo to 1.2 bar and gives the captain all she's got.
Only with all 1,104 hp on call can you gain unfettered access to the ST1.
Another aspect of the Zenvo some might consider backward is that there is no ESP but there is traction control, yet it only works in the lower-powered settings, not in Race. It makes sense to have a driver aid active when dialed into Wet, but you can't get out of it when piloting the Sport's 850 hp. Only with all 1,104 hp on call can you gain unfettered access to the ST1. Said Vollertsen, "If you want all the power, then you probably want to be totally in charge," adding, in a nod to supercar-dom of yore, "You should know how to control it."
Massive power need not mean massive thirst, though. Be kind to the accelerator and Vollertsen says that average fuel economy will be around 16 miles per gallon. At a steady cruising speed of about 86 mph, that goes up to 21 mpg.
If any of you have been keeping close track of the car, you'll see that the engine bay has been redesigned. That isn't because of any intractable engineering issue, but rather customer request. As late as January of this year, the ST1's engine bay was free of external bracing. That was because the original design only offered a six-speed manual transmission, but when Jensen and Vollertsen began taking potential customers for rides they discovered a fair few of the monied-up either couldn't, or didn't want to, shift their own gears. That required sourcing a paddle-shift transmission, in this case a seven-speed Xtrac unit like the one in the Pagani Huayra. The new transmission's placement required some hokey-pokey in the engine bay, as well as aluminum reinforcement along the buttresses and external struts crisscrossing the tube frame above the powerplant.
At a steady cruising speed of about 86 mph, fuel economy goes up to 21 mpg.
The interior on this prototype is borrowed in more substantial ways from Porsche, but it's a stopgap cabin. The new one, designed in-house, is being finished. It will retain the steering wheel, seats and center tunnel layout and two airbags, but the dash cluster and instrument panel details will be all new, and there will be a panic handle for the passenger whether or not the car is equipped with a manual. Points for holistic design go to the leather stitching that mimics the hexagonal pattern at the front of the car and the aluminum knobs on the center tunnel that evoke the center locking wheel nuts.
A walk around the rest of the car showcases things new and things borrowed, and Vollertsen – as one would expect of a Dane – makes no bones about using proven parts for non-essentials. "We've stolen a lot of things," he said, indicating items like the Volkswagen CC mirrors, the VW Golf power-steering pump and Hella lights outside, the Corvette steering column and rack – and heads-up display – inside. "But we've been focused on developing what we think we can do better," like, oh, that engine and the chassis that supports it, and the Zenvo-designed magnesium wheels that hide six-piston Brembos hovering over 388mm carbon discs all around. Another Zenvo-designed wheel with a carbon rim and magnesium spokes will come soon.
More importantly, a walk around the car showcases the fact that it looks like nothing else on the planet. The Zenvo gents did not want their car to be about top speed, or even numbers at all. That was not only because of the obscene amounts they would have been obligated to spend, but primarily because, as Jespersen said, the car "should look like nothing else" because "you can beat a number but not design."
The car "should look like nothing else" because "you can beat a number but not design."
When they commissioned Brandt to design the car, they told him the kinds of lines they wanted it to have, and we give him credit, because he laid out a singular object that to our eyes works completely. It isn't exactly beautiful, but it is definitely stunning – that word having the necessary range to describe the ST1's various effects on viewers. And let's be honest, the Veyron is absolutely amazing, but it isn't beautiful. We like the Zenvo. Some don't. And some are afraid of it. Every response makes sense.
And even though it doesn't look like a jelly bean, with far more crunch than curve, it gets to within 21 mph of the Veyron's top speed.
How it gets to that top speed is the grandest anticlimax we've had in a while. We've spoken of common ground that the ST1 shares with the Carrera GT, and here's what it shares with the Veyron: no hysterics until you seek them. A Veyron that isn't being caned is essentially a wide, wide Golf – at least, that's how you drive it.
The ST1 treated kindly is much the same. Place the chunky aluminum key in your pocket and get in by pressing a button hidden by a flange on the door. Turn the ignition knob on the center console and everything illuminates in a liquid blue, then press the Start button and call the thing to life.
Public roads are the best place to test Vollertsen's assertion that "We didn't want to make it like a race car, but a supercar you could drive."
We couldn't go nuclear during our time behind the wheel for various reasons, even beyond this being a $1.225-million one-of-one prototype. A track-day kerbing incident has slightly damaged one of the A-arms, and Vollertsen was still writing the programming for the F1 transmission, so thrashings had to be on the docile side below third gear.
However, we were able to drive the Zenvo on the streets, which meant more to us than piloting it at a track, as public roads are the best place to test Vollertsen's assertion that "We didn't want to make it like a race car, but a supercar you could drive."
Boy did they ever. Running the Zenvo is a zero-drama affair. Zero. The ST1 is as laid back as the company founders, and if you know any Danes, you know just how relaxed that is. You can't really appreciate how low the Zenvo is until you see it in your rear-view mirror, at which time you'll wonder how anything so close to the ground can be traveling on 19-inch wheels. On the other hand, it's three inches taller than the Pagani Zonda, and it's as if Zenvo used all of that the extra room to get your seating position up off the ground. When sitting in the cabin, we never felt as low down as we knew we actually were.
Road noise was tame, as were road manners, this hugely powerful, tube-framed 3,027-pound ground-hugger maintaining its composure with Öhlins shocks tuned to Zenvo's specs. Vollersten said that the shocks have 22 settings each for compression and rebound, but when final customer cars are made he will have decided on three settings to keep things simple.
Running the Zenvo is a zero-drama affair. Zero.
Admittedly, there's a healthy bit of sound and fury coming from the engine just behind you, but it isn't distracting. Talking in the ST1 at speed was never a problem, something we couldn't say about the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster that turned us into monks at highway velocities even with the top up.
Getting from 0 to 60 in just under three seconds – it's probably closer to four seconds in 650-hp Wet mode where we spent most of our time – is never a so-so event, but it's not a fuss in the Zenvo. Hit the gas and go. There isn't even the Veyron's sense of "Something big's about to happen!" because in the Bug you've got to wait for the turbos to spool up. The Zenvo has that supercharger to make sure there's no wait. As soon as you're on the throttle, it's on the power. Once there, it doesn't misbehave, it doesn't buck, it doesn't tramline, it doesn't require Jedi-mind-trick focus (although that never goes astray).
About the most dramatic slow-speed things you can do in a Zenvo is go over a speed bump or make a U-turn – there's a button to raise the front end for the first obstacle, the second will want some planning ahead and a lot of room.
The most thrilling part of our drive was the ST1's parlor trick: You can switch between power settings on-the-go.
The most thrilling part of our drive was the ST1's parlor trick: You can switch between power settings on-the-go. After hitting an open stretch of road in Wet mode, we laid the throttle all the way down. Six-hundred-plus ponies is plenty for making a grand entrance, certainly enough to rock you back into your seat. Then, while running at all-ahead-full, Vollertsen turned the dial to Sport, the ST1 added 200 horses to the corral and accelerated even faster, enough to earn a grin and the acknowledgement, "You have my attention." Then he turned the dial to Race and nearly 300 more horses threw the proceedings into warp-speed bedlam, the stitched Zenvo logo suddenly tattooed into our backs and our noggins filled with mental giggling.
It is indeed an everyday supercar in all ways save for its looks, which are the opposite of everyday. We'd throw more superlatives at it, but they would probably bounce off the ST1's improbable angles. It doesn't care about gadzookery. It is only, and simply, an awesome car. In keeping with Danish understatement, that is all that needs to be said.
You'd be hard-pressed to believe the Zenvo ST1 was dreamed up by two Danish guys six years ago, with even Jay Leno saying, "This is not just something that two guys put together. This is a well thought out car." It is 50-state legal (unlike a Koenigsegg) and the first year of service is free, with mechanics flying to owners. But again, Vollertsen said he worked to build a car that wouldn't require much of that – "I don't want to have to fly in every week."
There will be 15, and only 15, of them made. Three of those will be special editions for the U.S. with a few signature features and a power bump to 1,250 horses.
It is 50-state legal and the first year of service is free, with mechanics flying to owners.
Beyond that, Zenvo isn't just about a car, it's about a brand. Jensen and Vollertsen have already planned the next two cars – both rear-wheel drive two-seaters with manual gearboxes – and work has begun on the car that will follow the ST1. They'll come down from the lofty heights of the ST1, Jespersen saying, "We wanted to hit a target a bit lower for price and performance for this one, about $500,000 to $600,000, but the ST1 just kept getting better and we kept getting feedback that we should go even higher."
The graphic on Zenvo's logo is Thor's hammer, and it has no doubt struck some stupendous thunder this first time. We look forward to the next blow, and with no disrespect to other Danish gifts like Lego, insights into quantum mechanics, Tycho Brahe and Elsinore Castle, we'll take this one over those others. Except Sandra Vester. Her we'll take with a Zenvo.
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