Small, but perfectly formed
Take something the size of a skateboard. Add a 220 bhp Cosworth engine. Crackpot idea, or well-balanced sports car?
Westfield. The name conjures memories of a winter fortnight around 10 years ago, when I had access to a Westfield Seven. It used to shake its bonnet catches loose on London’s poorly maintained road surfaces. Reluctant passengers had to hop out every third or fourth set of traffic lights to refasten loose clips. On one occasion, when travelling alone, the engine cover attempted a spectacular escape halfway along Deptford High Street, prompting an improbable one-handed catch.
A couple of days later, it ran out of fuel in rush-hour traffic. It had nothing so sophisticated as a fuel gauge; rather, before setting off it was prudent to dip something in the tank, and have a stir around, or to bounce the rear suspension to see if you could hear any splashing sounds. On this occasion, the volume of the splash had clearly been deceptive, and I had to push the thing for a mile and a half, only finally receiving an offer of assistance as I crested the apron of a filling station near Surrey Docks. . .
And the hood was something of an irrelevance (not to mention a near impossibility to fit properly, ie with all studs fastened). There were no sidescreens at all, so if it rained you simply got wet. If there should be night time precipitation, an inch or two of water inevitably amassed in the cockpit, its precise whereabouts dependent upon the angle at which one parked. . . And yet I absolutely adored every minimalist moment I spent with it. It might not have been terribly comfortable some of the time, but it was fun. And beautifully balanced.
You could say as much about the latest ZEi 220, though were it not for the badge on the steering wheel you might never guess that it came from the same manufacturer.
Westfield has moved up several gears since the aforementioned Seven. People no longer draw the tiresome, if inevitable, comparisons with Caterham that marked Westfield’s nascent years. The marque has been around long enough, and is selling cars in sufficient numbers (as many as 400 per annum), to be taken seriously. Look at the modern new factory in the West Midlands. Or the company-backed one-marque racing series, which attracts decent grids.
Westfield has acquired a reputation for mild innovation witness the installation of a one-off Turbo Diesel in a Z-type chassis, and its Suzuki motorcycle-engined Mini, built specifically as a low budget racer and has gained low-volume type approval for its ‘Z-range’, of which the ZEi 220 is the current flagship.
On paper, it’s a seismic recipe: a 220 bhp Cosworth engine (turbocharged) in a nimble, two-seater chassis based around a mig-welded spaceframe (though, at 760 kg, it’s not a light car per se even if it is rather more svelte than the 1300 kg Ford Escort RS with which it shares its running gear).
On the road, it is astonishingly tractable.
With a power-to-weight ratio of around 292 bhp/ton, you expect it to be lightning fast. But you don’t necessarily expect docile manners to accompany claimed sub-5s 0-60 mph sprinting potential and top speed in excess of 130 mph. Even if circumstances allowed, it’s doubtful that you’d want to drive at that rate: at an indicated 90, it felt as though your nose was somewhere near your ankles. That was, admittedly, without the sidescreens. Fit those, and your nose rises once again to its traditional position. It’s even possible to have a conversation on the motorway, though it helps if both occupants have a vocal range close to Pavarotti’s. For all its ferocious speed, the ZEi 220 will pick up smoothly from around 1500 rpm in any gear. Torque peaks at 214 lb ft/4250 rpm. but there is a usable spread available.
And if you think its driveability is impressive, just wait until you experience its grip threshold. Accelerate into a second-gear right-hander adversely cambered. Apply full throttle at the apex, and. . .nothing untoward happens. It just sticks and goes. So you try again, applying full power ever earlier, waiting to make a sudden steering correction at any moment. But it refuses to be unsettled. In the dry, the 205/50 Goodyear GVs could not be unstuck with a cocktail which built up, eventually, to about 90 per cent aggression, 10 per cent common sense.
In the wet, or on dusty roads, grip remains good, albeit finite. . . The steering is as direct as any you will find this side of a kart, which helps, and the brakes were both powerful and fade-free. The drivetrain includes a limited slip diff as standard and a Ford MT75 gearbox with its well-spaced ratios but, in this application, a slightly notchy change quality. For this type of car, ride quality is surprisingly good, too. Cabin comfort is mainly let down by high temperatures generated in the lower recesses of the footwell, from which there is simply no escape. (You also need an O-level in contortionism if you want to get in, or out, quickly when the roof is in place. Either that or to be an insect. . .)
Although the dash panel does now feature a fuel gauge, there are still a couple of throwbacks to horsedrawn technology. The indicators (operated by switch, rather than stalk) are not self-cancelling, and the combination of wind and engine noise makes it impossible to hear when they are on, should they be accidentally engaged. Also, the seat belt reels tended to lock inextractably unless the car was leaning slightly forward, a curiosity of which we have previously only heard tell on a Mk 1 Escort. Luggage capacity is approximately zero (there is a little bit of room in the ‘boot’ when the hood is erected, but you have to remove the top to get in), and long-distance trips are severely compromised by a fuel tank capacity of only 6.25 gallons (with care, around 25 mpg should easily be attainable).
The latest spec hood is a simple, and suitably taut, fit, though the supporting frame had an unfortunate tendency to cross its legs and get itself in a knot, which took a minute or two to unravel whenever it needed to be retracted.
Such things brought to mind the old Seven. And you always forgave that its shortcomings within a couple of minutes of getting back behind the wheel. With the ZEi 220, you are consumed by forgiveness in mere seconds. Particularly when, as in this case, a pre-production car is involved. There was a moment, however, when one’s tolerance was momentarily stretched. At the northern end of the M23, after a lengthy drive, the revs died abruptly, flickered briefly to around 2000 rpm, then all power tailed off once again. Now there was a time when Ford’s engine management systems used to overheat microchips when turbocharged engines ran in unusually high temperatures. The cure for that was to sit on the hard shoulder for 20 minutes and try again when things were a little cooler.
That proved to be the solution on this occasion, although the fault had a different source. Aware of the problem with the demonstrator, Westfield had relocated both radiator and intercooler on production cars, which reduced operating temperatures beneficially. When the same modification was carried out to L16 COS, however, the cut-out problem persisted. It has since been cured, following detection of a rogue fuel pump.
I got back in, and restarted. Moments later, I was again lost for any enduring criticisms. . .
Go find a road, away from the beaten track, set a ZEi 220 loose and enjoy, enjoy.
No question, the ZEi 220 has some appealing habits: the sharp, responsive handling, steering that communicates in a hatful of languages, monstrous overtaking ability, docile low-speed manners, that supple ride. . .What reservations could one possibly have?
Well, how much does it cost? Deep breath. You won’t get much change from £20,000. And no matter how you look at its dynamic capabilities, that’s still an awful lot of money for something with such overt practical drawbacks. But reconsider a moment. It might run out of puff long before the average Ferrari (and, indeed, much other exotica). And it might not be as comfortable at common motorway cruising speeds as, say, a 2.0 Mondeo. But, in a real world devoid of 150 mph motorways, and strewn with truck-infested A- and B-roads, the ZEi 220 will have few peers.
A blend of race car handling and performance for the price of a Ford Granada (and a quarter of the cost of a 348)? Makes sense to me. S A