I can fully understand if you have reasons to question my fortitude. 245bhp is, after all, the sort of power you can find in something like a Lexus GS300 and Ariel make a 300bhp supercharged Atom for those with deep pockets and trousers generously stuffed in other places besides. When you factor in the knowledge that this car weighs less than 500kg with a full tank of fuel, you begin to appreciate that 245bhp could make it pretty brisk. That's around 500bhp per tonne. A Lamborghini Murcielago doesn't even get close with 351bhp per tonne and even Ferrari's astonishing Enzo can only manage 484. Now you're starting to see the measure of this machine.
Statistics are all well and good, but when your mouth has gone as dry as the bottom of a birdcage and sweat is dripping into your eyes beneath the visor of your crash helmet as you wriggle into the four-point race harnesses, your focus changes. Suddenly horsepower figures, torque curves and so on become utterly redundant. A 'you break it, you pay for it' agreement had been reached with the factory to cover testing on the Oulton Park circuit and suddenly I'm considering the paltry state of my annual salary. Keeping the thing on the island is my key priority.
The first surprise is how untemperamental the engine and gearbox are. There's no lumpy idle, no embarrassingly snatchy clutch or flabby off-cam power delivery to worry about. The engine and gearbox are sourced from the 220bhp Japanese domestic market Civic Type-R and are widely recognised as top quality units. With a revised engine control unit to help make up the additional 25bhp this car was packing, even the most timid learner would find it tough to kangaroo the Atom.
The steering took a little getting used to, being at the same time astonishingly direct but lacking a little something in feel. I attributed this to the stiffness of the sidewalls of the Avon tyres and deflating them by a couple of pounds per square inch would undoubtedly help in this regard. The great thing about the Atom is that if you don't like any particular aspect of the car, you can generally change it. Yes, there is a 160bhp entry-level machine for those less involved, but the majority of Ariel owners like to tweak the cars to their own preferences.
"If you're a student of car control, the Atom represents an Ivy League learning institution"
The main things that needed tweaking as I accelerated through the fast Lakeside section were my earplugs. Ascend the rev Range and the car sounds pleasantly racy but as soon as Honda's VTEC system works its magic with the valve timing, there's an induction roar from the air intake directly behind your head that sounds as if you're being overtaken by a Can-Am racer. The first time it happened almost sent me into the scenery and glancing fearfully over your shoulder to see what's about to devour you only rewards you with a view into its gaping maw. Looking where you're going is a far more prudent course of action because by now the speedometer is reading some bizarre figures. Thus powered, the Atom will accelerate to 60mph in around 3.7 seconds and hit 100mph in around 8.5 seconds. It would go even quicker without sixteen stones of largely adipose fat acting as ballast but this was no time to set records. I was too busy having fun.
Rather rashly, Ariel had decided to drive rather than trailer the car from Somerset to Cheshire. The suspension was set up on its softest settings for road use and the car was suffering from a little more roll oversteer, where the car's body roll leans on the outside rear tyre through corners and causes the rear end to slide in a rather untidy fashion. We adjusted the dampers to firm things up and the Atom was soon handling a lot more neatly. There's nothing better than an Atom, a few lightweight cones and a large expanse of tarmac to learn the finer points of car control and what was terrifying from the passenger seat suddenly felt a whole lot more intuitive from behind the wheel. The blare from the engine is a little wearing but the sheer physicality of sitting out in the elements, the wind attempting to rip your crash helmet off, the red and white kerbing rushing past in your peripheral vision and the suspension and steering elements visibly doing their stuff is one of the most vivid experiences you can have on four wheels.
Ariel boss Simon Saunders reckons you get used to the power, even in a 300bhp supercharged version. That's tough for me to get my head around at this precise moment, having emerged from the 245bhp normally aspirated Atom as if I'd been wired to a Red Bull intravenous drip. The great thing about the Atom is that unlike many classic British sports cars, you won't end up looking like Mr Toad behind the wheel. The £28,000 Ariel will charge for a nicely sorted 245bhp Atom represents an unbeatable performance per pound ratio and is an ideal basis for tinkering trackday fiends. I could go on but you need to drive one yourself. Just don't put the other half of a decision making partnership in the passenger seat.
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