The Ariel Atom is still the most hardcore driving experience around. The third generation tweaks the details but doesn't diverge from the script. Jonathan Crouch reports
Performance motoring doesn't get much rawer than the Ariel Atom. It's strictly a trackday car or a highdays and holidays treat. But on those days, you'd never want to be in anything else. Just make sure you always pack those earplugs to guard against that glorious, screaming engine.
Purity of essence is what the Ariel Atom's all about. Anything that doesn't add to the driving experience gets ruthlessly junked. It's a formula that has served Ariel very well for a number of years and the third iteration of the Atom refines the ingredients a little further. The Atom is the brainchild of Simon Saunders, an engineer and automotive design lecturer who decided it was time to turn his lectures into reality. Remember the old jibe about teachers merely being able to talk the talk? Saunders gives lie to that one.
The first generation Atom showed all sorts of design promise but was a notoriously wayward thing to drive. The second generation car refined things considerably without taking away the headbanger element. Now in its third iteration, the Ariel Atom is at last a car with properly sorted dynamics and all the minor teething troubles ironed out. There's no substitute for experience.
By most conventional measures, a 300bhp car is packing a decent amount of clout. Take something like a Nissan Skyline GTR. With 286bhp on tap, it's enough to get most people juiced up but the power to weight ratio is the all important thing and the iconic Nissan performance coupe manages 180bhp per tonne. This was clearly not enough for Ariel. Let's move onto more serious machinery. A Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera scores 373bhp/tonne and Ferrari's astonishing Enzo manages 484bhp/tonne. How about getting really silly and going for the 987bhp Bugatti Veyron? That's 521bhp/ton for your £870,000 or so. To give you an idea of how rapid the Ariel Atom 3 is in its 300bhp guise, consider this. It 's good for 556bhp/tonne. That'll get it to 60mph in 2.9 seconds. 0-100-0mph can be notched off in under 10s. Phenomenal.
The Atom 3 builds on the company's relationship with Honda, featuring the new Civic Type-R engine that has better low-down torque and a smoother power delivery, all controlled by a fly-by-wire throttle. The entry-level 2.0-litre i-VTEC remains normally aspirated producing an unchanged 245bhp, but for power-to-weight junkies the 300bhp supercharged version is the hot ticket. Along with the engine, Ariel gets the latest Civic's six-speed, close-ratio gearbox and there is also the option of a Quaife limited slip differential. There's also the option of Bilstein 10-way adjustable dampers in place of the standard five-way items, giving more options in terms of track performance and chassis adjustability.
Although not immediately obvious, the Atom 3 is a fair bit larger than its predecessors. Fully 60mm of additional shoulder room and 100mm extra elbow room are achieved thanks to a wider chassis with cleverly revised diagonal side structures, although track and overall width remain unchanged. The Atom 3's aerodynamic properties have been improved using Computer Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations, subtly restyling nearly every body panel whilst retaining the immediately recognisable Atom look. Optional wind deflectors have been designed that certainly serve to reduce buffeting at speed compared to the rather ineffectual items on the earlier Atom models.
Although its still not the car you'd choose for a long journey, comfort has improved. It's possible to specify two different seat types, one more deeply sculpted than the other but both allow the driver to sit lower in the car. Revised engine mounts also help to reduce the amount of vibration transmitted to the chassis. The easiest way to identify the Atom 3 externally are the wind deflectors, the twin exit exhaust system and the fact that the side lattices are now the other way up.
With any car such as this, the value proposition will be lost on some. Most in fact. Only truly committed petrolheads will look at the car's performance stats and realise it's a bargain. Ostensibly normal people will wonder where the shopping goes, especially if you choose the pricier 300bhp version. Sensible is something we can do when we're pensioners. In the meantime there's a trackday at Spa next weekend and a whole bunch of no-talent playboys in supercars to harrass.
In order to keep weight down, equipment rarely strays far from the strictly necessary. That means no mats, heater, cup holders or any other fripperies. Instead you get a brilliant Honda VTEC engine, some seriously sophisticated suspension and a car that more road presence than many vehicles costing four times its price.
An Atom needn't be an expensive car to run once you've swallowed the initial purchase price. The reasons are quite simple. They tend not to cover big mileages and because of the featherlight 540kg all up weight, the car can be driven very hard without chewing its tyres up or lunching its clutch. Fuel economy is also rated at a sterling 31mpg for the 300bhp car which is excellent but needs to be as it has a tiny fuel tank to help keep weight down.
Insurance is expensive but Ariel owners know where to find specialist insurers that can keep a lid on premiums. The only real big ticket items come if you prang the car as specialist parts aren't cheap. The engines have proven brilliantly reliable so that's one typical low-volume manufacturer headache omitted from the outset. Residual values are also healthy.
If you're looking for sheer excitement, there really is nothing that can touch an Ariel Atom 3 at vaguely similar prices. A Caterham feels old, a Lotus 2-Eleven feels clinical and a Radical feels decidedly homespun in comparison. Where Ariel has got the formula spot on is in blending Honda's big manufacturer qualities with Saunders' sharp design touch. Nothing about the car feels jerry-built, instead feeling like a high-end bespoke product.
You'll pinch yourself every time you get out of an Atom and thank your lucky stars that you're around to drive such a car before it's legislated out of existence. You'll also be able to look and Lamborghini, Porsche or Ferrari driver in the eye knowing that you've got the measure of their car should they attempt to go toe-to-toe with the diminutive Ariel on a track. The Atom 3 is now a properly sorted car. Are you up to the challenge?