Ariel Atom 3.5

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Sometimes you forget. This was one of those occasions. The last time I drove an Ariel Atom was to record some acceleration times for a national newspaper. It must have been at least five years ago. That day on a poor surface the car recorded a 0-60mph time of slightly less than 2.9sec, despite discovering that the best way to put its power down was actually to start in second gear. I simply wasn’t capable of balancing the throttle in first well enough to keep the tyres on the edge of longitudinal adhesion without them dissolving into the concrete runway.

All this seemed to have flown my mind as I presented myself at Ariel’s tiny factory by the side of the road outside Crewkerne, Somerset. There to meet me was Simon Saunders, the founder of a car firm unlike any other, and not just because the product has an exoskeleton but no doors, windows, roof or windscreen.

He first started delivering his crazed, insectlike roadsters just after the turn of the century, but it will be later this year before the 1000th Atom is built. “Time has shown very clearly that if you want to survive this business, you need to be either a very big company or an extremely small one,” he says. “We’re extremely small and very happy to stay that way.” Even in the market heyday of 20072008 he built fewer than 100 cars per year, a level he describes as “rather busy”. This year he’ll build about 70, a number I sense is probably closer to his comfort zone.

Like Caterham but unlike certain other small sports car manufacturers, Ariel makes absolutely nothing. An Atom is an Arielassembled agglomeration of parts made elsewhere. Honda provides the engine and gearbox (unless you spec a SADEV six-speed sequential race ‘box for serious track work), Arch does the powder-coated steel spaceframe chassis, the supercharger comes from Jackson Racing in California and as you look around the car you’ll spot a veritable Who’s Who of blue-blooded race car component suppliers: Eibach, Bilstein, Tilton, ITG, Alcon and so on. But they’re put together by Ariel’s 15 employees to form a car that really could not be anything else.

There are three Atoms to choose between, though the 500bhp V8 model is so esoteric, complex and expensive at £150,000 that two years into production they’re still building only the eighth of 25 cars. Even by Ariel standards, that’s low volume. For more normal and less well-resourced types there’s the standard car complete with its 245bhp Honda 2-litre motor or its supercharged sister, which has recently been remapped to raise its output by 10bhp to 310bhp. Despite their mammoth outputs and mighty 8600rpm redlines, Saunders says he’s never known one fail.

He tries to sell Ariel rookies the normally aspirated version because he thinks it offers a gentler introduction to a unique driving experience. “Once they’ve got used to the car and decide they still want the supercharger,” he says, “they can bring it back and we’ll fit it for exactly the same price as if they’d ordered it supercharged from new.” That said, he concedes that most people just want the blown version from the word go.

I can see why. The Atom 3.5 sounds like a software update, but is so called because Saunders doesn’t think the modifications are sufficiently extensive to warrant calling it the Atom 4. Even so the 3.5 has a stiffer chassis (by 15 per cent), that extra 10bhp from the engine, different springs and dampers for its vastly adjustable double wishbone suspension and steering modified to retain feel but drastically reduce kickback. Together they make for a substantially upgraded car.

But before you can appreciate any of that, you have to update your own software. This was the bit I’d forgotten. If I’d done the maths I would have remembered that this Atom has a power to weight ratio in excess of that mustered by cars such as the McLaren F1, Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari Enzo and so on. But because what you see is just a small, slightly strange looking car and because your brain knows it’s powered by something built for a Honda Civic and costs about the same as a top-of-the-range BMW 3-series diesel, you can still lull yourself into a false sense of security.

It looks like one of the least comfortable cars on earth, but it’s not. The composite seat is well shaped, the driving position close to perfect for all 6ft 4in of me. A new LCD display is very ‘race car’, but when you flick the ignition and fire the motor you’re answered by a discreet burble. Nothing frightening here at all. The gearlever selects first as easily as it does in a Honda, the clutch is just as light and progressive and the engine so sweetly mapped you can pull away as you would in any other car with a Japanese hatchback powertrain. Mad though it looks, I’d say a Mazda MX-5 is no easier to drive slowly.

So when you accelerate hard for the first time, your first sensation is that this sweet little thing is trying to mug you. There’s a shout — more of a howl, actually— from the supercharger followed by a palpable assault on your body and another shout, this time an expletive-laden instinctive shriek from the core of your soul. Your head is snapped back while the scenery zooms towards you. Items that appeared far away a mere moment ago are instantly adjacent. Acceleration is not so much strong as violent. Changing up serves mainly to extend rather than ameliorate the effect.

This level of performance in any normal car would make it a menace but it is the manner in which the Atom deals with such thrust that makes it so impressive. Almost all the changes that turn an Atom 3 into a 3.5 have been aimed at making the car more driveable without any loss of performance. The bump-steer has gone, the nose no longer sniffs out camber changes and if you look through the lattice framework to the clearly visible front wheels, you can see how hard they’re working yet how little your progress is being disturbed.

You just need to bear in mind that it’s not flingable like a Caterham — its major masses are in the wrong place. This is not a ‘chuck it in and sort it out’ kind of car, but a precision instrument that will soon communicate displeasure if you try to drive it any other way. It understeers quite a lot if you’re over-ambitious with entry speed and will oversteer equally strongly if you’re inelegant about reapplying the throttle.

I still loved it for all the same reasons I loved the old Atom: not just its performance and point-to-point speed, but the inimitable English eccentricity of its design. All the 3.5 does is make that pleasure even easier to access, a deceptively important consideration for a car that’ll hit 60mph from rest in 2.7sec without launch control or four-wheel drive.

When Saunders and his team do indeed build that 1000th Atom, I hope they go to the pub to celebrate. Many privately thought the company wouldn’t build 10 cars, but instead it has continued to deliver its unique take on the British sports car through fair winds and foul while keeping prices and quality under tight control. I think Ariel deserves all our admiration, and I hope it continues to do exactly that for many years to come.