Ariel Atom 3.5R road test

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More power does not mean less grip

I’ve always loved Ariel, the car and, now, motorcycle company. From its very start at the turn of the century, I was impressed by the bravery of Simon Saunders and his team and their conviction that there was another way to do a small British sports car that was as thrilling to behold as to drive. I’ve admired more than I can say the quality of their workmanship. This is an exoskeleton car that looks like it should break down every 10 minutes, but it’s probably no less reliable than the Honda Civic Type R whose engine it uses. And I like the people: Simon and his still tiny team are just honest, passionate enthusiasts like the rest of us.

But the Atom itself? When driving one I’ve always felt the need to keep something up my sleeve. Experience has taught me that if you drive it the way its shape implies, strange things happen. Indeed, unless you drove it very precisely even the ‘basic’ 245bhp version could land you with a pile more work than you were anticipating. I drove one recently in the wet and it was immense fun on the throttle, but entering a soaking downhill turn on the brakes I saw my hands cross the wrong way in front of me and decided I’d not be doing that again.

So what to make of this new 3.5R? It has 350bhp and weighs 550kg. In power to weight terms, forget all conventional cars. On this scale it sits between the McLaren P1 and LaFerrari. It accelerates from rest to 100mph in less than six seconds. It has a sequential paddle-shift gearbox that needs no clutch. Couple such potential to the same handling frailties I’ve noted in other Atoms and you could be looking at a menace.

But it’s not. It’s a revelation. For all its berserk power, the story of this Atom is actually its chassis, where Ohlins adjustable dampers, a bespoke limited-slip differential, Kumho track day tyres and optional front and rear wings have finally unlocked the car’s potential. Where once you had to be conservative with entry speeds (and even then be wary of snap oversteer), now you can sling it in knowing it will either stick or slide so progressively to the apex you can exploit that to opt out of the otherwise mild understeer once the power is reapplied. For the first time I have been able to drive an Atom with the confidence I’d have liked from the start. By an extraordinary amount, this is both the fastest Atom I’ve driven and the easiest.

It would be interesting to compare lap times of a standard Atom 3.5 and this 3.5R. The latter would of course be substantially quicker, but I suspect by far more than their relative specifications might suggest. Because the one item supplied as standard by the 3.5R, something that was never an option on any other Atom I’ve tried, is total driver confidence. And when it comes to both the provision of fun and a decent lap time, a few additional horsepower are nothing by comparison.

Factfile
£64,000
Engine: 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders, supercharged
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 243lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: six-speed sequential, rear-wheel drive
0-62mph: 2.5sec
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: n/a mpg
CO2: n/a g/km

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