It might be conceptually similar to its forebears, but the latest Ariel Atom 4 heralds a radical step forward
Production of this new Atom 4 doesn’t start until the New Year, by which time Ariel will have been in the business of producing skeletal two-seaters for precisely 20 years. I drove an Atom prototype back then and it seemed a great idea more in theory than practice. But by constantly refining the original concept, always making far fewer cars than there were customers, keeping quality front and centre of all it did and never losing focus, Ariel boss Simon Saunders and his crew did that most difficult of things: develop and build a successful new sports car company from scratch.
But about four years ago, the team recognised that the end was in sight for the Atom, even though it had evolved through three and a bit generations. The last Atom 3.5R (as it was known) was absolutely as far as it could go with the old spaceframe chassis and suspension systems. What’s more, supplies of its old Honda twin-cam motor were drying up and that too was at the limit of reliable power.
“I’d not say the engine supply made us build a new car,” says Ariel’s general manager Tom Siebert, “but obviously the need for a new powertrain came along at the same time as we started to realise we’d gone as far as we could with the original concept. So it made sense to address both issues at the same time.”
New car? For those who don’t think it looks that new, Siebert says the carry-over parts are part of the steering column, the pedal box and the fuel filler cap. And that’s it.
Fundamentally the spaceframe has been entirely redesigned around big-bore tubing, not primarily for reasons of rigidity (though it is 20 per cent stiffer) but, says Siebert, “because we thought it looked really cool.” The car is a fraction narrower but also longer, especially in the wheelbase. The double wishbone suspension now features anti-dive and anti-squat geometry, the aero package (yes, it has one) now ensures the car has zero lift, while the steering rack rate has been slowed a touch. Inside there is at last individual seating, a much-needed improvement to the minor control layout and a new TFT information screen. So in touch with the modern world is this new Atom that it even has automatic headlights and traction control, the latter as an option on production cars. This prototype is not so considerately equipped as I will shortly discover.
The engine comes straight from the Civic Type-R, which means it’s turbocharged, while all previous Atoms have been either normally aspirated or supercharged. More on the merits or otherwise of this move in a moment (though, in truth, Ariel didn’t have much of a choice if it was to stay with the same powertrain supplier), but it does at least enable the car to be offered with three different power settings on one switch. Position one comes with 0.3bar boost and 220bhp, position two offers 0.6bar boost and 260bhp, while position three is all done at 1.3bar and 320bhp. But the real point is that with that 320bhp comes 310lb ft of torque at 3000rpm; the absolute ultimate version of the old Atom, the 3.5R, had just 243lb ft at 6100rpm. No wonder, then, that while the front tyres have stayed with a trim 195-section, those at the back have swelled to a mighty 255.
And remember, this is merely the starting point. While Ariel has developed its own exhaust and variable mapping for the Atom 4, the engine itself is a standard, out-of-the-box Honda item. Where its power and torque might go from here, once Ariel really gets to work, makes the mind boggle.
But for now settle down in the surprisingly snug driver’s seat. There’s acres of space in here: I’m 6ft 3in and don’t even need all the rearward seat travel. The new dials and switches are a night-and-day improvement and it’s good to see a manual gearbox still being used. A sequential shifter will be offered in years to come. This car has a fairly typical smattering of options – Eibach springs, adjustable Bilstein dampers and, wait for it, carbon wheels to the tune of £8000, but the base car still has the same power and costs less than £40,000, while the price of the essential adjustable boost switch will be measurable in the scale of hundreds rather than the thousands.
The power engages as smoothly as if you were swaddled inside the warm confines of a Civic Type-R. The gearbox has a looser feel than I’d like, but the lever finds its way around the gate quickly and easily enough. As expected, the control weights are perfectly matched, the pedals ideally spaced for blipped downshifts. Recently I drove a Lotus Exige and couldn’t heel and toe in it at all. The steering is sublime too, with almost all of the fidget of the old system now eliminated.
I’ll share now that I was quite careful about unleashing the car’s full potential on the Somerset roads near the factory. The last Atom had a tendency to nip when its rear tyres were dosed with a lot less torque than this one has to offer, and also an eye-widening inclination towards roll-induced oversteer on turn in. And this one has a better power to weight ratio than a McLaren 540C – on its lowest boost setting.
So even 220bhp provides acceleration unlike that of almost any car you’re likely see on the road. The 260bhp middle setting offers searing, otherworldly thrust while the full fat 320bhp will just make you laugh and your passenger cry. All this I found out just before it rained.
But I’d learned something else in those few dry miles: for all its extra thrust, this is an easier, more trustworthy Atom. Even in the wet, even in position three (well, I had to…), even with wheelspin all the way through first, second, third and fourth gears, it never frightened me like some previous Atoms had, even in the dry. I’d not call it indulgent or even that easy to drive fast in those conditions, but it was sufficiently consistent and reassuring to build my confidence in the car. And in something like this, confidence is all.
That said, for all it has gained, so too has something been lost. The whipcrack throttle response of the old supercharged engine is no longer there, nor is its insane scream or manic 8400rpm redline. The new engine is not lacking character, thanks to the overt whooshing and whistling coming from its turbo, but it’s not the same and, given the chosen method of forced induction, it’s very hard to see how it could be.
Otherwise the Atom 4 is a delight. Yes, I’d rather have the old engine, but in every other respect Ariel has made the most of the opportunity its clean sheet has provided. To me the real gain is how much more usable it is and not just because it’s more spacious, comfortable and better laid out. I spent a morning skidding around in it on wet roads and, despite its at times apocalyptic performance, returned stirred but not in the least shaken. So it is more enjoyable for more of the time. With a car as uncompromising as this, that is a crucial consideration. By comparison, the fact that it’s also faster by far really is neither here nor there.
Ariel Atom 4 factfile
Engine 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged
Power [email protected]
Torque 310lb [email protected]
Power to weight 538bhp per tonne
Transmission six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed 162mph