The versatile Ariel Nomad


Buy a Land Rover Defender and you’ll have all the fun you can handle in the off-road environment. Buy a Caterham Seven and you’ll have much the same sort of thing going for you on tarmac. But what if you want to do both? Is there really an alternative to buying two cars?

Those creative types at Ariel in Somerset seem to think so and this, the Nomad, is their answer.

It’s only Ariel’s second all-new creation since the Atom was launched back in 1999 and the relationship between them is clear. Both come formed around a steel tubular exoskeleton, both come with four-cylinder Honda engines and six-speed manual Honda gearboxes. But they are not the same spaceframe and not the same powertrain: the cars are actually entirely different.

The Nomad comes with a 2.4-litre motor, compared to the 2-litre engine used by the Atom, because Ariel figured the larger motor’s torque is more important off-road than the smaller unit’s power. And it still has 235bhp, which in a car weighing 735kg would be argued by most to be sufficient. Its suspension is double wishbone at each corner, similar in design to the Atom’s but, again, utterly different in execution.

Its springs are soft, their travel is long and there are three different kinds of damper available, from standard Bilsteins to Ohlins developed for WRC cars. As for tyres, you can have everything from 18in track day rubber to the 15in mud-pluggers on the car I drove, the difference being made up entirely in sidewall.

It will sound like I am showing off frightfully, but what it reminded me of most was a 1960s F1 car. They too were set up so soft and afforded such good visibility, you see their wheels appearing to rise and fall with each application of the accelerator or brake. On the road Nomad is still mightily quick – 0-60mph is a very believable 4.5sec – but you have to remember neither to mistake the rally-style handbrake for the gearlever because the car will rotate instantly if you do (or so I am told) nor to leave your braking until the last minute.

On soft springs and off-road tyres and without any ABS it is too easy to lock the fronts, easy enough to make you start fiddling with the driver adjustable brake balance bar. Then again, there’s no grip coming out of the corners either which is a largely good thing: unlike Atoms which can actually be quite difficult to drive on the limit, the Nomad is child’s play to hoof about on the power.

I didn’t get to play with it quite as much off-road as I’d have liked but when the supercharged version Ariel is working on now is ready, there’s a plan to take it the Sweet Lamb rally stages and really have a go. But even blundering around a fruit farm revealed impossible wheel travel, implausible traction and staggering ride comfort. Ariel reckons that even with two-wheel drive it’ll go most places a Defender will and on gravel it’s already gone faster than a Group N rally car despite wearing completely the wrong tyres.

Ariel’s telephones have been working overtime since the Nomad was announced and I’m not in the least surprised: you won’t find a more versatile recreational sports car for £36,000 or, indeed, any other price. People want them to use as rally cars, as beach buggies, as track day cars and London pose-mobiles. Ariel’s dream, however, is to get one into the Dakar Rally, for which two categories for two-wheel drive cars already exist. Right now I have no doubt at all they will make it.

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