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The Top Gear car review:Ariel Atom
For:One of the purest, most vivid driving experiences on the road
Against:If it rains, you look like a berk. Quite possibly a drowned berk
Probably the best track-pitched, road-legal car on the planet. The triple-distilled essence of fast.
“Furious, screaming, mass-free…” Sam Philip with a world-first drive of Somerset’s supercharged 350bhp loon
What we say:
For pure visceral driving pleasure, the Atom is extremely hard to beat
What is it?
One of the purest – and coldest – driving experiences on the road. The Atom is a racing space-frame with wheels and an engine, and not much else, which means it’s stupidly light, shockingly fast and skin-searingly exposed. The use of a Honda engine means the Atom is reliable, and the build is engineer-spec. No mass production here. Favoured by track-day folks who like to drive to and from, the Atom is surprisingly usable and comfortable on the road, but you have to tog up like a biker or your ears will fall off.
The latest versions are the revised Atom 3.5 models, using a Honda VTEC in various stats of tune – including a 350hp version in the track-focused 3.5R. It’s the fastest real-world Ariel ever built. Maybe one of the fastest road cars ever built: certainly you’d swear it is from behind the wheel…
The Atom really is like nothing else. You peer out over the nosecone and watch the front suspension move up and down, and the inboard shocks pump in and out in time with the feedback from the wheel. You can tell whether paint on the road is matt or gloss and the gearshift is the cliched rifle-bolt. This is a driver’s car of the best kind, with all the fat stripped out but the fun left in.
The only thing you need to know about the Atom is that it’s very, very fast. The supercharged ones are mesmerising. Luckily, suspension changes mean it’s more predictable, but this remains a raw racer of a car. The stunning 3.5R is capable of embarrassing pretty much everything short of a McLaren P1 on track. It’s less acceleration, more warp drove, and the exhilaration is absolute.
On the inside
One of the few cars when ‘inside’ really is a relative term, the Atom has plastic one-piece seats, and a distinct lack of sides, windscreen (though this is now an option) or roof. Everyone looking on can see what you’re doing (a novel sensation). The race harnesses are necessary but annoying, although the upgraded digital dash from the V8 is welcome. Even so, it’s like driving a blueprint.
Saying that, there’s not much to go wrong, they can be surprisingly comfy, and there’s an immense sense of freedom when driving an Ariel; they’re not called ‘four-wheeled motorcycles’ for nothing, you know.
Not hugely practical and more of a toy, Ariel’s limited supply and an almost fanatical following mean that Atoms are one of the least-depreciating cars on the market. Early versions were offered with Rover K-Series 1.8-litre fours, and they are obviously less desirable than later cars with Honda power. There’s an optional racing wing kit (we’d go without), and various variations on models and specifications: it’s all based around the latest Atom 3.5 but being a near race-spec car for the road, the configurability on offer is huge. Ariel claims it is the Savile Row of the automotive world, with each car personal to the individual customer. List prices are a bit higher than before but still, given what a thriller it is, the Atom is a total bargain.