Exclusive first drive: Ariel Atom 3.5R
"Furious, screaming, mass-free…" Sam Philip with a world-first drive of Somerset’s supercharged 350bhp loon
What is it?
It’s the new Atom 3.5R, a sharper, track-focused edition of Somerset’s supercharged lightweight. And possibly the fastest real-world Ariel Atom ever built.
What, faster than that ridiculous 500bhp V8?
Perhaps so. Though this 3.5R gives away 150bhp to Captain Slow’s favourite Atom, the chaps at Ariel say it’s actually quicker around all but the longest, straightest circuits, the even torque spread of its ‘charged four-cylinder giving it the advantage out of corners over the superbike-derived V8, which makes all its power at the top of its (very long) rev range.
You want some figures? The 3.5 R will do 0-100kph in around 2.5 seconds, 0-160kph in under six. Serious.
We saw the 310bhp Atom 3.5 a couple of years back, right? What’s new about the R?
About 40bhp, for starters. The 3.5R makes a round 350bhp, that extra power achieved by Ariel turning up the boost on the 2.0-litre four-cylinder’s supercharger from 7.5 to 11psi.
In place of the 3.5’s manual transmission (cribbed, like the engine, from Honda’s last Civic Type R), there’s a close-ratio, rally-spec Sadev six-speed sequential box, operated by wheel-mounted paddleshifts. New side pods (bodywork! Almost!) provide cooling to the engine and transmission, while the 3.5R gets fresh adjustable dampers all round, Ohlins TTX units with in-line internal reservoirs. In-line internal reservoirs, apparently, are a good thing.
So what’s it like?
Pretty pedestrian, in truth.
Not really. ‘Fast’ doesn’t even begin to describe the furious, screaming, mass-free manner in which the 3.5R gathers speed. Neither does ‘rapid’, ‘warp speed’ or ‘oh dear, I appear to have left my face behind’.
On the TG test track, it took me several laps not to discover the outer limits of the 3.5R’s performance, but simply to wrap my brain around what the ruddy hell was going on. This Atom is such a furious assault on the senses that you spend the first few full-bore bursts of acceleration caught in a strange emotional limbo, simultaneously cackling in delight and whimpering in terror, unable to process the maelstrom of speed and noise and horizon and bees piling straight into your face.
And the gearbox! That sequential transmission fires changes faster than you can think, the merest microblip in power before the next gear hooks up and batters you through the scenery once again. And, better still, each downshift is accompanied by an absurd, ground-shaking crack from the Atom’s exhaust, a double-barrelled shotgun blast that’ll have birds scattering from trees five miles distant.
Actually, once you’ve finally convinced your brain that it’s not trapped in some terrifying, localised apocalypse, the 3.5R isn’t actually all that scary.
There’s none of the on-the-limit twitchiness that afflicted early Atoms – a function, say the Ariel guys, of tyre technology as much as anything else. Whichever way, this 3.5R is surprising approachable and entirely manageable, cornering neutrally rather than flicking into snappy oversteer at the first opportunity. It’s a car that tells you what’s going on at every corner – hell, you can basically see every corner – one that lets you go faster than you ever thought you could.
And if you’re not driving like a bee-faced loon?
Despite the mad, supercharged engine, despite the race-grade sequential box, when you’re taking it slowly this Atom is as docile and easy-going as an anaesthetized puppy. Honest. There’s no low-speed jitteriness, there’s a broad spread of torque throughout the rev range, and even the crunching changes of the straight-cut transmission can be ironed out with a quick dip of the clutch.
So it’s not too much for the road, then?
No, it’s clearly far too much for the road. If you want an Atom for weekend B-road blasts, we’d recommend sticking with the standard 3.5, which offers all the face-reconfiguring fastness you could ever realistically harness. This is a car for those who want to embarrass pretty much everything short of a McLaren P1 around a racetrack.
That said, provided you took things easy, you could certainly drive the 3.5R from home to track without sustaining a massive accident. We might advise leaving it in the garage on icy mornings, however.
I want to embarrass pretty much everything short of a McLaren P1 around a racetrack. Should I have this, or an Atom 500?
This. Not least because all 25 Atom 500s are already sold, and even if you could lay your hands on a newish one, you’d probably have to pay around £140,000 (Rs 1.42 crore) for the privilege.
The 3.5R starts at £54,000 (Rs 55 lakh). Though this might look expensive against the £38,000 (Rs 39 lakh) you’ll pay for the ‘standard’ 3.5, it’s a veritable bargain for something capable of so utterly rearranging both your face and perception of speed. Even 14 years after launch, the Atom remains one of the great motoring experiences.