First Drives

05 November 2012

Driven: the s'charged Ariel Atom 3.5

“It is the most visceral espresso shot of pure acceleration this side of a superbike…” Sam Philip reports

Sam Philip
Car image



What's this lump of leftover scaffolding, then?

Quite simply the Best Thing On The Planet To Fire Down An Empty British B-Road. Or, as it's officially known, the Ariel Atom 3.5: the harder, faster, betterer lightweight loon from our favourite Somerset speedsmiths.

Looks a lot like the old Atom to me.

What were you expecting, an estate version? The 3.5 retains the Atom's minimalist exoskeletal structure, but what little there is of it has been thoroughly overhauled. The chassis has been toughened up in line with the hardcore Mugen Atom we drove last year, with beefier dampers and improved torsional rigidity, while the Atom's entire bodywork - by which we mean, erm, the bonnet - has been redesigned. There are new light clusters and a new steering wheel with an LED display and change-up lights. And, naturally, there's a bit more power.

Go on, then. Hit us with the Big Numbers.

A pleasure. The naturally aspirated four-cylinder Atom is still available, but we obviously drove the supercharged version. Its 2.0-litre supercharged Honda engine now makes 310bhp, up 10bhp on the Atom 3. In a spindle of pipework weighing just over 500kg, that means a power-to-weight ratio of around 600bhp per tonne and a 0-100kph time of about 2.5 seconds.

So it's a bit quick?

Quick? The Atom laughs dismissively at 'quick'. It is speed distilled. It is chainsaw-juggling insanity. It is the most visceral espresso shot of pure acceleration this side of a superbike, an addictive, cortex-melting high that transforms you into an acceleration-hooked junkie, seeking out your next hit through bloodshot eyes and bulging veins.

Alright, tiger. We get your point. It's a bit quick.

It's so quick that it forces you to recalibrate the entire process of driving. On winding Somerset back roads, I kept arriving at corners a couple of seconds before my brain expected to be there, foot still on the accelerator, going some 100kph faster than physics should really permit. With lightly frozen legs and hands and brain, this very nearly caused some significant crashing.

Still no heater or windscreen, then?

Very much not. The Atom boasts exactly no protection from the elements: your legs are separated from the rapidly onrushing road by a few metal tubes, while a credit card-sized slip of acrylic passes for a windscreen. If it rains, you get very wet. If it's cold, you get very, very cold. In winter, full wet-weather biking gear is a must, a small storage heater is strongly advised.

Not a car for a gentle Sunday amble, you're saying?

Actually, provided you're always aware that your right foot is in charge of something with the power-to-weight potency of a small nuclear warhead, the Atom is a docile puppy of a thing. The clutch is as gentle as a Honda Jazz's, the six-speed manual box light and easy. You can even soften off the adjustable Bilstein dampers by simply twisting the bezel atop each spring from 1 (hardest) to 10 (fluffiest, though the term is relative). On bumpy West Country lanes, I preferred the suspension in its softest setting, offering up an extra few microns of compliance and dialling out a touch of nervousness from the super-sharp steering.

Isn't it time we saw an Atom Turbo?

No. The supercharged four-pot suits the Atom perfectly, content to murmur anonymously along at low revs but transforming into an axe-murdering lunatic when you wind it up towards the 8500rpm redline.

Isn't the V8 Atom faster, though?

Yes, but the V8 Atom costs an absolute bomb. The supercharged, erm, 'base' Atom starts at a fraction of the V8's price and still has far, far more pace than you could ever realistically exploit. Honestly, if I mysteriously acquired a couple of oil wells, I'd buy one of these in heartbeat, blow more money on a leaky shed somewhere in the empty Scottish Highlands, and spend the rest of my days blasting across desolate moorland roads with supercharger yelping, cackling into my helmet like a loon at the joyous insanity of one of the finest, maddest machines ever created.

Probably worth saving a couple of grand for petrol.

Good thinking. Better make it a very small, leaky shed...

Tags: ariel, atom, atom 3.5

8 photos
View All

Top Gear Videos

view more videos

Datsun Go Video Review

Datsun starts its second innings as a brand that brings 'modern and robust cars' at budget prices. Does their debut car in India live up to that claim?..

Watch full VideoPlay