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 trackday 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 edition, with two Honda-engined options and lots of learning from the special V8 built in. They’re now more thrilling than ever.
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 range is based around the 2.0-litre VTEC Honda engine, and the only thing you need to know about the Atom is that it’s very, very fast. The supercharged one is mesmerising. Luckily, suspension changes mean it’s a bit more predictable, but this remains a raw racer of a car. An Atom isn’t particularly difficult to potter in, but act the idiot and they bite.
On the inside
One of the few cars when ‘inside’ really is a relative term, the Atom has plastic one-piece seats in most models, and a distinct lack of sides, windscreen (though this is now an option) or roof. The race harnesses are necessary but annoying, and there’s not much but a wheel, pedals and a small instrument binnacle. 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 any Ariel; they’ve not been called ‘four-wheeled motorcycles’ for nothing.
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.