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 Honda engines in all but the V8 version means the Atom is usefully 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 to really take advantage. Or your ears will fall off.
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 – there really is that much tactility – 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 starts with a 180bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder and moves through 245bhp VTEC or supercharged 300bhp 2.0-litre fours, finishing with a mental 500bhp V8 – though the latter is a specialist car with a sequential gearbox and enough power to scare yourself witless. It’s wise to point out that the very powerful cars become tricky when you really push. 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, though the most desirable (apart from the frankly terrifying, sold-out V8 monster) is the limited-edition Atom Mugen tuned by Honda’s semi-official race engine outfit. It’s naturally aspirated with fully adjustable suspension and is the perfect track-day weapon.