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Ariel Atom 4: TG mag’s Lightweight of the Year

The Atom 4 is the result of a very 21st century approach to industrial revolution

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Photography: Mark Riccioni

These dock cranes have stood guard over Prince’s Wharf since 1951. Bristol’s cobbled wharves and warehouses are full of such relics. Huge clanking pieces of industrial engineering litter the docksides: embedded railway tracks pound off into the distance, there are boilers the size of barns, chains that could surely hold the Earth’s crust together (even the bolshier bits), swing bridges, engines, wheels and gears. And rust. You could happily kickstart the Industrial Revolution if not for the rust.

How much iron and steel has been poured into this place?

It’s a city built of box-section girders and foot-wide rivets. A city that’s transitioned, still fully in touch with the past, and able to celebrate it despite having left it far behind. Standing here now, I can imagine the noise, the thick, choking fug of coal, the hiss of steam, the ring of hammers, fire and brimstone, the heave and strain. In every scene, a stovepipe hat.

There’s more to Bristol than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Stothert & Pitt made these dock cranes. They were pioneers, identified that a mechanical device could lift goods from a ship’s hull far faster than a gang of stevedores, and in 1851 presented a hand crane at the Great Exhibition. Not bad for a firm from Bath that until then had specialised in domestic ironmongery. A few short decades later it’s thought every dockside in the world had a Stothert & Pitt crane overseeing operations. They were cutting-edge technology, constantly developed to do their job faster and better (these 67-year old cranes are powered by electricity, not diesel or steam). How’s that any different from what we see today? Because that’s the thing we forget about the Industrial Revolution. It was a revolution. And it never ended, it just… morphed.

The new Ariel Atom 4 is a revolution. Smaller scale in every way, but for a little firm from Somerset, a revolution nonetheless. Can you tell? Don’t worry if not – one hundred years of dock crane development, and the aesthetics never shifted, as far as I can tell. But look again. Engage the grey matter. Ariel is a small firm, builds maybe 500 cars per year, doesn’t have the resources to throw tens, let alone hundreds or even thousands of engineers at a problem. But what it did have was time and a clear vision.

And a handful of very clever people. I’ve heard them referred to as the ‘brains trust’, but over the last four years they’ve taken the Atom apart, analysed every nut, considered every joint, run the whole thing through CAD and then put it back together, better. Thicker-gauge steel tubes (yep, steel, not aluminium or titanium – there’s life in the old metal yet) were used to enhance chassis rigidity, the roll hoop was integrated into the airbox, reducing turbulence and significantly improving aerodynamics. The airbox nostril shrunk to prevent air overspill.

In the end, only four parts (steering wheel, top of the steering column, fuel cap and part of the pedal box) survived the cull.

It’s the attention to detail that strikes me first, manoeuvring around Bristol at night. The headlights are automatic – there’s a light sensor on the transmission tunnel. LED beams mean they’re also terrifically bright. I’m forever hopping in and out of the car to chat with Mark about one thing or another, and yet there’s no longer a need to pat pockets and realise the immobiliser is trapped four layers down when I get back in. It’s got a proximity sensor, set to rearm when you’re a fuel station forecourt away from the car, then disarm without you even knowing. In essence a keyless Atom. How sensible.

The dash panel is new and works logically, the switchgear – what switchgear there is – is beautifully organised and good quality. The information you need is well presented and legible in a split second. The two seats are no longer a single moulding, meaning ill-matched pairs of people can both get comfy. It’s just thoughtful. There’s even a second shoebox-sized load area under the nose cover.

What instigated the revolution at Ariel? Not the move away from an agronomy-based society, but the arrival of a turbocharged engine. Ariel’s relationship with Honda dates back to 2003, but now it’s been granted access to Honda’s holy-of-holies, the fizzily named K20C1. This is the motor that propels the latest Civic Type R along with astonishing vigour. In the Atom it’s tasked with moving substantially less than half the weight.

But a turbo comes with caveats. Lag. Noise. The Atom doesn’t quite manage to give both a full swerve. Lag is there at low revs, and although negligible above 4,000rpm it never has the raw urgency, the instant savage kick that the old supercharged motor had. Nor does it have the same buzzsaw wail that made the Atom 3 sound like a manic motorised mosquito. Now it’s Darth Vader on laughing gas, this frantic gaseous sucking and blowing. It’s good, and you can play tunes, get Darth all riled up and then back him off into a ‘Moon River’ moment, but it’s not stellar.

A switchable power dial helps with this, cycling the Atom between 220, 290 and 320bhp. Dialled down and driven gently, the turbo is a barely audible whistle. Turned up to three, it is ballistically, drastically, uncomfortably fast. But so are all lightweights, and there comes a point where the acceleration is simply too much. The Atom 4 is way, way past that point. 538bhp per tonne, 0–100mph-in-6.5secs past that point. So what impresses me most is how docile and tractable it is at low revs, how easy to potter around Bristol. No stuttering on the throttle, no petrol smells, awkward clutch or weird throttle calibration.

It’s as well engineered as a VW Golf, without the cast of thousands involved in its creation. And then there’s the way it goes down a road. The geometry has changed, suspension mounting points have been adjusted, but you’d never believe what a colossal difference this makes. The Atom used to be a hair-raising device, the definitive wild ride. You’d give it a dose of third gear and proceed to cling on to the bar-room bronco for dear life. Not anymore. Now you use third, and then fourth. Fifth if you wish (and don’t care about your driving licence). It’s calm and settled, so you’re calmer and more settled inside it (good seats too – you sit deeper in it, and those aero screens do a cracking job of reducing cabin turbulence). There’s more trust. It flows where the old one scampered and darted.

Has it lost something as a result? Maybe. We constantly bang on about sports cars getting ever faster and more capable, but not necessarily more fun, and you could level the same criticism at the Atom. But the more I drove it, the more I realised I was still getting the same glorious feedback and signals from the steering and chassis; what was being filtered out was the irritating, unsettling background static.

It just doesn’t get caught out, not on a B-road, not on the slick cobbled wharves of Bristol docks. It feels complete. Production starts first thing in 2019, and before then Ariel has promised to sort the slightly loose gearchange (the single facet of the Atom 4’s driving that doesn’t quite chime with the rest), but otherwise what more do you want? A roof? Doors? You’re missing the point.

British lightweights are often criticised for their dated appearance, their lack of technology and advancement. Well, here’s one that’s different, that is distinguished enough to alter the way we look at the whole lightweight class. It’s the same as before, but fresh and modern. It’s the biggest advance in Ariel’s 20-year history, so yeah, a revolution. A Very British Revolution. This one made in Somerset.

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