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Life with Top Gear's Ariel Nomad: update one

Includes: a date with motoring's game changers, a dog, a night out and rain...

  1. We have an Ariel Nomad on the Top Gear fleet for the next few months. This is simply tremendous news. In truth it’s been here over a month already but I’ve been having too much fun to settle down and tell you about it. Anyway, to give you a flavour of what it’s been up to and how busy it is, here’s the story of its first week at Top Gear.

  2. I’m fresh back from holiday, but more over-excited than my kids were two weeks earlier. It’s a Monday and Rowan Horncastle picks me up from home in an Audi RS4 for the drive down to Crewkerne. I only mention this because it’ll become relevant later.

    Ariel is not a big outfit. It builds a couple of hundred cars a year and the first thing that happens when you walk through the door is someone presses a mug of tea into your hands. That’s proper service. We have a stroll around and then MD Henry Siebert-Saunders leads me over to ‘my’ car. It’s not brand new, but that doesn’t matter a jot to me, because it looks ace in red and black with winch on the front, tyre on the back and tail wagging back and forth on top. Tail? OK, light saber. Either way it’s a glow in the dark LED light stick and it’s utterly brilliant.

  3. Henry talks me through it. It’s very straightforward – the powertrain is pure Honda: naturally aspirated 2.4-litre 4cyl K24 motor (235bhp @ 7200rpm and 221lb ft at 4300rpm) and six-speed H-pattern gearbox. Driving is simplicity itself. The options list is way more extensive than you expect, but not in the normal ways of colour, trim and infotainment. The base car is £36,538, our car is £55,910.

    Here’s the high points of how that works: uprated Alcon brakes (£2,388), off-road focused adjustable Fox dampers (£3,416), hydraulic handbrake (£474), quick release steering wheel (£232), protective see-through side panels (£540), heated windscreen with washers and wipers (£1,938), underbody bash plate (£210), front winch bumper (£1,025) and Warn winch itself (£594), light bar (£1,198) and LED whip light (£357). I don’t need to tell you this set-up is off-road biased…

    Do I need all of that? Well, that’s what I want to find out over the course of the next few months.

  4. I drive out a very happy boy. It’s raining, but I just don’t care. I care about two hours later, after Rowan has lead me further south west from Somerset into Devon. The weather has been miserable, and even my new car excitement has been tempered by wet feet and sopping trousers. The side panels do a great job of reducing footwell turbulence and almost entirely stopping the risk of road debris coming in, but water is harder to repel. It gets in around the edges.

    Everything else has been dandy though. The windscreen wipers work a treat and although mist will eventually build up on the inside as well, I have the windscreen with heating elements in. It’s only £146 more than the standard one and already looking well worth it.

    The noise has got to me a bit, a reminder I need to go shopping for decent earbuds, but it’s the high speed motorway din that deafens and pummels rather than the engine noise itself. You just pull up at the end of a journey and feel a bit battered for a few minutes.

  5. We’re now in the depths of Exmoor. It’s very quiet here. The last few miles to Withypool had been a blast. What you might not realise is how small the Nomad is. It might wear all the off-road accoutrements and those balloonish 235/75 R15 Yokohama Geolander tyres, but it only measures 3.2 metres stem to stern. It’s 40cm shorter than a VW Up, albeit almost 20cm wider.

    Small is good on Exmoor lanes. And when something does come the other way, so is an ability to mount a bank or take to the undergrowth. The Nomad only encourages you in this. It also easily kept pace with Rowan whose RS4 has over 400bhp. Even with all the extra weight of lights and winches, the Nomad only weigh about 725kg.

  6. This is why we’re down on Exmoor – the ‘Gamechangers’ group test that ran in the 300th issue of Top Gear magazine. Basically the ten cars that changed the way we think about cars/were most significant/we liked best over the 24 years the magazine has been going. It’s still on sale at the moment. If you hurry.

    It was quite a line-up and the Nomad was our sole lightweight representative. Why this and not an Atom, or a BAC Mono, or even a Lotus Elise? It’s not only the pure joy the Nomad offers, but also from the very first moment we drove it, how it works better on the road than any other lightweight. Most are so light and sharp they twitch and dart about, but the Nomad is stable, playful, and still light, fast and hugely engaging.

  7. This chap had a go. That’s Le Mans winner Andy Wallace, now a Bugatti ambassador. He came along to chaperone the Veyron, but we let him have a play in the Nomad. The smile says it all really.

    He did come back talking about steering kickback and he’s bang on – the big heavy tyres are a lot of weight to control through corners, so you need beefy arms to keep a grip on the Nomad over mid-corner bumps. If that matters to you have it with a lighter, more road-orientated wheel and tyre package. Or have both depending on what you want to do.

    Everyone else had a go too, and all returned with equally goofy grins and reports of comedy bodyroll and hilarious wheel movement…

  8. …and then some joker did this. Didn’t they, Tom Ford? Anyway, it gives me a great opportunity to tell you about approach and departure angles, which off-road enthusiasts like to discuss over cloudy beer in the snugger parts of a rural pub.

    Because it doesn’t really have any bodywork to speak of, and because the wheels are right at the extremities, the angles are 71 and 82 degrees at front and rear. So it goes up stuff like this bank without grinding the nose or tail at all.

  9. And I know it doesn’t look as if ground clearance is particularly good, but it sails through most ruts, while the bash plate protects the underside from deeper stuff. And besides, the Nomad doesn’t weigh much, so it treads lightly and if you get sillier than that, there’s always the winch…

  10. Anyway, after two days on Exmoor, the Nomad then did a day’s commuting in and out of London from mine – another 120 miles, then on Friday a bigger trip. To Essex to witness the TG300 race. Yep, our £300 bangers took to the oval at Essex Arena Raceway.

    I was absolutely itching to let the Nomad loose on the inner dirt track, but the risk of being run down by a fast-moving 735i, a wayward-handling Audi or an inevitably-sideways MGF wasn’t tempting.

    On the long haul there and back the Nomad averaged over 28mpg. Given it has a reasonable 52-litre tank, I’m looking at a feasible range of over 300 miles. Which means I can travel pretty much as far between fill ups in the Nomad as I can in the Aston Martin DB11 which preceded it…  Or at least I would be able to if the fuel gauge was trust-worthy. Henry had told me when I picked the car up that they deliberately made the tank read zero litres when there’s actually plenty left so blokes prone to playing fuel light chicken wouldn’t get carried away…

  11. This is Brodie. He’s the latest Top Gear dog. He found the Nomad very easy to jump in and out of, but reported the seat didn’t feel moulded to his shape.

  12. It’s Saturday night. My brother and I are off to a party in London. We could take a sensible car, but there’s no fun in that. So, having looked at the weather forecast (I’m doing that A LOT at the moment) we hop in the Nomad. It’s a proper hoot, but above 60mph conversation is nigh-on impossible, so we end up just looking at each other and laughing.

    This is chiefly because we’re in a mish-mash of ‘protective’ clothing (ski goggles, flat cap, wellies, waders), all aimed at protecting our smarter clothes – which we’re wearing underneath – from harm. We park in a back street, strip, seal driving clothing in rucksacks which are then bikelocked into the car and walk off to the club carrying the steering wheel. If nothing else it’s an ice-breaker.

    I wish I had photo evidence of all this, but needless to say we were running late, so you’ll have to make do with a shot taken the next night when I went for a drive to see if the light-saber does look as brilliant as I imagine at night (it does) and if the headlights are actually any good (they’re not).

  13. There’s a local car show at Newbury College. I head up there with my son to go and have a poke round the cars, but the bloke on the gate assumes I’m an exhibitor. So in we go. It’s a wonderfully random display. We park up next to a couple of Minis, a Clio V6 and an old Rolls-Royce. The Nomad attracts plenty of attention, all of it positive.

    If there’s a drawback its this. Those who know what it is adore it. They praise you for driving it, think its wonderful and are massively jealous. Those who don’t know what it is think you’ve built it yourself. From scaffolding. In your shed. This, I will admit, is a slight frustration. They obviously can’t spot the quality of the welding.

  14. So that’s been the first week in the life of the Ariel Nomad at Top Gear. It’s done over 900 miles. Other than driving the Gamechangers on Exmoor, I haven’t done distance in another car. The sun hasn’t shone for every mile. But remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s only the wrong clothes. More on that next time. 

    Spec: 2,354cc 4cyl, nat asp, RWD, 235bhp, 221lb ft, NA MPG, NA CO2, 0-62mph in 3.4secs, 125mph, 730kg

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