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Life with Top Gear’s Ariel Nomad, update 2

Includes the revelation that sailing gear is well suited to wet and windy lightweight cars

  1. Commuting in the Nomad is brilliant. Unless you’re stationary on the motorway and it’s raining. But we seem to have had a reasonably dry autumn so far, and even when it has been raining, it hasn’t really put me off. Daily life in the Nomad is just better: I feel brighter about the day no matter the weather because of the car’s puppyish enthusiasm for everything it does. So yes, it requires a different mindset to driving a conventional car, but because it has a windscreen and ride comfort it’s not as compromised and exhausting as you might expect.

    Yes, this is me and the Nomad, both looking suitably daft. The Nomad’s £420 car cover has been nicknamed the NomDom and although I thought I was rocking the Ellen McArthur/Ming the Merciless vibe pretty well, my son pointed out I looked like a boiled egg in an egg cup, which kind of took the wind out of my sails. 

    Anyway, I’d been thinking about the best way to dress myself to drive the Nomad – ski gear was too bulky and I didn’t get the padding and plates you get in most motorcycle suits, so I wound up speaking to a company called Zhik, who make clobber designed to handle the Southern Ocean. 

    It has neoprene collars and cuffs to stop water getting in, and the unseen advantage that the high rear collar doubles as a handy headrest in the Nomad’s plastic seat. So I’m dry, warm and if the weather gets bad you can pull the hood out with a single hand. Apparently ocean racers need that when they’re helming. Me too.

  2. Anyway, the car cover. Yes, it’s an absolute fiddle to fit. I’ve had a bit of practice now, but solo it still takes about seven minutes to remove, and roughly four times that long to attach. There is Velcro, strapping and clips. This is not something you’re going to attempt at the side of the M62. You decide before you leave home. The fit is impressively tight, the hood is beautifully made, and the clear panels don’t warp the outside world. 

    And it’s not completely waterproof. Water still seeps in around the edges of the windscreen. But it does do a good job of keeping the interior warmer, drier and less draughty than might otherwise be the case. The biggest issue with it is the ‘doors’. You have to zip them up once you’re in and that’s next to impossible unless you have triple-jointed elbows.

  3. Here’s the view from inside. Obviously there are issues. The fabric is thick around the A-pillars, which restricts visibility and hides the passenger side mirror very effectively – unless you spend another half an hour jiggling the straps for the cover around to loosen it in one area and tighten it in another.

  4. So I haven’t been using the cover that much, and have instead focused on clothing as the best method of weather protection. And this is why I wanted a smock instead of a regular jacket – it has this useful pouch on the front, which you can still get into when you have the Nomad’s harness on. 

    So wallet, phone, BBC gate pass and earbud headphones all go in there when I walk out the door in the morning, and I’m good to go.

  5. Speaking of earbuds, these are brilliant. A set of in-ear Bluetooth buds that come in their own little protective hardcase that also charges them up. They’re made by Jabra, called Elite Sport, and I’ve been really impressed with them – sound quality is good, battery life exceptional (used them for almost four hours solid yesterday) and they fit inside my helmet too.

  6. This is the alternative for when I have passengers in the car. I learned my lesson after my brother and I drove to London soon after I got the Nomad and all we could do on the M4 was glance at each other and giggle. 

    The 3M Peltor headsets run off a single 9v battery in a little control pack that I’ve tie-wrapped to the frame between the seats. I’ve gaffer taped the leads to the belts so they’re easy to plug in and then you’re off, living every single rally fantasy you’ve dreamed of.

  7. Back to the car. Well, my son Luke upside down in the footwell. If you want to attach the cover properly you need to remove the Perspex side panels. It’s a massive pain to do unless you have arms five feet long, and the cover will go on over the top of them if you’re prepared to forgo a couple of straps. 

    You should. During a bit of downtime at Dunsfold recently, it took me 45 minutes to reattach the panel on one side. Because the gaps between frame and Perspex are too small to get a finger through and you can’t reach around, I ended gaffer taping the nut to the inside and trying to screw the bolt in from outside.

  8. The next day was a Saturday. Luke is 30 years younger than me and thus much better at being posted headfirst into a footwell. He’s also a dab hand with a set of spanners. We had the whole job done in five minutes. 

    Those Perspex panels are a £540 option – more expensive than the £420 whole car cover, but they’d be the first box I ticked. I did without them for a couple of days and even the threat of stones being flicked up from the front wheels makes you wince. The reality is considerably more painful.

  9. So the Nomad has done a bit of track work. Check out the lean angles. This was out Llandow in South Wales. How does it feel? Well, better than you’d think. Quick direction changes aren’t its thing as the Fox dampers compress easily to start with before ramping up resistance further into their travel. So you get lean initially, but then a surprising amount of support – the Nomad basically takes up a stance, an angle, and once it’s done this, you start to feel the edges of grip through the tyre and get a sense of how much harder you can push it.

  10. And when it does break away it’s very progressive. And, with a wheel in the air and the aerial waving about on top, looks plain hilarious. 

    The one thing you have to watch out for – on road as well as track – is kickback from those big, heavy tyres. The rotational forces mean that when you have some steering lock on, all they want to do is straighten back up, so, with no power steering to help you, you have to fight to keep the lock on. 

    But driving the Nomad on track is plain hilarious – the amount of squat and dive it gets, the roll, the movement, the comparative lack of grip of those Yokohama Geolander tyres. The whole car feels so active and alive. And it’s a brilliant teacher, because the speeds aren’t too high and the soft suspension reveals the physics behind car movement. You have to make it flow to go fast. I found it addictive.

  11. Of course, this is more the Nomad’s hunting ground. A romp through the fields on a lovely evening. And this is where the real magic happens, where you struggle to comprehend the sheer work rate and astonishing compliance of those Fox dampers.

    Now, I’m not going to pretend it’s like a hovercraft, because you do still get fairly physically pounded, but if you’ve ever tried to drive a Defender fast across a field and know just how punishing that is, how it feels like its rattling both car and driver into pieces, well, the Nomad is vastly better than that. 

    In fact I can’t think of another vehicle this side of a trophy truck or a WRC car that is better for fast off-road work. And fast off-road work is perhaps the most amusing driving you can ever do. So off-road the Nomad feels like a low slung, mini Trophy Truck, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

  12. And don’t forget you’ve got this lot of hardware to help you out. I love this shot: springs, winch, spotlights, aerial. What else does a bloke need?

    The thing is the Nomad is so light and capable, that I haven’t yet got it stuck or needed to use the winch. Clearly this is a state of affairs that needs rectifying. 

    One other point. The aerial: it doesn’t fit under height restrictors obviously, nor down into our underground car park. So then you have a choice. You can either stop, unplug it and put it in the footwell next to you, or you can reach up behind your head and bend it forward. This takes a bit of practice as you have to edge your fingers along the aerial as it swings down, but I’ve now got the car park entry technique down pat. 

  13. I have done a bit of green-laning in it and actually enjoyed it just as much pottering around at low speeds because you feel so in touch with everything around you – you can put your hand out to brush the brambles if you so desire. 

    The engine’s not too noisy, and it looks cute so doesn’t upset the rambling fraternity anything like as much as a motocross bike. 

  14. That means it’s basically become the Marriage family pet, to be taken out for walks whenever possible. And because it’s so robust the kids get to use it as a viewing platform/climbing frame.

  15. It’s even turned its hand to a spot of logging, carrying chainsaw kit to places we couldn’t get car and trailer to. But hauling the logs themselves… well, that’s about the only thing the Nomad hasn’t been able to turn its hand to…

What do you think?

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