Speed Week: Ariel Nomad vs Range Rover Sport SVR vs the TG rally car
Our trio of all-terrain heroes do battle on track... and field
This is not the first time I have found myself in a field on a TopGear Speed Week extravaganza. Last time, a couple of years back, the car was a Black Series Merc C-Class, the location was just off the back of the Hammerhead, the culprit was ‘lack of talent’ and the outcome was a substantial amount of fire.
This time around, the situation is less aflame and more bucolic. On a bank of waist-deep wild grass high above Remus, I am perched atop the Ariel Nomad – the scaffolded, off-road cousin to the Atom – surveying TG’s private fiefdom. As exotic, pointy metal yips around the track; up here is peace and calm. Fat bumblebees flit between wildflowers; pine trees rustle freshly on the breeze. Great clouds of pollen settle gently on the Nomad’s dash.Advertisement - Page continues below
A rustle from starboard, and a Range Rover Sport SVR comes bundling from the undergrowth with all the subtlety of a rhino town crier: 542bhp of snortling, chuntering, V8-stuffed SUV. With a rattle to port, out of a thicket pops our Hyundai i20 rally car, the very snotter in which TG achieved a class victory in Wales Rally GB last year. It’s becoming the wheeled manifestation of The Stig, this Hyundai: no one is sure how it keeps finding its way to our performance meets, or who invited it, but somehow it’s here.
Welcome, then, to the oddest grouping of Speed Week, a trio that might loosely be termed The All-Terrainers. A rear-drive Ariel, 4WD ultra-Range Rover and front-drive, homemade rally car might not initially appear to share much in the way of DNA, but they’re all proof, in their own way, that doing fast doesn’t necessarily require inch-from-the-tarmac splitters and full slicks. They open up a new world of performance: the whole world. Bogs, mountains et al. When the 4C-driving zombie hordes come, you’ll need one of these.
But, pleasant as it is up here on the Red Bull Ring’s grassy highveld, Speed Week is first and foremost a track test, so we must reluctantly return to terra firma to do battle with the tarmac-only hoi polloi. And so, as the local avalanche sirens sound and small children run for cover, the Range Rover Sport SVR rumbles out onto the circuit.
You might argue it’s unfair to subject a 2.3-tonne Range Rover to a track test, but SVO’s first promotional vid for the SVR showed it barrelling confidently around a wet Rockingham, so we’re only verifying their own claims. And, as 2.3-tonne SUVs go, the SVR acquits itself surprisingly well on track. It’s proper excrement-off-an-excavation-tool quick, rearing on its springs as if freshly branded before bolting with a turn of pace to embarrass some proper sports cars. Zero to 62mph officially takes 4.5 seconds. I wouldn’t dare dispute this.Advertisement - Page continues below
A V8 Range Rover Sport, only more so, the SVR makes quite simply the most extraordinary noise of any SUV in history: a snarling, snorting, popping, banging cataract of exhaust that’ll cause nausea in rear-seat passengers and great happiness to petrolheads within a two-mile vicinity. Sure, the SVR might cost nigh-on £100k, but just think of the money you’ll save on a Spotify subscription.
Problem is, for all its speed, the SVR still weighs 2.3 tonnes, with a centre of gravity a couple of feet above the top of the Nomad’s rollcage. Get heavy on the brakes in the downhill section at the end of Turn 3 – a knotty little off-camber braking zone – and the Rangie achieves such an impressive nose-stand, you’re convinced it might end with a cheeky forward roll for good measure.
Such mass also means that any errors are magnified in embarrassing detail. Entering Turn 2 a few mph too hot, the RRS and I shared a 200-yard, oversteering excursion over the AstroTurf on the outside of the bend, finally lurching back onto the track a few feet short of a messy SUV-Armco tête-
à-tête. It might not be the fastest way around a racetrack, but a little in the way of lardy tilting is not, I think, necessarily a bad thing. So utterly locked down are most of the cars on Speed Week, cornering without the slightest hint of mass transfer, that it’s curiously refreshing to have a decent slug of kerbweight to work around. It’s no precision implement on track, the RRS SVR, but it’s an entertaining wrestling match.
Unscheduled off-track excursions present rather less of a problem in our DIYundai rally car, largely because it doesn’t boast enough power to get to the state of ‘cooked’, let alone ‘overcooked’. Much as it pains me to say it, the Red Bull Ring might represent the limit of our little rally car’s ability, at least in its current configuration.
Problem is that, on sticky tarmac, it simply boasts wayyy too much tyre for its modest 150-odd bhp output. No matter how hard you try to unsettle the i20, it simply tilts a bit and grips, clinging on for dear life as Speed Week’s higher-bhp contenders (everything, basically) buzz it mercilessly. I discover fairly rapidly that braking is entirely unnecessary around this track: simply bung the i20 into a corner – with a couple of downshifts if you’re feeling lavish – and use the lateral resistance to scrub speed off. Full throttle everywhere.
That gearing – perfect, as Mr Marriage will attest, for a soggy dirt stage in deepest Wales – is a trifle short for this big, fast circuit, topping out in sixth at barely 90mph. This makes the haul up the straight between Turns 1 and 2 a rather protracted, rather noisy, very rattly affair.
It pains me to dish a kicking to our heroic Hyundai, not just out of consideration for Ollie’s delicate feelings, but because it’s rather become one of the family: an old farm collie, perhaps, not smelling quite so good as it used to, but ambling gamely on.
And, though it may not be the tidiest track car, the i20 remains a daft wee riot to drive, screaming its little lungs out as it tilts its way round the Red Bull Ring, shifts banging through the sequential ’box, interior rattling like an old washing machine on final spin cycle. It’s a reminder of a simpler era of driving, when horsepower wasn’t so easy to come by, when you had to work for every mph through a bend, when braking was less a right than an occasionally granted privilege. Slow and clattery it may have been, but the plucky Hyundai smeared a grin across the face of anyone who drove it.
Not quite such a grin as the Nomad, mind. If a more joyous, honest fast car than this exists on the planet, I’m yet to drive it. The Nomad is how you imagine driving would feel when you were a kid pushing Corgi F1 models across the kitchen floor. Perhaps even more than the Atom – and despite that windscreen – you feel part of the action, part of the very road itself, ensconced within the guts of the car, Honda engine blaring behind your head, suspension working just beyond your feet. It might not be quite so warp-speed as its track-ready brother, but the Nomad’s still mighty rapid: 0–60mph takes something around 3.4 seconds, which is sufficient for most of us.Advertisement - Page continues below
Tip into a fast corner and, unlike the dead-flat Atom, you get a yard of lean as the suspension weights up, followed by – if you keep pushing – the faintest yowl from the front end as you breach the limits of grip from the sensible tyres: no daft cut-slick rubber here, though Ariel would be delighted to provide it if you desire. More fun this way, though: a stab of throttle brings the rear into line, the Nomad flinging itself with joyful abandon at the next bend. It’s track driving rendered on its most primal level, physics and mechanics laid bare.
The Atom, though an indubitably mighty machine, is a challenging thing to operate at its limits. The Nomad’s thresholds are lower, which, for non-Stigs at least, makes it more satisfying to batter around in.
OK, the Nomad does suffer a couple of tiny issues. Once you’re firmly belted into place, it’s all but impossible to twist your left hand back far enough to operate the handbrake (not such an issue on track; quite a big issue on a grassy hillside), while, perhaps more significantly, the lack of doors means that whatever’s on the outside of the Nomad rapidly becomes on the inside: in this case, mostly pollen and, for one alarming moment, a substantial chunk of the Range Rover’s wing mirror. But it’s all part of the Nomadic sensory overload, plugging you directly into whatever surface you happen to be charging across: track, road, field, sand dune, volcano.Advertisement - Page continues below
A couple of years back, I wrote that – if somehow gifted £50,000 – I’d buy an Atom and a leaky shed on a remote road in the Scottish Highlands and spend the rest of my days as a happy, warped-face hermit. I’ve now revised that. Instead, I’d buy an Ariel Nomad and a leaky shed nowhere near a remote road in the Scottish Highlands and spend the rest of my days bouncing around the moorland as a happy, muddy, warped-face hermit: a nomad in a Nomad. A joy on road, track and field, this car transforms any landscape into a personal playground. A grassy, classy number.