World exclusive Ariel Atom 4R review: a bonkers loon that just wants to have fun Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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World exclusive Ariel Atom 4R review: a bonkers loon that just wants to have fun

£140,000 when new
Published: 22 Sep 2023

An Atom. With wings. And carbon. New entry level model?

Arf. More re-entry level than entry level. There is a feeling with fast Atoms that the only people really capable of operating them are probably astronauts.

This is the new Atom 4R and you’re right, it features wings and carbon. And the small matter of a 25 per cent power boost, which, yes, can deliver a particularly gusty haymaker. Now it only seems like yesterday that the Atom 4 arrived, but actually it was almost five years ago. Time, like the Atom 4R, flies.

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The Atom 4 was the biggest step forward in Ariel’s near 25-year history. It was longer, wider, designed using CAD and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and the only part carried over from the previous version were the steering wheel and top section of the column, pedal box and fuel cap. Not only was it stronger (and yes, a little heavier) it was also aerodynamically much better.

Photography: John Wycherley

How so?

Up to and including the Atom 3, Ariel had an exposed roll hoop wrapped around the air intake. Computer modelling for the Atom 4 showed that this disrupted airflow so much, that the big wing to the Atom 3.5R barely did anything. The plan this time was to make the aero work.

More downforce than a Porsche 911 GT3 RS?

Er, no. But for a car less than half the weight, 110kg of downforce at only 70mph is impressive. And noticeable. Initially for the extra drag above 120mph (and just how vicious the deceleration is when you lift off before you go near the brakes), and once you’ve summoned up more courage, just how planted and stable it is through quick corners. The thing to remember at this stage is that the wings don’t come as standard with the 4R.

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But you need them?

Depends on how you want to use the car. I suspect it works better with them than without, and visually they do balance out the new cooling boxes on either side.
An additional cooling radiator in the left pod has increased engine cooling by 55 per cent, while the right one houses a larger air-to-air intercooler (a 75 per cent increase in intercooling area). This, plus new intake geometry is the chief reason for the extra power, up from 320bhp to 400bhp from the Honda Civic Type R’s 2.0-litre turbo. Torque stands at 369lb ft.

The internals haven’t been mucked around with at all. Ariel will do that if you ask them nicely. It’ll cost you about £20,000, but Director Henry Siebert-Saunders reckons 550bhp is possible.

That’s nuts!

It is. Even as standard it hits 60mph in under 2.7 seconds, 100mph in less than 6.5s and should go on to a 170mph max. Rapid enough.

So let’s wind back a bit. Here’s what you get as standard with the 4R. No wings, no carbon panels, carbon wheels or brakes, Bilstein two-way adjustable dampers and Honda’s six-speed manual gearbox. It’s a bit of a hot rod really. Big power, less control over it. And it costs £77,940, a substantial hike over the regular car which starts at – well, it doesn’t matter particularly, because Ariel’s waiting list is so long that the cars don’t lose any money.

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But the one you’ve got here looks much more kitted out.

It’s best to think of this one as a 4R+. It’s had everything thrown at it, from carbon wheels and brakes (saving 26kg), plus carbon panels and wings, to Ohlins exotic four-way adjustable dampers and a Quaife six-speed sequential gearbox with pneumatic activation. It costs about £140,000 as tested.

Ooh, that is a lot for a lightweight.

It is, but then the 343bhp BAC Mono R is £235,000 and I don’t think it’s any faster than this. Because this isn’t so much a lightweight car as a defibrillator with wheels. It should be available on the NHS.

It’s a daunting car initially. You strap on harnesses, grab goggles, make sure the boost dial is firmly down in position 1 and fire the engine. It bubbles and hums smoothly enough, but the second you pull a paddle and get that delicious pfft-click as the gearbox selects first and start to move off, the intake by your ear wakes up and begins to start greedily snorting air.

It's an initial salvo, a warning of what’s to come. Because out on track once up and running, the noise is bananas. The turbo whistles and shrieks, gasps and fizzes, tenses under load, chuckles and hiccups when released. There’s momentary lag in the mid-range, but it’s gone at high revs so mid-corner throttle response is spot-on, just what you want to make micro-adjustments to your line.

You still in position 1 on the Turbo?

Just for one lap, but midway round I already felt comfortable and confident. The biggest step forward the Atom 4 made was in feeling more fluent and less spiky than earlier Atoms. The 4R takes that learning and runs with it. As we had it set-up, it was surprisingly softly sprung, which meant it flitted over kerbs and rode bumps like a Lotus. It wasn’t jittery and snatchy at all, so it was straight to boss-level for the Turbo.

Which, to be frank, is mad pace. The kind your brain struggles to keep up with initially. Hypercar speed, but with maximum exposure. The wind, the noise, the drama, the intensity of it. It’s physically punishing and utterly exhilarating. You’ll get back to the pits and your hands will be trembling. Mine were. 

How’s the handling?

On Gotlandring’s tight older track, the way it hurled itself out of corners once the tyres were warm was formidable. Provided you weren’t too greedy with the throttle too early it resisted understeer almost entirely, and even if you were much too greedy, much too early the tail would arc wide into oversteer, but do so controllably. It slid almost as well as a Caterham, and that’s saying something.

Does it have any safety systems?

Yep, both ABS brakes and motorsport traction control. You feel them working, but traction position 2 (of 7) was a sweet spot, managing a hint of oversteer with barely noticeable intrusion. The steering is a workout and gains load through corners, but the feedback you get, the accuracy with which you can hit apexes, the fact you can see them through the lattice work, watch the wheels at work, is like nothing else.

The Ohlins dampers are sensational, delivering smoothness and silky composure and are, I suspect, a large part of what makes the Atom 4R far friendlier than it has any right to be. The only car that could remotely keep up in the tight stuff was the GT3 RS, and even through the very fast stuff the Atom didn’t lose its stability.

And under brakes?

The carbon brakes are mighty. They never fade, you rarely trouble the ABS, the pedal has just the right amount of travel and no sponginess. In fact all the controls, from the pedals to the dash switches, are really satisfying to operate. Again, it means you build trust in the car. That said, I suspect dealing with a manual would keep you very busy indeed.

Let’s have a verdict.

For the kind of car it is, the 4R is remarkably fluent and capable. The damping and stability really stand out, the fact it slides well seems irrelevant, but it speaks of a chassis with a huge sweet spot. So I lapped Gotlandring, with the engine shrieking and wailing, the clutchless gearchanges punching through and all my colleagues convinced I’m out there taming some kind of dragon, when actually I’m the calm at the centre of the storm. It rained, I drove it in the wet, and it was still faithful and controllable. I had a ball.

Top work Ariel. The Atom 4R is almost three cars in one: The engine gives it a fury and intensity that I’m not sure you can find in any other road car up to and including the Aston Valkyrie, but its chassis is all composure and calm professionalism. And overall? It’s a bonkers loon of a device that never takes itself too seriously. It just wants to have fun.

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