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Road Tests


Friday 24th December 2010


We take Open Season to the extreme and find a car that doesn't even have bodywork

London. Not an Ariel's natural home
London. Not an Ariel's natural home
The funny thing about an Ariel Atom is that, despite it being an outrageously quick car (even without a supercharger bolted onto it), any journey in it will take far longer than you expect.

There are several reasons for this. Partly it is because, as with any car of this ilk, it takes so darn long to get settled in, strapped up and your belongings securely stowed. This is especially true in winter, when only the terminally foolish would venture forth without several layers of warm clothing, gloves, scarf and a hat.

Atom journeys are also lengthened because the ordinary British motorway is not a good place for an Atom. A combination of cold, incessant wind noise and the boredom of no bends will soon have you reaching for the road atlas to work out a more diverting route.

Sunshine doesn't always mean warmth...
Sunshine doesn't always mean warmth...
Most of all, however, trips in an Ariel Atom take so long simply because you want to make them longer. You find yourself going round empty roundabouts twice, daring yourself to push the throttle a little harder each time. Long straights are quite likely to be re-run so you can hear the gorgeous gargle of the 2.0-litre Honda K20 motor's free-breathing induction noises. And you will go out of your way to add interesting B-roads into your route so you can accelerate, brake and go through as many corners as possible.

It's just such an intoxicating experience on the road: raw, visceral, and above all involving in a way that even its supposed closest rivals can't match. A Radical or Lotus 2-Eleven might seem similarly hardcore, but both cars' bodywork actually detaches you a little from what's going on with the road beneath you. Those two are also a little too stiff and reliant on aerodynamics to match the fluidity that the Ariel's chassis provides. A Caterham gets a little closer, but then that car's nose-mounted motor denies it the sense of balance you get in the mid-engined Atom.

There's a skeletal beauty to the Atom, too. It's just about a decade since Ariel launched its car-without-a-body and the shape - which has stayed basically the same despite numerous mechanical and dynamic refinements - remains as unique and fresh today as it looked in 2001. There is simply nothing else quite like it, KTM X-Bow included.

The Atom is also the perfect showcase for Honda's wonderful 1998cc K20 i-vtec engine. It's a pretty magnificent motor in the Honda civic, but Ariel's work tweaking the fuel mapping, induction and exhaust has to be heard - and felt - to be believed. Ariel's ministrations push it from 198bhp to 245bhp, but what really marks it out as special is the noise it makes.

Gang member...
Gang member...
Not only does the vtec bit start to do its thing earlier (around 3000rpm) and for longer (up to 8600rpm rather than 8400rpm), but it's also louder, angrier and far more intoxicating than in any Honda. And it's right behind your left ear. I couldn't tell you what the exhaust sounds like, because once the revs start to climb the only noise you hear is induction. But it's so good that you really won't care.

Honda is also noted for its sweet-as-a-peach gearchanges, but in the past that hasn't quite translated into the Atom, which was stuck with an old rover shifter mechanism. Now, though, the Atom 3 uses a shifter mechanism from a Toyota MR2, and is now quite possibly the most snugly satisfying, easy-shifting gearbox I have had the pleasure to wiggle around in anger.

...or Atom driver?
...or Atom driver?
So the Atom is a pretty mega machine when it comes to pure driving thrills, but surely it's a bit cold in winter? Well, yes it is, to put it bluntly. But there is a remedy - spec your car with the optional 'Somerset' windscreen and, as well as looking slicker than the average Atom (we think), you'll be saved from the worst excesses of the buffeting of freezing winds. The other trick that Ariel offers is one that bikers have been using for years - electrically heated clothing and gloves. Add a helmet into the mix and you'll be snug as a bug in a, er, helmet.

I decided to forgo the helmet on the basis that I was far too manly, but the only other things missing that could have made me more protected from the weather would have been Perspex side screens.

Even with heated clothes, you will eventually get a bit chilly (especially without a helmet), but the crucial point is that you'll take that little bit longer to chill to the bone. Which is good, because you'll almost certainly have taken the long way round to wherever you're going.

Author: Riggers