A superbike with four wheels, Ariel's Atom road-legal track-day car isn't cheap - but very few supercars can deliver better acceleration or grab more attention. With record-breaking 0-100mph potential there's a waiting list for new cars, but you can buy decent second-generation examples from £28,000.
First revealed in 1996 in prototype form the original Atom was powered by a 1.8-litre Rover K-Series engine with just 120hp, but with a kerb weight of less than 500kg 0-60mph took just 5.6 seconds. More powerful versions followed, with up to 190hp; whilst prices started at £16,997 in 2000.
An Atom 2 arrived in 2003 with the 2.0-litre unit from the Honda Civic Type R and, in 2004, a Jackson Racing supercharger was bolted to the Type R unit to create the Atom 275, with a 0-60 time of just 3.4 seconds. Further engine development raised power to 300hp by 2005. Ariel also made a Civic Type S-powered 160hp version which is still a hoot, and arguably easier to handle on the limit. The latest Atom 3, with a smoother 'KZ' Type R engine and a new gearbox, was launched in 2007.
Potential owners should bear in mind that - although the Atom can be driven on UK roads - it's a track car first and foremost. So it's loud, proud and nowhere near as comfortable as more mainstream sports cars. With no windscreen or doors you're pretty exposed, and there's no storage space either, but on track the Atom scores 10 out of 10 for fun. And those brakes are seriously powerful.
Servicing is best left to the experts - so most owners take their Atoms back to Ariel for annual or 4,500-mile servicing. This typically costs between £500 and £900. VED is a reasonable £220 a year, whilst track tyres cost around £170 a corner. Atom 1 and Atom 2 160 have five-speed manual boxes, rather than a six-speeder, but both are very reliable.
Many later options can be retrofitted to earlier Atoms, but if you search for a first-generation Atom 1 and you're likely to be disappointed - the low production volume means they rarely come up for sale at all. But there are quite a few Honda-powered Atom 2s and 3s advertised for sale - with the most affordable in the region of £28,000.
If you're keen to check a car's provenance you can call Ariel with a chassis number and they'll confirm what they know of the car's history, whilst the exposed construction means it's hard to conceal neglect. Less than £200 will buy a recommended factory safety check.
- Analogue SPA dashboard can sometimes play up - more recent models use a digital alternative
- Rear bulbs on early cars can dislodge through vibration. Warm Atom 2s may leak fuel if overfilled
- Silvery patches on the powder-coated frame mean there's been a significant impact, while bare aluminium surfaces are subject to salt erosion if not rinsed after winter use
- Speedometer and tachos that fail to read or are inconsistent may mean the gap between sensor and magnet has become too wide. A dash replacement costs £900.
- Crazing in the lacquer suggests the chassis have been damaged - and that could be costly to fix
- Gearbox oil should be changed with engine oil at 4,500 miles or annually. Only extreme, sustained abuse will call for a replacement clutch
- Rover K-Series engine's catalogued head-gasket problems are not an issue in superlatively cooled Atom 1, but the cambelt needs changing every three years.
- The baffled oil pan in most VTEC-equipped cars maintains lubrication under g-force. Coolant weeping in cold conditions is not considered serious
- The clutch is long-lived providing the car isn't abused, but do check for any slipping because replacement is expensive as it's an engine-out job
- Recalcitrant gear-changes, most commonly on Atom 2s, indicate synchromesh degradation which - if you're unlucky - could cost up to £2,000 to fix
- The car's exoskeleton is very pricey to fix if damaged, but is rarely beyond salvation. Minor dings are less problematic to rectify
- Labour is nearly always the biggest single cost in any repair work
- Track-rod ends eventually wear out, but dampers and other suspension components tend to last very well. However they can prove dear to replace
- Rear wheel play, wandering and hub noise all suggest worn wheels bearings - more durable items from Porsche (fitted as standard from 2010) cost around £1,600 to retrofit
- Standard track-day Mintex pads are fairly cheap - so there's little point choosing aftermarket options
- Normal road tyres should last around three years or 20,000 miles, but expect just 4,000 to 8,000 miles from track rubber
ARIEL ATOM 2 300
Engine: 1,998cc supercharged 4cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power (hp): 300hp@8,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 191lb ft@7,150rpm
Price now: £28,000 to £43,950