Crewkerne, ENGLAND – The locals stare in wide-eyed disbelief as what looks for all the world like a racing car that forgot to get dressed in the morning rolls into view. Forget the tired cliché of a racing car for the road, which is rolled out by manufacturers every time they strip a pound or two from the curb weight and throw some decals on a car, because the 2014 Ariel Atom 3.5R is the real deal.
It’s raining and this is the only prototype and I’ve been warned to take things easy, but even teasing the throttle reveals a car that is seriously quick. There’s no weight transfer, no shift in the balance. The Atom is too light, low slung and tightly sprung for that. Instead it just takes off; I push the throttle and I’m simply somewhere else. This car is brain-scrambling fast.
Stats made for speed
This Ariel Atom 3.5R is a rear-wheel-drive 350-hp machine that weighs in at just 1212 lbs and comes with 570 lbs of aero downforce. It hits 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, then gets to100 mph in 6 seconds and finally reaches a top speed of 155 mph. But even these impressive stats don’t provide the full picture.
It’s the brutality of the speed that comes as a shock–the feeling of exposure. As the speed piles on, the wind plows into my full-face helmet. There is a windscreen, but it’s a tiny, token effort. As is the bodywork, a carbon-fiber thong to protect the car’s modesty and provide a semblance of luggage space in the front. That and a pair of sidepods are all you get. Wind rushes into the cockpit as I gather speed, my legs are cold and I could not care less.
Simon Saunders breathed new life into the Ariel name that had stagnated for decades when he re-launched the company in 2001. His vision was simple: build a lightweight car that could bring motorcycle thrills to four wheels.
The sweet spot of insanity
More than 13 years after production of the Atom began, 100 cars a year leave the nondescript Ariel factory in Crewkerne, a rural town in southwest England. The cars range from the basic right through to the legendary 500 V8 that really was too fast for public roads. The Atom 3.5R might just be the sweet spot that provides insane performance you can just about enjoy without a private race track. It’s still fundamentally a track car that you’d be a lunatic to drive every day, but it is usable on the open road, which is kind of the point of a car like this.
That trademark lattice chassis that forms the backbone of the Atom has become its visual calling card and embodies Ariel’s lightweight ethos. It’s the antithesis of the modern trend for carbon-fiber tubs, which Saunders argues are more expensive and complex to fix in the event of an unintended off-road cornering experience. The Atom relies on old-fashioned, triangulated steel girders and solid engineering principles for its substantial torsional rigidity, but there’s something reassuring about these sturdy steel tubes when you don’t have the illusion of safety provided by bodywork. The powder-coated steel can also come in any color, even though this one is a relatively safe white.
Cables wend their way through the chassis, while the seats (such as they are) are so thin that you can see the weave in the material and the four-seat harnesses are bolted straight into the chassis. As for carpets, a stereo and creature comforts, forget it. The Ariel Atom is a single-minded machine, built for going fast and weighing as little as possible while just barely conforming to the road regs.
No longer a simple Civic engine
In an age where the McLaren MP4-12C is touted as a London-Monaco road car and the Lamborghini Huracan is meant to be about NVH as well as balls-out performance, it’s a wondrous thing to see the sports car formula pared back to literally just the bare bones. Austerity can work.
Without comfy leather seating and Alcantara-clad panels, you don’t need huge power to make the Ariel Atom run to rocketship-type velocities. In fact the engine for the Atom 3.5R has humble origins, since it’s the 2.0-liter, Honda i-VTEC four-cylinder from the last-gen Honda Civic Type R, only now equipped an Eaton supercharger. Ariel has already employed this configuration in a 310-hp configuration, and now it has raised the boost pressure from 7.5 to 11 psi to liberate a further 40 hp.
Peak power hits at a heady 8400 rpm, and what was already a screamer of an engine is now simply ballistic thanks to the ominous hiss of a supercharger, a stainless steel sports exhaust and much less weight to fire down the road than a Civic Type R. With 243 lb-ft of torque at 6400 rpm, the engine remains docile and drivable while loping round in a higher gear, and then gets angrier and more serious as the revs rise. The noise is violent, aggressive–a high-pitched, rasping whine that threatens to shatter the miniscule windscreen.
Rocketing down the road
At speed the Ariel Atom 3.5R climbs up on its toes like a boxer, darting in the wind and wriggling off unseen lips in the tarmac. It’s jittery and reacts like a rattlesnake, but it makes you feel alive. The rally-spec, six-speed Sadev gearbox cracks through flat-footed shifts in a near instantaneous 40 milliseconds, while each click on the near weightless carbon-fiber shift paddles sends a shudder through the whole car.
In the lower gears a dip of the clutch helps cut the kangaroo hops from the drivetrain, which is an unusual dance in a paddle-shift road car. (The last machine I drove with this sort of set-up was a racing Audi R8.) Downshifts elicit a rifle crack from the stainless steel manifold that feels strapped to my head. Drive this car hard where you live and all your neighbors will hate you. Just move. A lot.
The steering is direct as it gets thanks to a rack-and-pinion setup that takes just 1.7 turns on the steering wheel from lock to lock. The Atom doesn’t steer quite like a racing car, but it’s close, and the slightest flex of the fingertips sends the car lasering into the apex. As for ease of placement, it’s the simplest car there is. Forget just seeing all four corners; I can see what’s happening inside the corners in the suspension.
And that’s the way to drive this car, through economical inputs with the fingertips. It is not designed for flamboyant drifts, although this might just be the most user-friendly Atom to date despite its speed potential.
Handling the twisty bits
The early Ariel Atoms gained a reputation for snap oversteer, but largely thanks to advances in the Kumho tires and minute suspension developments made over years, the 3.5R now breaks traction progressively and won’t punish the unwary quite so readily. The outboard pushrod suspension with the highest quality Ohlins adjustable dampers featuring simple click controls for bump and rebound don’t hurt the Ariel’s manners either.
An adjustable limited-slip diff also makes collecting the slides that little bit easier, even though I’m banned from testing this car’s outer limits on the damp roads around Crewkerne. There’s nothing wrong with the brakes, though. The flyweight frame means that four-piston calipers clamping on to 11.4-inch discs prove more than enough to keep the Ariel 3.5R in check, plus you’ll need to slam them on all day long to make them fade.
When the speeds get serious, I start to feel the effects of the beautifully constructed carbon-fiber wings, too. They’re adjustable, and in the most steeply raked setup they’re capable of delivering 570 pounds of downforce at 155 mph, which is a huge amount on a car this light. It means that in faster bends on the track, this car will stick like a high-end racing car.
There’s also stability control, an essential addition amongst the raft of parts-bin switches and buttons that sit alongside the digital dash on the custom carbon-fiber instrument binnacle. The interior looks a little home brewed and there are some rough edges, including the glued together sections that make up the paddle shifts, but you don’t need perfect aesthetics when you’re aiming at an apex.
Getting it all together
So many modern supercars are desperate to be all things to all men. The 2014 Ariel Atom 3.5R does one thing amazingly well: searing speed. And it does it for very little money if you’re a rich bloke. This is a car that could mix it up wheel-to-wheel with any of the current hypercar icons and probably come out on top.
If only this version of the Ariel Atom were scheduled for certification for the U.S., but sadly it is not. Nevertheless, Atom 3.5R shows you that basic, pared-down hot rods like this might seem to give you less, but in the pursuit of pure speed, the thrills and the exhilaration, you get oh so much more.
2014 Ariel Atom 3.5R Specifications
Base Price: £69,756 ($118,289 at current exchange rates)
On Sale: Not in the USA
Engine: 2.0-liter supercharged DOHC I-4
Power: 350 hp @ 8400 rpm
Torque: 243 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-60 mph: 2.6 seconds
Top speed: 155 mph