New Car Reviews

Take a Road Trip in an Ariel Atom

strong>Editor’s Note: This is the eighth of eight automotive fantasies from our November 2013 print issue. We’ll be publishing the fantasies over the next few weeks on Look for the issue on newsstands now or download our iPad issue to read them all.

I’m in the driver’s seat of a car that has not been corrupted by superfluous amenities and electronic assists: no doors, no roof, no windshield, no sound insulation, no radio. The Ariel Atom is a perfect road-trip car for a masochist like me. I want to explore vacant back roads in it, but I’ll settle for anywhere other than here — I-85, just north of Atlanta.

I’m sunburned and spattered with road grime. Virginia is 400 miles away, so I need to take the freeway to get there before dusk. My imagination wanders to thoughts of hitting a deer on a dark country road with nothing to stop its 200 prancing pounds from smashing directly into me, so arriving when there’s still sunlight is a valid goal.

That mental image of the deer is just as terrifying as this interstate. I feel vulnerable. People inch their Toyotas toward the Atom to snap iPhone photos. I can see how close their tires are through the car’s plexiglass-covered exoskeleton. I’m strangling the small steering wheel, fighting the ultraquick rack it’s tied to. All six feet, two inches of me is shoved into a racing seat and cinched down with a five-point harness. The seat is bolted to a fiberglass tub that sits a few inches from the pavement, which means my butt is less than a foot from I-85. I can tell my speed by distinguishing which of several discordant noises the supercharged Chevy engine is making. In fifth (top) gear at 70 mph, it’s a baffled moan. At 80, it’s a painful howl. It contributes to a cacophony of sound — the wind whistling through my helmet’s bubble shield, the flapping of the plastic garbage bag wrapped around my luggage on the passenger seat (in case of rain) — that is louder and gruffer than Motörhead’s Lemmy yelling into a megaphone.

I enter South Carolina near Lake Hartwell State Park, endure a few more grueling hours of freeway driving, and pull off at a BP station just east of Charlotte, North Carolina. I figure there’s plenty of daylight left to get to Virginia using only two-lanes, so I swap my helmet for Wayfarers and make for a northbound road. Traffic thins and the tree line thickens, and I stop the Atom in the middle of an empty road. The tachometer needle steady at 4000 rpm, I come off the clutch and mash the accelerator. The Atom shoots forward like a bug that’s been flicked from a kitchen counter, which is what happens when a 300-hp four-cylinder engine is pushing only 1350 pounds. In seconds, I’m going 100 mph, which feels a lot more like 100 mph on a motorcycle than in a car. I see a curve in front of me but barely lift. The Atom turns in quickly, clings to the road like Velcro, and exits unfazed, as if it were going straight the whole time.

This is nothing like the interstate. I drive with rapt attention, tear through sleepy towns, and take breaks only to drink water and stretch. Straights turn into switchbacks then back to straights. I cross into Virginia and pull into my hotel’s parking lot, the sun still well above the horizon. I take a long, cold shower and then get back into the Atom. As the sun sets, the image of a head-on with a deer is pushed to the recesses of my mind and I try to get lost on Virginia’s vacant back roads in the most challenging and gratifying car I’ve ever driven.