You don't so much drive an Ariel Atom as shotgun it through the landscape. Wind goes up your shorts. Bugs go down your gullet. Gravel, freed from the bonds of gravity by the Atom's passing vacuum, wanders up into your underpants. Faced with the whole of creation whizzing by dilution-free, you instinctively clamp your mouth shut for fear of inflating your skull and creating a makeshift air brake.
Controls are fairly simple: three pedals, a steering wheel, and a couple of toggle switches. Think right, and the Atom goes right. Think left, and the Atom goes left. Drive over a quarter, and the tiny, suede-covered steering wheel outlines Washington's receding hairline in braille. Rev the engine past three grand or toe in more than a quarter throttle, and the air intake three inches behind your right ear makes you instantly deaf. Half a mile away, the exhaust blat and supercharger scream knock birds from trees.
Simply put, the Atom is pure car--and nothing more. It has no doors, no windshield, no roof, and no body panels of any consequence. Its sole mission is to move itself from place to place at maximum possible speed. It doesn't care if you're comfortable (though, oddly enough, you occasionally are), it doesn't care if you're wet or dry or covered in bees (and you can, at times, be all three), and it doesn't care if you end every trip wearing most of the landscape you just drove through. Weight? With a full tank of gasoline, the Atom checks in at 1325 pounds. Depending on your choice of engine spec, power ranges anywhere from 140 to 300 hp; torque can climb as high as 250 lb-ft. Cornering grip is well over 1 g. Base price starts at $36,853. And the thing is almost impossible not to love.
If you've done some quick math in your head, you've no doubt figured out that a top-spec Atom has a power-to-weight ratio approaching that of some pretty impressive machinery. A Ferrari Enzo, for example. Or most liter-displacement superbikes. But in so many ways, the Atom is more appealing than either. A superbike may offer more speed for less cash, but there's always the risk of falling off or looking like a total twit in your full-body leathers. And word is, an Ariel can't just hang with an Enzo (which, incidentally, costs half a million dollars more)--up to 100 mph, the 300-hp Atom is actually claimed to be faster.
Two point eight seconds. That's how long it takes the 245-horsepower version of the Ariel Atom to rip from 0 to 60 mph. Two point eight. (Need a reference point? The all-wheel-drive 2007 Porsche 911 Turbo launches harder, has 235 more horsepower, and is 0.9 second slower.)
But for all its impressive performance, the Ariel Atom comes from rather humble beginnings. Its designer, a Brit named Simon Saunders, conceived the car years ago as a way to round out his design business, Automotive Dynamics, Limited. Twenty-five years in the British motor industry (including a start at the now-defunct Norton bike works) had left Saunders itching to do a minimalist component sports car--something in the Lotus/ Caterham 7 or Shelby Cobra replica vein--but without relying on an outdated design concept. (He's got a valid point; even the Caterham, with its shattering performance levels, dates to the early 1950s in terms of its basic design and layout.)
Even so, the Atom isn't a bristling, up-to-the-minute pile of freakishly modern technology. Its curved, mild-steel spaceframe and integral composite floor are artfully and purposefully laid out, but the main triumph here is efficient packaging and grace of design. The suspension, drawn up by then-Jordan For-mula 1 engineer Niki Smart, follows standard formula-car practice, with twin steel-tube control arms, inboard-mounted springs and dampers, rocker arms, and pushrods. Compliance-laden rubber bushings are unsurprisingly absent; each of the Atom's pivoting joints is a traditional ball joint or standard motorsport-derived Heim joint. Even the aluminum-bodied manual steering rack (itself little more than a foot long) looks like something out of an open-wheeler.
Faced with such a package, you'd probably conclude that the Atom was the result of a thousand Keebler motorsport elves working diligently away in some British tree cottage, but you'd be only half right. For the past eight months, U.S.-market Atoms have been manufactured under license by Brammo Motorsports in Ashland, Oregon. Owner and CEO Craig Bramscher inked a deal with Saunders roughly a year ago in May; today, his forty-three-man shop turns out about three cars a week. To date, they've placed twelve Atoms in eager customer hands.
Although Bramscher and his team--with the blessing and assistance of Saunders--have laid their mitts on virtually every component on the Atom, the car is little changed overall from the U.K. version. A transverse-mounted, supercharged Ecotec four-cylinder (the same powerplant found in the 205-hp Chevrolet Cobalt SS supercharged) and its accompanying five-speed, cable-shifted transaxle provide motivation, supplanting the British car's high-revving Honda four. (Two versions of the Honda engine can still be had, although the Ecotec is available with equal power and up to 87 lb-ft more torque.) Small details such as trim, options, and frame width (the U.S. car is 2.3 inches wider than the British version) have changed, but otherwise, the Brammo-built Atom is still an Atom.
Of course, there's always a catch. And the catch here is that, as delivered, the Atom isn't street legal. As such, the cars Brammo produces wear serial numbers instead of actual VINs and are marketed as track-only specials. Liberal kit-car laws in most states allow the majority of private owners to legally register their cars, but rarely is it quick or easy.
Even after only a brief time in Brammo's 205-hp demonstrator, we came away with a healthy impression of what the Atom is capable of--and of how addictive it is. Like a good motorcycle, the Atom distills things down to just you and the road (even more so, given how much you're bombarded with chunks of the scenery kicked up by the two front tires). In a world where the 8-mpg, Hoover Dam-powered, hyperexpensive land rocket makes less and less sense, nothing about the Atom seems out of place. In a way, it foreshadows what high-performance cars are likely to evolve into: single-use, dedicated-focus emotion distillers that make no concessions to practical transportation.
In the meantime, though, Bramscher and his crew are currently working under a seventy-one-car order backlog, so if you want an Atom, you'd best sign up as soon as possible (www.arielatom.com). And make sure you've got yourself a sturdy toothbrush--the bees tend to get stuck between your teeth.