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.