Although the Ariel Atom is by no means a new car anymore, it remains one of the most sensational road cars to have ever been developed. In this video Hannes takes a seriously racy Atom Series 2 that's for sale for a spin. And given his past experience with the Atom, he's scared...
Words and Images: Hannes Oosthuizen
- Year, Make and Model: 2007 Ariel Atom (Series 2)
- Engine: 2.4L 4-cylinder (Honda) turbopetrol
- Power: 230kW (road trim, at the flywheel)
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- 0-100kph: 3 sec (claimed)
- Price: R695 000 (view listing here)
When you practise motoring journalism for long enough, it's almost inevitable that you're going to have an incident or two along the way. I've been very fortunate in that I've only ever had a single major one, and it came at the wheel of one of these, an Ariel Atom, in 2013.
I need to add that we weren't being reckless, and that it was a very low speed crash, but nevertheless the damage was severe (to the car), and my ego was bruised. Consequently, I'm rather intimidated by the Ariel Atom.
And so I approached this drive rather hesitantly - keen to banish the bad memories of the past and replace them with the joyful ones I had read about in the British press in the early Noughties. Yes, the Atom is not new anymore, and Ariel is now a company that's more than two decades old, but it continues to produce some of the most focused, sensational driver's machines the world has ever seen.
Development of the Ariel Atom started near the dawn of the new millennium as a student project. Its potential was quickly recognised by Simon Saunders, a lecturer at Coventry University at the time, and the project was "escalated" soon after.
The Atom uses a tubular steel "exoskeleton" chassis, to which is mounted single-seater, racing-car derived suspension, adjustable on all four corners with a wrench. Front and rear double unequal length wishbones and inboard, pushrod-operated dampers contribute to sensational handling. When driving an Atom for the first time you may sense some Lotus DNA in the genes, and you'd be correct - the legendary British firm tuned the suspension set-up.
Through the years the Atom has been offered with a variety of powerplants, from a 1.8L Rover K-Series engine to a custom 373kW John Hartley-designed V8.
Just getting going in an Atom is quite a procedure. You step over the tubular frame onto the hard single-moulding seat, and then slide down into position, before buckling the four-point racing harness. You very quickly realise that there are no "creature comforts" in this car. There is no radio (you wouldn't be able to hear it anyway). There is no air-conditioning (because you've got the full force of nature in your face all the time). No power steering. No airbags. There isn't even a fuel gauge. But you do get a fire extinguisher... which kind of tells you what kind of car this really is...
Firing up the Atom is also no "turn-key" affair - four different keys, toggles and buttons need to be used in a specific order before the Atom will bark into life. This 2007 variant is a Series 2 model fitted with a turbocharged 2.4L Honda V-Tec engine that has had all its internals upgraded to cope with up to 300kW! In road-spec as it is currently set up, the Atom has 230kW at the flywheel, good enough to blast this 550kg rocket to 100kph in about 3 seconds.
Its gearbox retains that typically Honda, very mechanical, very short throw feel, and initially I struggle to find fifth (very close to third), but you get used to it quickly. Something else that is initially quite intimidating is the location of the massive air-intake right behind your head. When you're pushing on, the combination of hissing and boosting sounds is eventually quite intoxicating.
As you can see on the images, this car has previously competed in the Simola Hillclimb and is particularly racy. It features a front spoiler as well as an almost comically large rear wing. But I'm happy they're there, because the extra downforce will make up (to some extent) for the lack of traction and stability control.
Make sure the steering wheel is straight before you mash the throttle in first gear, and you're thrust back in your seat with the engine sucking loudly through that intake. The intensity of the acceleration and the accompanying cacophony may lead to you grabbing the next gear too soon, but keep an eye on the rev limiter, because you've probably got a good two or three thousand rpm to go! When the moment comes, click to second with the flick of the wrist and hang on again, as the acceleration continues relentlessly. It is shatteringly, scarily fast!
But it is more than a one-trick pony. You can really feel Lotus's hand in the trick suspension. It is obviously very firm, but with the addition of helper springs and particularly fine tuning, it actually puts its wheels down and retains traction very well. But it's certainly not a car for novices. The brakes are unassisted, and you can break traction at will should you wish (or be too hamfisted). No, it's a car that responds to measured and considered inputs, and in such hands it is not only devastatingly fast but the most visceral, thrilling experience you can have on four (road-legal) wheels.
This Atom is currently listed for sale for R695 000. I have no idea what its mileage is, but it feels rock-solid. It is a truly superb piece of engineering, combining quality components with great craftsmanship. There is simply no road car, at any price, really, that I think delivers a similar experience to an Atom, and at the quoted price I think it's a bit of a bargain, actually. It's definitely not a car you can even remotely consider using on a regular basis, but if you have the means to acquire a car that is the pure definition of driving enjoyment, get an Ariel Atom.