Sunday, April 23, 2006 

Cars - Faster Street/road car in the world

Looking like the creation of a retired scaffolder with an engineering passion, the Ariel Atom is more akin to contemporary sculpture than anything else. Study the beauty of the welding, where tubes meet for example; then step back and ponder the whole machine. Perhaps Mad Max springs to mind? Whatever, this has to be one of the most outlandish sportscars ever.

Well I for one love bizarre and minimalist machines. But this might just be minimalism too far! Kerb weight is 496kg and there is simply no fat on the bone. The option list does not include a heater, let alone windscreen or vestigial hood. Hell, this makes my favourite Caterhams positively sybaritic and spacious, but more of that anon.

Build Quality

Once you’re accustomed to the naked formula Ford looks, you notice the quality of components. Alcon brakes and monoblock callipers feature (optional), with custom inboard Bilstein dampers and special Dunlop formula R tyres and 16” wheels (option). Besides the substantial, bronze welded chassis there are lovely “Tilton” aluminium pedals and pedal box, further keeping the weight down. Other quality items abound, be it the stainless steel exhaust and manifold or “SPA” twin, easy to read dials. Everywhere you look you will find top quality bits and these all create the high calibre product that is the “Atom”.

Skimping is a word that does not exist in MD Simon Saunders vocabulary. There is something terribly British about the fellow and what they are achieving. He even runs a Defender TD5 and an Aston Martin. Hurrah! It is so enervating to find small British companies flourishing like this, confounding the experts.

Purpose

You cannot get away from the fact that this is one focused, track day car. The road car label comes second, but the company are filling a niche offering something much rawer and appealing. Quite how many buyers wish to drive a car so closely related to a motorbike may be debatable. But in this day and age of sanitised, safe everything, people are bound to kick against Big Brother and crave such a car. Donning motorbike weatherproofs and a full-face helmet adds to the frisson.

Climbing into this 220 bhp projectile is child’s play. Hold onto the back of the double moulded seat, clamber over the tubing (which has scratch protection film) placing feet onto seat and slide yourself in. Slightly easier if you remove the quick release steering wheel. Now comes the difficult part of clipping the four-point harness together and tightening everything up. Remove gloves and quietly fume inside your full – face. Once in, you won’t wish to get out every five minutes that’s for sure!

The newly enlarged 10 gallon, aluminium tank (sitting safely behind the bulkhead) will get you to most track day venues without stopping, but make sure you have visited the smallest room before departure! That one piece moulded seat slides on runners and has a bolted pin holding it in place. The steering wheel is fixed so it is important to tailor to sir’s exact requirements. I wish there was some lumbar support moulded in, but integral head restraints are spot on.

The handbrake is right by the tubing and difficult to get to when tightly embraced by the “Willans" harness. Neat racing like mirrors fall easily within reach and joy of joy, acres of footwell space await your plates, so ordinary shoes are no problem. Two pipes running down the middle of the floor take water to the tiny radiator up front. Beautifully clear dials (x2) sit directly in front of you, easily visible through the suede steering wheel (which has change lights built into the top section). How racing car is that for you!?

Light & Airy

Ariel Atom 2 A little blister is located either side of the dials, housing a few flick switches covering normal duties along with a rubber covered start button with key the other side. These pods are just a stretch too far for easy, telepathic operation. All around you is silver powder coated tubing with air drifting all about. Odd, very odd. There are slivers of bodywork if you can call it that. This amounts to a Concorde protruding snout and airbox / engine cover. That’s your lot. All part of the motorbike feel purposely designed in. Velcroed nylon panniers running along the sides are being developed, offering some vital ‘boot’ space.

Boot space such as it is, amounts to a titchy bin in the nose, behind the motorbike battery and fuse box.

When you see the car in the flesh you itch to drive it. Because of its’ nakedness you might feel anxious at first. Ensuring the “Toad” immobiliser is unarmed push that starter and welcome the lovely, rasping staccato bark of the Japanese spec Type R unit just behind you.

Performance

220 bhp and 496 kg equate to around 496 bhp per ton, providing enough thrills for most petrolheads. Ariel do offer a slightly tamer 160 bhp version, which would still get you to the office in double quick time!

Ariel Atom 2 Grasping the tiny suede steering wheel you gingerly set off, only to find a sharp, late biting clutch which can send you kangarooing down the road. Slowly get some heat into those slick like Dunlop’s (not easy in December) and feel the messages come flooding through the rim as you adjust to the weirdness of it all. The ride over bumpy British roads is very well contained, thanks to the unique Eibach springs and adjustable Bilsteins. Firm, but just compliant enough.

Pick up speed and the 1.7 turn’s lock to lock steering comes alive, writhing like a teasing lap dancer. The handling is neutral on the road inspiring great confidence. Push into a well known corner and it just hunkers down and slingshots you out the bend. With that deliciously telepathic steering, you begin to connect with this “Atom”. People not used to a 0 – 60 mph figure of 3.7 seconds will crawl out calling it “the atomic bomb”.

Quick!

Superbike junkies may call it adequate! Ariel are even planning a 280 bhp tuned version which should sate speed freaks, but believe me the standard model is just fine, safely taking you past most traffic and back before they knew you were there. At motorway speeds in December the wind chill factor comes in, freezing you quicker if not properly attired. Somehow a driver might keep warmer, as more blood courses round him as he concentrates on the job in hand. The photographer called it the “Atom FF”. Something to do with not dressing correctly and cold weather! Top speed is about 140 mph, which will feel like 160 mph! It sits quite happily at about 85 mph on motorways with plenty in reserve. Consumption may average out at 22 mpg driven with some gusto.

So the wind rips at your clothes and hooligan roundabout exits are not recommended, but could you drive for hours up a motorway? Not really. That wind again upsets the applecart. It gets under your full – face and tries to rip it off your head! So you adopt a slight head down style, which takes its toll on neck muscles after a while. You also miss some of the intoxicating induction roar with helmet on as you stretch it through each gear. The electric fan makes an awful noise in slow traffic, cutting in and out regularly, upsetting the whole sportscar ambiance.

Solid

Passing artics is fine and I felt less vulnerable than I possibly might in something akin to a Caterham. The main tubing is big enough to engender a safe, reassuring feeling.

Add to the fact that you sit down in this overhead lighting gantry on wheels with good forward visibility and you have nothing to worry about. Reversing however, is a complete bastard! All kitted up you can hardly see a thing. If ever a car needed park sensors as an option then this has to be it.

Also on a road car - and you may curse me for my nannyness - I would like to find ABS and traction control, even if they add some 2kg to the weight. I simply would not fancy connecting with an artic, having hit a patch of diesel coming out of a roundabout for example.

Comfy Version?

Ariel Atom 2 I also believe there's room in the range for a 3rd more road friendly version. A version with a centre console with cubbies to hold a mobile, wallet, bottle of water and filofax, plus a cigar socket to charge the ubiquitous mobile or run a radar detector. The clear perspex side panels and bigger wind deflectors are optional. As I write I was told they are planning an adjustable mini screen a la Healey 100 from the 50’s, which should be available in 3 months time.

Even so, you can bet your bottom dollar that such a positive, fast reacting company will carry on honing this unique, infectious road missile. The new VTec running gear is only some 10kg heavier with a better power delivery and so much more reliable than tuned K series models that increased loyalty is assured.

Weight distribution is a perfect 40 – 60% front to rear, giving better traction out of corners etc. Production is still 1 per week, but by November 2004 the new factory and showroom will be complete, ensuring 2 cars find their way onto the roads. Exports snaffle 50% of production, but 2nd hand values are far stronger than peaky, bike engined Westfields and the like. The average Type R car sells for £24,000 and the new baby bro 160 bhp model some £19,000 +. A 3-4,000 mile used example will cost about £17,500. Simon Saunders is also looking at introducing Atom driving days and maybe an Atom race series to speed development and eradicate glitches.

If you love bikes but hate oily roundabouts then try the bike with four wheels. The acceleration is stunning - you will be “atomised”.