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Strictly, the Ariel Atom 2

Phwoar! What a motor!

A couple of weeks ago I drove 10 laps of a private airfield in one of these and I can honestly say it was the most fun I've had on four wheels. Like all rear-engined, rear-wheel drive cars, it is a bit twitchy and the rear end will swing out if you are a bit careless with the brakes going into a bend, but it was the best-mannered rear-engined RWD car I have ever driven. It gave a noticeable warning when the back end was breaking away, but even then, there is always enough power available to put it into a power slide. A small slide is just as easy to correct with a slight flick on the steering wheel and easing off the power a little.

Fast? Well, yes, though I never even got above 4th gear (out of six), because the organisers had put a couple of chicanes on the back straight, to keep speeds below 100 mph or so. In theory the car will cruise happily at about 150 mph (240 kph) if that's what you want to do, and you can find the roads to do it on. This car is not about cruising in top gear. It's about cornering, accelerating at maximum revs and flicking through the close-ratio gears as soon as the tacho touches the redline.

Based on cornering, acceleration and braking, the Ariel Atom performs as well as any Ferrari or Maserati you might like to name. It does 0-60 mph in silly times (2.9 seconds, depending on your skill with the clutch). It has a power-to-weight ratio that beats cars costing five times as much. In the traffic-light grand prix, it makes a Porsche 911 look like a Toyota Corolla. But it costs a fifth of those great names to buy and even less to to service.

Why so cheap? To begin with, the engine is only a 2-litre off-the-shelf unit from Honda. Also, it comes with no roof; no doors and no windscreen. In most US States it does not meet all the street-legal regulations, so you have to build it yourself from a kit (in which case it is street legal). Or get the dealership to build it for you. Jay Leno has one registered in California, so it's possible to meet even those strict regulations.

Why so fast? there's nothing to the car except the engine and gearbox and four wheels. The four wheels are held apart by a spaceframe of welded steel, and there is just enough room within the spaceframe to fit a driver and passenger. Hope you didn't want any luggage. It's as close to a professionally-built and -designed soapbox derby car as you can get.

If you want to buy an Atom from new, expect to pay around $60 000 for a high-specification model, or below $40 000 for the base-level model. When you can find them, second-hand models go for about $40k, depending on the specification and how many times they have been crashed or the gearbox trashed.

Note that here, high specification is all about brakes, transmissions and fat exhaust pipes, rather than ten-speaker stereo systems and soft leather. Leather seats and multi-speaker stereo systems do not even enter the car-maker's vocabulary where the Atom is concerned. And no, there is no automatic gearbox option and none of those driver-assist technologies: this car forces you to drive like driving was meant to be. It rewards you with more fun than anyone could reasonably expect from a steel space frame with a high power engine slung on the back.

Why is a doorless, roofless, screenless car so much fun? Mostly because of all the power and the extremely tight response. The car handles beautifully. That's not to say it is comfortable: it's a bone-shaker. But when there is enough grip, the response is sharp and immediate. Hit the gas and the car rockets forward like the proverbial bat out of hell. Turn the wheel, and the car steers. No roll, no lag, no bending in the chassis. The four wheels stay flat on the floor and the car goes exactly where you point it. Until you get into one of those power-slides. Even better for such a low-slung car, the driver can see the front wheels and knows exactly where they are on the road and which way they are pointing.

I keep on saying the car has power and acceleration to spare. The engine is only a two-litre unit and cannot compare with the five-litre thoroughbred power plants that propel Ferraris and Lamborghinis forward at prodigious speeds. How so?

First, the whole car weighs in at 456 kg kerb weight. This is half a standard car, and means the engine and brakes do not have to work too hard to deliver rip-roaring performance. Second, the power plant itself is Honda's Type R (R for racing) engine, which is acknowledged as one of the most reliable, powerful and responsive engines in its class. The supercharged version of this engine develops about 220 kW (300 bhp) at 7400 RPM. This is serious power in a car weighing around 500 kg and gives a power to weight ratio of 0.45 kW/kg. For comparison, a Lamborghini Diablo 6.0 records 0.24 kW/kg. A normal car, like a standard VW Golf, comes in at 0.063 kW/kg, so the Atom offers well over five times the performance of a VW Golf. A Formula 1 racing car develops about 1.0 kW/kg.

Although the Honda Type R engine cannot be described as a standard unit, it is relatively easy to service. Unlike a hand-built Ferrari engine, it does not need to be cared for like a thoroughbred or re-built every ten thousand miles. It's a workhorse that can deliver sustained power for miles on end and only needs standard servicing and maintenance.

SharQ says There have been several "type R" engines. The one in question here is the K20A, which is used in the current and next-generation Civic Type Rs.

The car has been designed as a near road-legal race car, using design ideas and components from the racing industry. A road pack of lights, mudguards and other extra weight brings it into the street legal class. The racing heritage shows. Just as top race mechanics tune their cars to the particular track they are driving, the Atom can be tuned to track or to public roads by adjusting the rate of the springs, the dampers, the split between front and rear brakes, and other settings. The seats are designed to be adjusted to particular individuals. Atom says the underbody airflow has been tweaked to generate downforce on both front and rear axles.

Which brings us onto design.

I remember once going to a motor show and being stopped by a random TV crew seeking a vox pop. They asked me what I thought of the design of the new cars on show. I knew perfectly well that the TV people were looking for commentary on the swooping curves and novel market segmentations. A couple of decades in the auto supply business has taught me to look at the root of the A-pillar to see how successful the bodywork design has been. I don't think it's a particularly interesting part of the car design activity. Instead I started talking about systems design and the relationship between car makers and their tier 1 suppliers and who takes responsibility for ensuring functionality and innovation. Design in an engineering sense, that is.

So, finally, we get to talk about the design of the Ariel Atom. Form follows function. In Spades. This is a chassis engineer's car. The form is defined entirely by the engineering brief to deliver a car that performs well, and goes around corners at the highest speed possible, all at a reasonable price, with low maintenance bills. The brief says nothing about keeping the driver and passenger warm, dry and comfortable, so the Atom does none of that. The brief doesn't talk about making the car look sexy or pretty. However, all that uncompromising effort on performance and weight-reduction has produced a car that you could call pretty.

To get in the car, you step over the steel frame that forms the side and place a foot where your bum is about to go. Then shimmy onto position, half lying and half sitting, in classic racing car attitude. Once in the car, your ass is only about six inches off the ground and is protected only by a layer of glass-reinforced plastic slung on the spaceframe chassis. The only aesthetic choices are what colour to make the plastic body panels. And then there are only a few choices: red, yellow, green, blue or black.

History and heritage

Ariel is a British car making company. Astonishingly, the name was registered over 100 years ago, in 1898. The original company made its name building motorcycles and then cars for the roaring twenties, racing around the historic banked track at Brooklands. The Atom is the first car to bear the Ariel name for 27 years, according to the corporate website. Ariel has a staff of eight. They make around 100 cars per year in a small plant in Crewkerne, Somerset.

The Ariel name was revived by the Atom's chief designer and inspiration, Simon Saunders. Saunders began his career designing motorbikes for Norton, moved to GM and then Aston Martin before going freelance. He had an idea for a stripped-down,uncompromising supersport car, but none of the majors was interested, so he designed it and built it on his own. The boy done good.

Press notices

Anyone who has driven a lot of vehicles appreciates the effort and design values that have gone into this car. Every motoring journalist who has reviewed the car reacts in pretty much the same way. With superlatives. It is incredibly refreshing to get into a car that is about driving. Driving skill, driving pleasure and performance, rather than the compromise we usually see from high volume car makers. Even that curmudgeonly old git, Jeremy Clarkson extolled the car's virtues on Top Gear (see the link to the video below).

Sources and further information

http://www.arielmotor.co.uk/ http://www.atomclub.com/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariel_Atom http://www.bruntingthorpe.com/ Video from Top Gear segment on the car at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdkEV-t9jg0

Ariel Atom Motor Company Ltd Manor Buildings North Perrott Crewkerne Somerset TA18 7ST

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