The Ariel Atom is like Michael Jackson. It’s wacky, highly talented and is capable of the most captivating sounds. It’s bad. It grabs its crotch and moonwalks off into the distance at obscene speeds. The Atom will also most definitely grab you by the metaphorical cajones. Hard. That’s because the Atom is a true thriller: it is as raw an experience as you’d have in any car.
And everyone looks. The majority of the non-suicidal at least gawp, if not beam from ear-to-ear. In fact, it attracted so much attention that a lad who must have been all of 16 ran into the back of another car smashing his headlight because he wasn’t looking what he was doing.
So, the Atom is dangerous to others. What’s it like for the driver? The Atom demonstrates how little you need in a road car. Driving the Atom is like being able to look at your body while exercising and see all your muscles and tendons straining. It doesn’t have carpets, a windscreen, a stereo, doors, a roof, a heater or skin. But, it has plenty of air conditioning (depending on how fast you are driving.)
It’s not advised to drive at any significant speed without a helmet. Wind buffeting it at 100kph plus the lateral g-force you can pull around a corner are excellent for testing the quality of your neck muscles.
This third-generation Atom is more refined than the original Atom I drove back in 2005. That was even more exhilarating and raw. There’s a new 245hp two-litre Honda i-VTEC engine from the Civic Type-R with twin balancing shafts and new engine mounts that makes it smoother.
It will still shake your body as it doesn’t stop the vibration completely. Though, according to NASA vibrations increase bone density – perfect for osteoporosis sufferers, then? Perhaps not as to get into the car one has to clamber over what looks like two rungs of scaffold to sink inelegantly into the moulded plastic driver’s seat. You can’t even do it Bo and Luke Duke-style because there are no door frames to hold onto as you slide in.
What you can do Duke-style is hang the back end out if you so desire. The Atom is perfectly balanced and because you can see what the wheels are doing on the road it’s a natural feeling to counter-steer away any tail happy shenanigans (or keep them going for longer – don’t stop ’til you get enough!)
The Atom is so communicative it makes you feel like you are not alone on the road, holding your hand over ever minute ripple in the tarmac. The cornering prowess is achieved by firstly weighing around one-third of a Porsche 911. Secondly the suspension is a serious piece of kit, and you can see it working as you are driving. Double unequal length wishbones, pushrod-operated inboard dampers, adjustable outboard rod ends, lightweight fabricated uprights, and the ability to adjust ride height, toe and camber mean that the Atom can be set up for road or track quickly.
Components come from top companies such as Willwood, Bilstein, Eibach, Alcon and more. The brake bias is adjustable just like a proper racecar, and the red knob that achieves this is situated on the instrument cluster just beneath the switch for the indicators (which is like a motorbike switch so you have to cancel it manually.)
There are a lot of detail changes from the Atom 2, the most noticeable of which are that the diagonals in the frame run the opposite direction to give more interior room. This also seems to reduce the turbulence in the footwell — my trouser legs didn’t get blown upwards like they did in the version 1. There also seems to be a better build quality with the welds neater, and the car looking tidier in its exposed innards.
But you won’t be looking at this when you bury the accelerator because vision becomes blurry and full concentration is required on the road. I have been in faster cars, but none so tractable on the road. The Honda’s VTEC engine screams behind your head to beyond 8000rpm, tickling your ear canals between each rapid gearshift. The suede covered steering wheel is small, and the turning circle is worse than an SUV — just like a real race car.
In fact, the Atom has all the advantages of a car (stability, safety and no need for a separate motorbike license) with the performance of a seriously quick motorbike. But, it also has the disadvantages of the two: you’re exposed to the elements (and the smells) of the road and you can’t weave through rush hour traffic; there’s only enough storage for a small batch of muffins, and you can’t park it as easily as a motorbike.
Can you find justification for an Atom, then? If you have a motorbike license, you’ll probably stick with a motorbike. But, for track-day junkies, motoring enthusiasts, and those who want to be quite unique on the road in a machine that gives a satisfying driving experience you’re picking from a short list of options in New Zealand (basically Fraser, Saker, Lotus Exige, or Carver). Any one of these cars will give you a hell of a lot of fun, but none quite like the Atom.
Price: Expect to pay upwards of $90,000 and have a 12-15-month wait
What we like
- You’re the centre of attention
- All the advantages of a car and motorbike combined
- If you’re insane enough you can have a supercharged one, and if you’re really insane you can have a V8 and wings!
What we don’t like
- All the disadvantages of a car and motorbike combined
- No real usable storage
- Rain and following old diesel vehicles
Words and photos Darren Cottingham