TO TRULY understand greatness, you need to experience it first hand. If you’ve been lucky enough to witness a triumphant sporting performance, the last night of a farewell tour or get up close to an old master in an art gallery you know there’s nothing quite like it.
You may already be aware of the Ariel Atom and what it represents, but just in case you don’t let me take you through the basics. The Atom is possibly the most bonkers device money can buy that can still be defined as a car. It has four wheels, it has an engine and therefore can move under it’s own steam, but apart from that any similarities between it and the car parked on your driveway are merely coincidental.
If one look at the pictures hadn’t revealed all the Atom is a lightweight sports car, designed solely for fun, back-road blasts and track days rather than carrying passengers or munching motorways. Forego the need to stay dry or have a conversation with your passenger at speed and you can ditch a lot of unnecessary weight; that’s why the Atom essentially has no bodywork whatsoever. The steel tubular frame that runs from nose to tail is essentially it; everything else - including the very modest slivers of bodywork – is strapped to it. With no roof, no glass, no doors, no wings and a boot the size of a lunchbox the Atom is one of the lightest cars on the road at around 465kg.
Yet bolted to the back of it is a 2.0-litre Honda V-TEC engine that until very recently was also found in the front of the Civic Type-R. In the standard Atom 3 it pumps out 245bhp, but this is the supercharged 300 version, and even then the Ariel engineers will cough politely and murmur the fact that in all probability you’ll get a bit more than 300bhp…
A short physics lesson is required at this point, just to illustrate the Atom’s place in the automotive world. If you have a car’s weight and its power output you can calculate its power to weight ratio, measured in bhp per tonne. A Porsche 911 Carrera S, a fast car by anyone’s standards, checks in at 286bhp per tonne. The Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, one of the latest generation supercars, delivers an eye-widening 447bhp per tonne. And what of the Atom 300? How does 666bhp per tonne grab you?
It’s hard not to be intimidated as you literally climb into the Atom, vaulting over the horizontal beam and settling down into the stripped-down seat. The little air deflectors in lieu of a windscreen do help, but you are exposed to the elements in much the same way as you would be on a bicycle; in good weather that is a good thing.
Once strapped in a prod of the starter button gets the 2.0-litre unit throbbing away behind you. The Atom 3 benefitted from numerous detail changes over the Atom 2, and although the visual differences are negligible the reality is certainly worth the effort. This is still a loud car of course, but new engine mounts have removed much of the vibration that would be transmitted to your backside, the transmission is now slicker before (handy, because you need to change gear very quickly indeed) and the suspension has been tweaked. Fully adjustable dampers allow you to tweak the car to suit the conditions.
With so little weight, super-sharp steering and the reactions of dragonfly, this is gloves-off driving; the smallest and most delicate of inputs from your hands and feet are matched by the car, whereas in almost every other car on the planet you feel like you’re pulling levers and activating switches.
But as much as the steering is a joy, the handling is more benign and even more fun than before and the sensations from the open cockpit are overwhelming, it’s the performance that sets the Atom apart. You could own the 245 version and never be overtaken again in your whole life, but the 300 is totally barking. The supercharger gives torque right around the rev band, and lets you know exactly when it’s working by delivering an apocalyptic wail that I can still playback in my head weeks later. Pin the throttle to the floor, however fast you’re already going and whatever gear you like, and the Atom just belts towards the horizon as if it was trying to tear the asphalt from the Earth.
No you can’t take three friends with you or go shopping in it, but who cares? It’s possibly the most fun thing on four wheels that money can buy; the fact that it is designed and built in Britain and costs less than a mid-sized premium saloon is just a delightful bonus.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Ariel Atom 300, £38,000 on the road
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder supercharged petrol unit developing 310bhp
Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the rear wheels
Performance: Maximum speed 155mph, 0-60mph 2.7 seconds
CO2 emissions: 250g/km (est)
Economy: 25mpg (est)