2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge


Review and phtos by Laurance Yap

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Shannonville Raceway, Ontario – If you like cars, and you’ve spent a fair amount of time online, you will no doubt have come across a video from the British “Top Gear” TV show featuring Jeremy Clarkson and a funny little tube-framed sports car called the Ariel Atom. It’s comical not because the Atom is kind of funny-looking, or because of “Top Gear”‘s traditionally snappy writing; it’s funny because when Clarkson goes for his usual blast up the test track, his cheeks start flapping so hard in the wind that they look like they’re threatening to peel off completely.

There’s fast, and then there’s Atom fast.

Yes, it truly will distort your face, just like it does Clarkson’s in that video. But that’s only part of the story. You sit so low in the Atom, and you’re so exposed to the elements with wind rushing up your legs and through the sides of the car and over the little humps that stand in for a windshield that it feels like you’re going easily twice as fast. The needles rip around their little instruments as if they’ve gone unhinged, the shift light always seems to be blinking and if you’re not wearing a helmet, your sunglasses will try to fly off your head.

Early Atoms were powered by Honda Civic Type-R engines in 200-horsepower naturally aspirated and 300-horsepower supercharged form, but the North American models being built in Oregon by Brammo Motorsports (www.brammo.com) actually have a General Motors Ecotec engine and gearbox. In naturally-aspirated form, the 2.0-litre four produces 200 horsepower, which is a lot when you consider that the Atom only weighs 450 kg (992 lbs.). Step up to the supercharged model, like the one you see here, and you get 300 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque, enough to launch the Atom to 100 km/h in just over three seconds. Thanks to the supercharger, the engine is also quite flexible, with plenty of torque even at low revs. Regardless of the speed or the gear, it always seems to have more to give.

2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge

With Ariel’s Brent Gates at the wheel, the Atom easily ran with much faster cars – think Carrera GTs and McLaren SLRs – around Shannonville Raceway near Kingston, Ontario. It was blisteringly fast under acceleration, but what was most impressive was the braking. Coming down the back straight of the fast track, we approached the right-hander at a speed I thought would quite easily have sent us into the weeds, but with a brush of the brakes and a twitch of the wheel, we sailed through, the tires sizzling lightly to remind us just how fast we were going.

Because I hadn’t driven the track configuration we were using – and because I didn’t want to be the guy to break the only Ariel Atom in Canada – my own laps were much slower in comparison, but the experience was still electrifying. The 15-inch Yokohama tires (there are 16-inchers at the rear) are designed for track use and generate phenomenal grip, but steering feel is also spectacular, thanks to their narrowness: you don’t need a lot of tire to keep a 450-kg car to stuck to the ground. The steering (a race-biased set-up with a tiny turning circle on this particular car) requires just a twitch of your wrists to bend beautifully into corners.

The Tilton braking system is unassisted, but the car’s light weight means you always end up slowed down way before you actually need to be; I was constantly speeding up again just to make it to the turn-in point. The pushrod suspension with its inboard dampers may be race-bred – there’s none of the roll or pitch you experience even in extreme sports cars while cornering – but combined with the light weight and reasonably-sized tires, it also offers an impressively stable ride. You feel like you’re floating above the action, but still connected to it.

2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge

Driving the Atom is like experiencing a firsthand lesson in race-car dynamics. Not only do you feel everything that’s going on at each of the four corners – the unassisted steering and brakes communicate with awesome clarity – but you also SEE it all happen as well. Because of the car’s open structure, you can actually witness the suspension bits moving around, the springs compressing, the tires moving, the debris being kicked up through dirty corners. The pedals, set a bit far away for my taste but in an adjustable box, have lines running out of them, and you can see where they go, see what happens when you push them in.

In this sense, the Atom is a lot more like a motorcycle than it is a car. There are no body panels, just a tubular steel structure with a carbon-fibre tub to prevent you from falling out of the bottom of the car and a small fairing on top for the air intake. Otherwise, every mechanical piece, every item that makes the car work as magically as it does, is on display. The stainless-steel exhaust turns a dark bronze shade when it gets hot, you can see the brake lines weaving through the structure and the cooling fans in the front throws up little bits of debris every once in a while. Thankfully, each of the tiny wheels has a carbon-fibre fairing on top to keep them from throwing rubber marbles straight at your face, but they’re pretty much the only concession to bodywork the Atom makes. It’s a naked car; a car unadorned and – as MTV would say – unplugged.

What strikes me about the Atom is that despite its $85,000 (U.S.) price tag – prices for non-supercharged ones start at about U.S.$60,000 – it would make a great car to learn how to drive in. You not only get more feel than in almost any other car, you’re also directly able to witness the cause-and-effect relationship between your actions and the car’s. A few laps behind the wheel, and I already knew more about the laws of physics than I did when I arrived at the track that morning. This is an incredible – if incredibly specialized – piece of machinery.

2006 Ariel Atom
2006 Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge

To date, Brammo Motorsports, the Atom’s U.S. distributor, has delivered a couple of dozen cars in various states of trim – Jay Leno drives his to work – and has about 60 orders on the books. Canadian distributor Dave Goadby says he’d be quite happy to do the usual 10 per cent of that total. At this time, that’s an ambitious figure given that the Atom is not yet road-legal in Canada (only a handful of U.S. states, including California, Washington and Oregon, allow it on the road) as well as the high price.

Then again, I figure all he really needs to do is what he did at this trackday organized by Fastlaps show up, roll the car out, let people gawk and then go chasing supercars. Those order books will be full soon enough.

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