Ariel Atom: The school runs will never be the same again

The Ariel Atom is a real-life racing car weighing just 550kg and hitting 100km/h in 2.5 seconds, but it feels reassuringly safe to drive


The shocked looks of the locals tell their own story. We’re storming through another typically quiet Somerset village in what looks for all the world like a racing car that left home without its trousers. It’s mad, it’s bizarre and it’s also one of the greatest adrenaline rushes available on four wheels. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Ariel Atom 3.5R.

This is as stripped down and out as a sportscar gets. This car weighs in at less than 550kg and there isn’t an ounce of spare fat. It’s a racing car with a licence plate, a complete remix of the sportscar formula and a machine that hits 100km/h in 2.5 seconds. It’s a serious piece of kit then.

Simon Saunders resurrected the Ariel name that was famous for producing motorcycles in 2001. His idea was simple: to create a four-wheeled motorcycle. The Atom 3.5R is perhaps the finest creation to date, so what I did not want to see as I rolled up to the company headquarters, a nondescript industrial unit in Crewkerne, Somerset, where just a handful of staff have carved out a formidable reputation that leaves Prancing Horses cowering in the corner at trackdays, is rain.

There is just one prototype, we’ve been told not to do anything silly and that there will be no slidey shenanigans today. Henry, my escort for the day, might just be saving me from myself.

Because the Ariel is just ridiculously, stupidly fast. There’s no real weight to slow the progress and a pure and linear torque curve thanks to the supercharger strapped to the 2-litre iVTEC that works better here than it ever did in a car with a Honda badge. It’s frankly ludicrous, you just push the throttle and suddenly the car is down the road.

The revs rise, the engine sounding like an angry chainsaw inside my helmet, the scenery turns to streaks and suddenly the next corner is upon us. The Atom just decimates straight lines and will blow through 160km/h in six seconds on its way to a 250km/h top speed, but it’s the al fresco nature of this monstrous straightline speed that truly blows your mind.

As the speed piles on, the wind ploughs into my full-face helmet. There is a windscreen, but it’s a tiny token effort and you really wouldn’t want to ride this wave without a helmet. I can see the exposed wheels jiggling over bumps and the two-way adjustable Öhlins shocks doing battle with the springs to keep the rubber on the road and I can almost see my feet working the pedals through the side of the car.

And my legs are getting cold. With the additional sidepods designed to feed air to the supercharger and the aero kit from the much more expensive V8, the 3.5R has as much clothing as any Atom. But it’s still not a lot.

Sliver of a nosecone 
Brazilian bikinis have more coverage. There’s a sliver of a nosecone, the sidepods and the functional, adjustable aero that combines to provide 260kg of downforce when the car is approaching its 155mph limit. But that’s it. The exposed latticework chassis is an integral part of the Ariel experience and is a work of art in the flesh. It looks structural, its contours scream torsional rigidity and, despite the fact that I can feel the wind on my legs, it feels safe.

It’s a world away from the carbon-fibre tubs that are becoming de rigueur, but there’s something reassuring about those scaffold-like girders enveloping me and the engine.

In fact the Ariel is remarkably old school in a way. There’s no hybrid technology, no carbon chassis, no fancy LCD display, this is just tried and trusted tech, pared to the bone to keep the weight down. There is a fair splash of carbon fibre, but that’s as high-tech as the car gets.

Cables wend their way through the chassis, the seats, such as they are, are so thin that you can see the weave in the material and the four-seat harnesses are bolted straight into the chassis. As for carpets, a stereo and creature comforts, forget it. The Ariel is a single-minded machine, built for going fast and weighing as little as possible while just about conforming to the road regulations. And with the wings in place it looks like an undressed formula racing car.

Henry warns me about the gearbox, too, it’s a six-speed Sadevrally spec box that first featured on the V8 and gives scant consideration for road use. Each cog slots home with rifle bolt precision, but through the streets of Crewkerne I leave the flat shifts alone and dip the clutch for each change before tugging back on the near weightless paddles forged roughly from carbon-fibre and then drilled for grip.

On track the clutch is just to get it rolling and upshifts takes just 40ms, which is as near as makes no difference to instant, and on the downshifts there’s a deeply satisfying firecrack that’s so good you just won’t care that your neighbours hate you. In fact you won’t care about anything at all.

Because this car, so good in a straight line, is even better in the corners. It’s so light, so low and so single-minded that is feels almost telepathic. There’s no inertia, no shifting of weight as leather-clad seats strain against comfort setting suspension, it just turns.

And that aero, I’m told, really does plant the car to the ground as the feelsome steering savours every nugget of information the road has to offer. Previous Atoms gained a reputation for tricky handling on the limit, but the 3.5R feels the most resolved yet, largely Ariel says, due to tyre development rather than any great progress with the chassis.

Even in these damp and difficult conditions, there’s no hint of snap oversteer and the 3.5R dances across the tarmac with a neutral stance when it finally starts to relinquish grip.

It stops straight and true, as well, thanks to solid brakes and that flyweight frame that doesn’t tax them. There’s no need for carbon-ceramics here.

Behind the simple wheel, a selection of dials and switches are sunk into a bespoke carbon-fibre dash and you can cycle through the digital readout to get the most pertinent information. Hidden away under the dash is a data recorder with a compact flash sticking out, too. It’s as endearing as it is typical – it isn’t pretty but it gets the job done and will slay anything this side of a Porsche 918 on a winding road.

Benign handling
Ariel says this car is faster than its range-topping V8 on all but the highest speed circuit thanks to its more linear power delivery and benign handling thanks to advances in the Kumho tyres, and that makes the price tag of just £54,000 plus VAT a total bargain.

The Atom 3.5R is about as practical as a chocolate fireguard, you can’t really take it to the shops and it’s just a four-wheeled motorbike for fun and track use. So if you want creature comforts, you’ll still need that Porsche or Ferrari. But if you want the ultimate four-wheeled thrill ride that turns heads wherever it goes then get the undressed racing car. Get the Ariel Atom 3.5R.

Price: €80,000-plus
Power: 350bhp
0-100km/h: 2.5 secs

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