Cars, Culture, and Etc.

Printed review: Ariel Atom

In Review on March 4, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Within metres, this car will tear every superlative in the English language to pieces.

Say hello to the Ariel Atom, more of rocket sled than a car. Given its extruded tubular structure, the fact I was strapped in so tightly and its ferocious acceleration, you can forgive me for fantasizing that I was Lt. Col. John P. Stapp.

Who’s Stapp? He was a voluntary human guinea pig who still holds the record as sustaining the highest known voluntary acceleration force, at 45g. The U.S. military sent him down a rail, attached to a chair with a battery of rockets as lumbar support.

In addition to testing the limits of human endurance primarily to benefit fighter pilots, he was an early champion of safety belts, the evolution of which I’m very thankful for melding me to the Atom.

That’s just it: You become the Atom, and vice-versa. If you’re used to driving a lawn tractor, the Atom simply takes your ham-fisted inputs and magnifies them. If you’re a driving god, the Atom becomes your lightning rod.

Originally developed in a shed in Somerset, England by Ariel Ltd — which still employs only about 10 people — the version I drove was manufactured in the U.S. by Oregon-based Brammo Motorsports. Brammo struck a deal to make the Ariel here in North America for North American enthusiasts; indeed, only about 35 per cent of the parts fitted to Brammo-built cars are sourced from Europe.

On the surface, it seems the biggest piece of Americana is the all-beef patty of an engine: A supercharged 2.0L 4-cylinder Ecotec motor, supplied by General Motors. The truth is that it was developed by Opel, and Ariel mechanics tell me it’s a world class and vastly better unit than the last one fitted to the Ariel: Honda’s legendary 4-cylinder K20A (Civic Type-R) motor.

Initial supply problems with sourcing engines were quelled as soon as Jay Leno connected the dots between GM and Brammo, becoming the first U.S. Brammo Atom owner in the process. Supposedly his chin just clears the skeleton of a dashboard…

It’s available in a few stages of tune, from 140 horsepower to 300 — though drag racers using the Ecotec can easily extract more than 500 horsepower from the engine.

Seriously, 140 horsepower is probably enough. The Atom is so light (635 kg / 1,400 lbs) that using a hair dryer for propulsion would make it faster than most street cars.

All this talk of speed is misleading. Despite its supernatural performance, it’s all about the experience of driving. The mechanical guts of the car are part of its look — hit a bump, and watch the front suspension compensate instantly. Mechanical transparency and low weight combine to produce fat-free motoring.

Frankly,it’s about time someone produced a car that’s devoid of airbags, ABS and weather protection. Because I still have a modicum of youth, I’d drive it everyday. It’s a car that gets looks from other people because it flies hard and fast in the face of convention.

“Drive it everyday?” you ask. There is already one road-licensed Atom in Ontario, so the odds are good for others. But the Atom was conceived as a pure track car (albeit one you can drive to the track).

To that end, the options list is long, and features some of the most storied names in racing components: Team Dynamics, Wilwood and Koni. I specced out what is probably close to an ultimate Atom, with carbon-fibre everything, best suspension, best wheels, etc. The damage? Just north of $90,000 U.S.

A base model will ring in at just over $40,000 U.S.

How much faster will you go for twice the money? Seconds per lap. All things considered, it’s pretty easy to spend 40-large on turning a street vehicle into a dedicated track car. For the money, there’s no competition on four wheels in terms of raw speed.

No matter of super-Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari or Callaway Corvette will hang with the Ariel up until you hit 215 km/h. Then the Ariel’s natural aerodynamics (read: none) take over and the world’s supercars — given enough time to catch up — will breeze by the diminutive roadster.

There are compromises, of course. If you consider the lack of weather protection, heated leather seats or satellite radio a fault, get to know the car during a round of the Ariel Atom Experience, a touring band of cars and crew that stop at Canadian and U.S. racetracks for full or half-day events.

It’s an inexpensive way to try out one of the great cars of our generation. While 2007 events are done, enough demand for the program should bring them back for 2008. Log on to to book your date with a few pieces of scaffolding…


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