Next year, Ariel, the brave little Somerset sports car company, celebrates the 20th anniversary of putting its skeletal Atom two seater into production and, to mark then occasion, it’s gone and built another one.
If you’re now squinting at the photographs and wondering whether it really is as new as all that – or one of those smoke and mirrors cars that aims simply to reheat the old soup and present it in a different tureen – consider this: the fuel filler cap is the same as the old car’s, as is the pedal box and one part of the steering column. And that’s it: otherwise every tube, panel, nut, bolt, gasket, wire and other component is appearing on the Atom for the first time.
It’s a wonder they didn’t call it the Atom 5: Aston Martin never made a DB8 because it felt the leap from the DB7 was so great that merely adding one was not enough. And because the Atom 4 follows the Atom, Atom 2, Atom 3 and, indeed, the Atom 3.5 – each car a development of its predecessor – there’s a danger some won’t recognise the Atom 4 for what it really is. Which would be a shame because in most (though not all) ways, it is a car that has been transformed for the better.
True, the philosophy remains the same: a high-strength steel exo-skeleton, double wishbone suspension at each corner, a four-cylinder Honda engine behind and really very little else. But the spaceframe now has thicker pipework, partly to add strength but mainly because the Ariel team think big bore tubing looks really cool. The suspension has been re-designed from scratch to incorporated significant anti-squat and anti-dive geometry and, perhaps most notable of all, the old choice of a normally aspirated or supercharged Honda motor has gone. The new one is a turbo unit, plucked unchanged from the engine bay of a Civic Type R.
I should say almost unchanged. Naturally it has its own exhaust system to package within the Atom’s extended but still diminutive wheelbase and, for a few hundred pounds extra, you can specific an extra switch on the dashboard that allows you to scroll through three engine power modes: 223PS (220bhp) on level 1, 264PS (260bhp) for level 2 and 324PS (320bhp) for those brave enough to select level three. When you consider the car weighs just 595kg, giving it a true supercar power-to-weight ratio on its weakest setting, you may start to appreciate exactly what we have here.
Which, on paper at least, is a fairly terrifying prospect not least because with a turbo comes torque of a kind never seen in any Ariel product, half as much again as the last Atom 3.5 could muster, and that was a car that would pop sub 3sec 0-60mph runs even if you started in second gear. And I can say this from personal experience.
The fact Ariel claims the Atom 4 to be a scant 0.1sec quicker over the same measure is meaningless: although its traction is incredible, on full boost it won’t take full throttle on even a dry road until way past 60mph. So the only actual determinant of speed over this measure is traction.
Indeed if you want to show a clean set of exhaust pipes to anything that comes sniffing that is less potent than, say, one of the junior members of the McLaren family, position 1 on the switch will more than suffice. P2 takes you into that relentless, hurtling world peopled only by the swiftest of supercars while P3 has an ability perhaps unrivalled among road machines to extract extraordinary, involuntary gulps, gurgles and screams from your passenger.
But there is a downside: there’s not a turbo engine on earth that responds as well to the throttle as an equivalent normally aspirated or supercharged unit, nor one that sounds as good. And while the Type R engine is an outstanding example of its art, that almost instinctive immediacy and searing shriek of the old supercharged engine has gone. And while the popping, whooshing sound that has replaced it has a character of its own, it’s not as charming and it would be silly to suggest it were.
Otherwise the Atom 4 barely puts a foot wrong. Indeed its greatest achievement is not to add a level of performance only its bravest owners will dare access, but in all other regards to smooth the rough edges off the driving experience. And edges there were: all Atoms of old were tricky on the limit, save the most expensive 3.5Rs which had some very trick modifications to their suspension, aerodynamics and differential to calm its waywardness. You had to drive them like old 911s: slow in, faster out with scrupulous attention to throttle position, especially in the wet. My time with the Atom 4 allowed me to drive on roads that were dry, damp, wet and near flooded, yet it didn’t scare me once. The steering no longer fidgets, the ride has smoothed out and the slightly sickening turn-in oversteer has gone.
Add to that the fact the Atom 4 now has an instrument display you can actually read, switchgear that can be easily found and trusted to function as expected, an even more spacious cockpit and, would you believe it, even automatic headlights, and what you have it a car that is both easier to drive and far more likely to make you want to drive it in conditions where you’d never consider taking an old Atom out of the shed. Yes, you still get soaked and of course you feel a bit of a twit in your helmet but, even with the engine issues mentioned above, the inescapable truth is that this is an Atom that is not only more enjoyable to drive, but one that makes you want to drive it more of the time. Job done, in other words.
Engine: 1,996cc four cylinders, turbocharged, petrol