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A Racecar Like No Other – The Ariel Atom

Photo by docmonstereyes / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Atom. An unimaginably tiny amount of matter that contains great potential. Also, the microscopic building block of our universe. The Ariel Atom is true to its namesake, prioritizing feather-like weight and race car performance above all else. In this pursuit, Ariel developed a skeletal, aluminum tubed chassis around which the drive-train is built.

The Atom has no doors, roof or windows. Nearly every feature of the Atom is adjustable for different track racing requirements. What’s more, the track day racer remains entirely legal to drive on public streets. And it’s all thanks to 19 guys in a shed in Somerset, some bits of metal, and a Honda Civic Type-R engine.

From Bicycles and Motorcycles to One of the Most Unique Cars in the World

The name Ariel is hardly new to the world of British motoring. First founded in 1902, it is generally considered to be one of the progenitors of the British motorcycle. Ariel actually got its start as a bicycle manufacturer in the late 1800’s. They soon shifted into building motorized tricycles, then on to motorcycles.

Ariel went on to produce excellent motorcycles, tricycles, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes through the Depression, World War Two, and up until the last Ariel came off the line in 1967. It wasn’t until 1999 that Simon Saunders, the director of Ariel, decided to take on the legacy of British engineering and motoring excellence that the name entailed. He wanted to apply that spirit of innovation to a new field of technology: the sports car.

Charging Forward: From Amazing to Superb

Ariel’s first model, the Atom, has gone through no less than five different iterations since its introduction in the year 2000. The original Atom was the first road-going car built entirely around a skeletal chassis. Most of the car’s mechanical components were plainly visible, and hovered around 1000 lbs. The first model was equipped with a Rover engine.

Not satisfied to rest on their laurels, the engineers at Ariel struck  a deal with Honda to use one of their i-VTEC 4 cylinder engines. This addition gave the bite-sized racer the fastest time from zero to 100 miles per hour and back to zero in the world. Ariel followed this up with the revised and enhanced Atom 3, including 10 vehicles custom tuned by Honda’s in house performance tuning group, Mugen.

Another limited run came in the form of the blisteringly fast and powerful Atom 500 V8. The engineers at Ariel took two Suzuki Hayabusa four cylinder engines and fused them into a 500 horsepower V8 with a red line of 10,000 revolutions per minute. That’s Formula 1 race car territory. The models currently on sale are the 3.5 and the 3.5R.

Less Is More: Car Devoid of a Conventional Body

The Atom does not have a roof, or doors, or windows! A windshield is an extra option. There is no air conditioning, no radio, and no carpeting. The brakes are not anti-locking, and the seats are little more than thin sheets of plastic. Every piece of the Atom is built with function in mind, and that function is performance.

LCDs on the dash inform the driver when to switch gears or how many Gs they were pulling in that last corner. Twin projector headlamps illuminate the darkest of nights, LED indicators and brake lights help make the car road legal. But one doesn’t buy an Atom for the features – one buys an Atom to take it to the track and set new lap records.

Lightning-Fast: 0-60 in under 3 Seconds

The performance numbers on the Atom 3.5 are impressive, to say the least. The high-revving 2.0L Honda iVTECH engine puts out 245 horsepower when naturally aspirated, or 315 horsepower when supercharged. With the Atom sitting at just over 1,100 pounds, that means that the base supercharged version has a power to weight ratio of 600 horsepower per ton. That’s more per ton than a Ferrari Enzo. It’s more even than what the certified fastest production car in the world, the Bugatti Veyron, gets from its twin-turbocharged, 1200+ horsepower 12 cylinder engine. The 3.5 will sprint to 60 in 2.8 seconds, which is well into supercar territory. And that’s just the base model.

If the supercharger on the 3.5 isn’t enough, one might consider the 3.5R. The R spec tightens everything up and adds yet more power, bringing total horsepower up to 350, and 0-60 down to 2.5 seconds. That’s only a tenth of a second slower than the fastest Veyron for less than a tenth of the price. Zero to 100 miles per hour happens in less than six seconds. In about the amount of time it takes you to read this sentence, you will be going over the speed limit on every road in the country if you are driving an Ariel 3.5R.

The 3.5R is also equipped with a race-derived paddle shift gearbox, as it is unlikely most drivers would be able to change gears fast enough on their own. A formula one driver might be able to get behind the wheel of a 3.5 R and take off without a care in the world. For us regular folk, it’ll likely take a few practice laps just to figure out what is even happening. The Atom 3.5R squeezes every last drop of power out of Honda’s brilliant little engine and is likely to beat anything short of a McLaren P1 around the track.

One of a Kind

Ariel Atoms have been making a name for themselves for fourteen years as the essence of a sports car. Little more than an engine, wheels, and a motor, the Atom somehow comes together into one of the most incredible driving cars ever made by mankind. And what’s even more astonishing? Each and every iteration of the Atom available is a joy to drive at road speeds.

Despite their complete lack of all creature comforts, the Atoms are docile and controllable. They are forgiving at low speeds, have power available whenever it is needed, and are equipped with headlights, taillights, turn signals, seat-belts, and even a place to put your license plate. This all adds up to make one of the best race cars on the market a functional road car, and that really does make it like no other vehicle on the market.