What is it?
The Ariel Atom 3.5. Ariel couldn’t call it Atom 4 because a whole new integer only appears when the engine changes, but nevertheless there has been a raft of small upgrades aiming to make this supercharged model the best one yet. It costs from £38,000.
Most of the chassis changes are things that Ariel learnt while building the wild Ariel Atom V8, with new suspension pick-up points and bracing around the engine all helping to make the chassis stiffer. The 3.5 also gets the carbon-surrounded digital dash from the V8, which looks very smart, and the nose panel has been subtly changed with a crease now running down the middle. The big one-piece seats have also been made a little stiffer.
Perhaps the most obvious update is the lights. Instead of the large, bug-eyed headlamps that used to sit back up towards the wing mirrors, the 3.5 gets two neat rows of three bulbs further down its nose. The supercharged Honda Civic Type-R sourced 2-litre engine also gets a bit more power (up to 310bhp), but given the 3’s already eye-watering ability in that department, it seems like the most incidental of the upgrades. It contines to be mated to a convetional H-pattern six-speed manual gearbox.
What’s it like to drive?
The Atom’s handling has always taken a while to get used to, feeling fairly wild and intimidating to start with. It’s not intuitive like a Caterham 7. But stick with it and the Atom is much more driveable than you first imagine and once you learn to work with the 911-like weight distribution and be brave with the throttle, it’s incredibly rewarding.
Over the last few years we’ve enjoyed every Atom I’ve driven, but this one has the perfect set-up and is improved in every area. It exhibits little or none of the understeer often present in slow corners or in wet conditions, the transition into oversteer is smooth and precise, and the brakes – which have been so easy to lock up in the past – work brilliantly. The more rigid chassis and improved damping have really brought the appeal of this mad, manic little car into sharp focus, and given the perfect platform to an engine with astonishing torque and top-end fury that can leave you deaf and more than a little befuddled.
The Atom takes part in evo Track Car of the Year 2013
What really strikes you about the Atom is how immersive it is. The performance is physical, the shriek of the supercharger drills into your skull, you on track you can clearly see the wheels hopping over kerbs, and you can feel the vibrations of the engine and fizzing rear wheels through the fixed plastic seat (the only thing we might change as it’s hellishly uncomfortable for certain shapes and sizes). And now you can really impose yourself on the chassis with little need to manage understeer. It’ll slide in fifth gear at over 100mph and down the back straight of Blyton Park in Lincolnshire (where we clocked a lap of 1:03.4), 134.01mph felt sensational.
The Atom 3.5 might not look or feel wildly different to the Atom 3, but to be honest it looked and felt plenty wild enough already. What the changes do is just subtly improve the Atom in areas where it was needed and keep it feeling as fresh as the day it first landed.
How does it compare?
Its most obvious rivals are the 311bhp, £49,995 Caterham Seven 620R and 281bhp, £74,000 KTM X-Bow GT, while if something a tad more civilised suits your needs, the supercharged 217bhp, £37,150 Lotus Elise S is a brilliant little roadster. The Caterham pipped the Atom to our 2013 Track Car of the Year title, but their driving experiences are like chalk and cheese (the Caterham has a sequential gearbox, too). Experiencing both before buying is advised.
Anything else I need to know?
The Ariel Atom is fun on both road and track, but if you seek the biggest circuit thrills, the new Ariel Atom Cup racer could be the one for you.