Ariel Nomad R 2022 review

Ariel’s latest creation aims to blend the Atom’s road and track chutzpah with the Nomad’s off-road ability. So does the 335bhp Nomad R offer the best of both worlds?

Evo rating
Price
from £77,400

Sometimes wishes do come true. I was ambling along thinking how perfect it would be to happen across a conventional performance car, a properly quick one, and mug it, when what should wander into the web of my idea but a big, fat, juicy BMW M2 CS. Perfect. All the driver would see in their mirrors would be the Nomad’s distinctive open-wheel, off-road buggy look. Clued up, they might know what it was, and that there was a 290bhp version, but I was hoping they wouldn’t be expecting an encounter with a Nomad R, one of just five with 335bhp, a sequential gearbox, road-biased suspension and sticky Yokohama A052s…

I was on home turf, and it soon became clear from the early opportunity our M2 owner took to overtake a dawdling truck that he probably was too. The BMW pulled out and a heavy huff from its four tailpipes swirled middle-of-the-road dust. If I’m honest, I was caught napping, but I popped in a couple of downshifts and roared after it, catching up as its speed stabilised. I contemplated a pass before the T-junction a few hundred yards further on but it was too soon; I wanted to toy with my prey.

> Caterham 620R v Ariel Atom 3.5 v Elemental Rp1

An enthusiastic right turn by the BMW gave the Ariel some work to do but it was up to the task and locked onto the M2’s bumper after just a hundred metres. Claimed figures for this craziest of Nomads include 0-60mph in just 2.9sec. Respectfully through a village – tum-te-tum – and at the derestriction signs the M2 hunkers down and roars off again, but it’s quickly into a long left and I’m its annoying shadow again, working the Nomad’s grip to tuck in under its bootlid, feeling the suspension gradually taking on more and more lean angle through the corner. The BMW indicates to turn right and I’m sorely tempted to follow, but I’ve agreed to meet up again with photographer Dean Smith. Besides, I’ve satisfied my curiosity regarding the R’s performance. Not that it was ever in doubt…

Earlier today this automotive contradiction rolled out of a red trailer into the sunshine at Bedford Autodrome. Those of a sensitive disposition probably sensed a blip on the incredulity scale as the track-biased tyres of what is apparently an off-roader hit the asphalt. I’ll spent the rest of the day trying to make sense of it. In essence, it’s a road-optimised off-roader. On the face of it, nothing new there; that describes a BMW X5 or a Range Rover SVR. Except that this is from Ariel, maker of the Atom, one of the most focused and pared-back sports cars yet devised, and the Atom donates large parts of itself to make the Nomad, with its long-travel suspension and a go-anywhere attitude. To then reduce the travel of that long-travel suspension and swap those all-terrain tyres for a set of gummy, low-profile trackday ones to make it more like, er, the Atom, is somewhat contrary. I await Ferrari’s announcement that it will build a convertible version of the new Portofino-based Roma… Also, if you like the idea of the Nomad R, can I direct you to my new range of smooth-soled, racing wellies?

I do have a confession to make. Two, in fact. First, I really like the Nomad R for the cognitive dissonance it sows and the unexpected ability it has. Second, this will be my first go in a Nomad. But I feel I’ve got a pretty good idea what it’s like having read the words of my colleagues. It seems that it is a car for all terrains, and all tastes too, judging by the many five-star reports. 

I have driven plenty of Atoms, though, including the original over 20 years ago. Somehow the Nomad looks smaller than any of them; adding the curved roof beams and jacking it up somehow makes it look shorter, more compact. And it looks pumped, even though the 18-inch alloys and 235/40 Yokohamas don’t fill the mudguards like the tall Geolander all-terrain tyres they were designed for. 

Ariel has said it will make only five Nomad Rs and even at almost £80k a pop they were sold in next to no time. Each will be tailored to the customer’s preferences but built to the same essential spec. The key parts are around the back of this automotive Pompidou Centre: the four-cylinder, 2-litre Honda K20Z3 engine, supercharged by Ariel to produce 335bhp at 7500rpm and 243lb ft at 5500rpm, which is fed to the rear wheels via a Sadev six-speed sequential gearbox, limited-slip diff and beefed-up driveshafts. The standard spec includes bespoke Bilstein dampers but this example has the Öhlins upgrade.

It’s a contradictory proposition, then, but I do like the cut of this Ariel’s jib. It still looks like a mud-plugger but, even at around 700kg (105kg more than the Atom 4), it has a power-to-weight ratio of almost 500bhp per ton, which puts a massive grin on my face. 

It’s difficult for first-timers to get into a Nomad without looking like a drunk on a kid’s climbing frame. You either go in from the top and drop straight down like a tank commander, or in from the side, hands on the top of the cage-cum-chassis, left foot first and wedged against the far side of the moulded bucket (I hesitate to call it a seat). Then take your weight with your arms and swing the other foot in, twist your legs down into the footwell and drop in while trying not to catch your knee on the carbonfibre paddle for the sequential shift. 

Then you have to start it – flick the toggle switch to ‘Run’ and press the soft button to the left that looks like the fuel primer on a petrol mower – before reminding yourself how to use the sequential ’box. It’s a proper sequential with straight-cut gears and dog clutches, and an electronically controlled pneumatic shift for clutchless downshifts and flat upshifts. Once rolling you shouldn’t need the clutch, but it won’t take kindly to you making multiple downshifts when you’ve come to a halt having forgotten to go down through the ’box.

I pull on my helmet, strap myself into the harness belt and press the starter button. The horn blares, because it’s an identical button near to the starter. Rookie error. The environment is familiar from Atoms but here we’ve got a screen and thick uprights, though the experience remains uniquely transparent, like driving a cut-away drawing.

Leaving the pitlane on the West Circuit, I discover the pneumatic shift doesn’t work at low revs so the clutch is still required, but it will soon come into its own. Into the first corner, a hairpin, the steering reveals itself to be weighty but manageable, and its response pretty direct, and thus distinct from the soft, delayed response of the regular Nomad on all-terrain tyres.

With all things building temperature nicely, for the second lap the throttle gets a decent squeeze… and so do my insides. The Nomad seemingly multiplies the throttle request, surging forward, and near-instantaneous upshifts ramp up the intensity. From thereon, my clutch foot finds the rest and stays there, and on upshifts my right foot stays flat to the floor as finger-light bats of the carbon paddle deliver seamless upshifts. It’s brilliant, and even better on downshifts, which don’t disturb the car’s poise at all as you brake hard and turn. The ease, the refinement and the lack of effort are intoxicating; it’s like discovering a superpower.

There’s a bit of a wake-up call in the dynamics department, though. The Nomad tacks neatly in and out of the quick-fire chicanes but in long corners the roll builds and builds until you feel like you’re piloting a French car from the ’60s or ’70s. And when you use the full stopping power of the Alcon brakes and sticky tyres, the nose dips dramatically. Yet after a couple of laps you appreciate that there’s a flow to it all. The loose-limbed feel the Nomad is famous for is still there, if somewhat tamed.

The supercharged Honda engine delivers a massive slug of power seemingly in any gear at any revs, and the way it eats through the six ratios is astonishing; the acceleration simply doesn’t let up until the engine is nutting the limiter in top at 134mph. Ariel describes it as Tarmac Rally gearing, which gives a slightly longer spread than the 121mph of the standard set-up, but even so it will work through the gears in a ridiculously short distance. It feels like the close-spaced ratios go something like this: first-second-third-fourth-fourth-fourth.

Three laps in, the suggestion that the R won’t oversteer on these tyres is unsustainable. There’s huge grip from the warm A052s but the grunt from the engine is irresistible, particularly when added to the roll. Dean reports that the Nomad leans heavily as it flicks into the tight left in front of him and then lifts the inside front off the deck as it begins to power oversteer. If you have ambitions to race a Trophy Truck, this might be a good place to start.

The way the Nomad R takes off and tears around makes it feel like a scaled-up Tamiya, and Dean says it looks like one too. Running through the same corner a few times to get a panning oversteer shot, he can barely keep up with the rate it accelerates from left to right. For me, there’s a sweet spot of oversteer, where a punch of torque kicks the rear out and there’s enough of the gear left to keep it out there, modulate it a bit and then bring it neatly back straight. On one run I manage to grab an upshift to third mid-slide, but the steering weight is such that you’re better with two hands firmly on the wheel. 

Driving on the road without the sound-dampening effect of a crash helmet brings a whole new perspective to the experience, mostly aural. The straight-cut gears of the sequential ’box scream as the revs rise, competing with the whine of the Eaton-style supercharger. It’s almost like the whine of a BEV, especially the way the close-ratio gears seem to get back to the same revs on every upshift.

Then there’s the pneumatic shift, which sounds just like a fairground air rifle or an air staple gun. If you’re forgetful and bang in a number of late downshifts you can drain the small pressure reservoir, causing the pump to whirr loudly and mournfully as it recharges. Reverse is via a neutral button on the dash and a flick of the paddle. It all works as brilliantly on road as on track, though given it works at its best at high revs and load, you can find yourself charging around everywhere…

It’s almost as if there’s some preload to the dynamics, with good steering response and little roll. The angles and attitude we saw on track are only replicated in long, fast turns, the damping bleeding away under sustained load. As you’d expect, the Nomad R rides well but it’s not immune to distraction, the steering having some kickback and tug over cambered, lumpy surfaces. Grip is strong and traction immense, so you’d have to look hard for oversteer, in the dry at least. And that’s fine. Yes, you could fit a set of Geolanders and you’d have yourself a drift car for the road, but the performance and grip and dynamic precision are pretty much where I’d want them to be on a 335bhp Nomad. That said, I’d have a set of knobblies for light off-roading, gravel and the like, which is as much as the R is rated for because some vital bits of the pneumatic shifter are housed in the centre console.

There’s a full windscreen with wipers and the chassis sides are panelled in polycarbonate, which should spare you from the worst of the elements. Unexpectedly, although the cockpit is quite exposed, there’s no more than gentle swirling of air around it at 50mph, and at maximum speed it’s still swirling just as gently. It makes the Nomad surprisingly habitable, though by the end of the day the simple, one-piece moulded seat has added a couple more aches to the ones I’d got from hanging on to the thing, more through its lack of lumbar support than lateral support. 

Is the Nomad R an iteration too far? I don’t think so, though it doesn’t really matter, and not because all five are sold. Tomorrow, Ariel could announce an Atom with long-travel suspension and Geolanders, call it the Atom Allroad, and probably sell five in a morning. The Somerset company has created its own niche with its own fan base and its stock-in-trade is the well-made, offbeat toy that offers unique design and a driving experience to match. The Nomad R is absolutely that. Sure, it isn’t as fast or as road capable as the similarly engined Atom, or as off-road capable as the best Nomad, but it’s an intriguing and surprisingly effective blend of the two. For me, though, its most admirable quality is its ability to mug conventional performance cars.

Ariel Nomad R specs

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1998cc, supercharger 
Power335bhp @ 7600rpm
Torque243lb ft @ 5550rpm
Weightc700kg
Power-to-weighc486bhp/ton
0-60mph2.9sec
Top speed134mph
Basic price£77,400

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