In every form the Ariel Atom delivers thrills as exhilarating as any car can deliver. And there’s no greater recommendation than that.

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Originally launched in the 1990s, the Ariel Atom is now an established motoring icon, turning heads both for its looks and the fact it is as exhilarating a car as you could wish to drive.

Two seats sit within the Atom's intricate steel latticework, and in this case the looks don’t deceive: there are no creature comforts to speak of, but performance is stunning and the handling sharp, whichever model you choose. While an optional windscreen makes it possible to drive without a helmet, that’s all the protection you’ll get from the outside world – and in the right conditions it’s better for it.

The Atom makes even the Caterham Seven look practical

With success, Somerset-based Ariel has grown as a company, although total production is still only around 100 cars a year, a fact which maintains exclusivity and keeps residual values at an impressively high level.

Today, the range extends from a 245bhp base model of the car through to a 350bhp version, which comes with a supercar price to match. Without exception, each model offers a uniquely thrilling driving experience that is, at its best, unmatched for thrills and rawness this side of a superbike.



The work of art Ariel Atom

When it comes to the Atom’s design, function is king. No other production car puts raw engineering so blatantly on display. It’s easy to admire the depth of Ariel's engineering and detail, even on the company’s more modest models. If you like fabrications, its exoskeletal steel frame is a thing of some beauty.

Whichever model you buy, everything hangs from this skeleton. Attached to the relatively wide (by specialist car standards) chassis are unequal-length double wishbones front and rear, with pushrods all round activating adjustable coilover spring/damper units. There’s minimal bodywork, which contributes to a relatively small fully-fuelled weight.

The Atom could be the most revolutionary piece of design in decades

There’s joy to be had from admiring what isn’t there, too. The Atom is a minimalist’s dream.

Doors? Just finely welded chassis stays.

Weather gear? Just the small holes drilled into the seat and floor.

Fancy gearlever? Not a bit of it – just a plain, stubby gearstick or diddy wheel-mounted shift paddles that, despite being carbonfibre, are still drilled for lightness.

There are two small and surprisingly effective wind deflectors. A windscreen is an option that adds weight, complexity and ugliness. The beauty of the Atom lies in its simplicity


Honda-engined Ariel Atom

The relative width of the Ariel Atom means its one-piece seat, which adjusts fore and aft if you get busy with some Allen keys, allows generous shoulder room for two occupants and solid amounts of legroom. The pedals and steering wheel are fixed.

The Atom's steering wheel itself is backed by a race-derived LCD screen that shows revs, speeds and temperatures, and it is surrounded by all the switches you’ll need. They are marked clearly and, with a little familiarity, easily understood.

Don't expect cup holders, and air-conditioning comes courtesy of nature

Each Atom also comes with Ariel's road pack, which adds projector headlamps, LED indicators, rear fog light, a reversing light, horn, catalytic converter and mudguards, to make it road legal, while the options list is large and allows one to create their own trackday special. Upgrades include a cat bypass pipe, limited slip differential, a six-speed sequential gearbox, Alcon four-piston brake calipers and heavier duty brake discs, Bilstein or Ohlin adaptive dampers, side panels, a bonnet and windscreen for the outside. Inside you can add 12V socket, Bluetooth, a TomTom motorbike sat nav system, footrests and a battery trickle charger.

Now, a general understanding of the word ‘quality’ and what car makers usually mean by it are not the same thing. Exquisite construction, tight tolerances and durability are the conventional understanding. Car manufacturers, meanwhile, usually think that ‘quality’ is being able to make the same part and screw it together the same way every time.

Ariel’s take on quality, thankfully, is more akin to the way you or we understand it. Sit in the cockpit and you’ll find yourself surrounded by high-cost, high-spec components assembled with care and craft.

No, there is not a lot in here – no soft-touch fabrics, few switches and no seat cushions. But the substance that does exist here is certainly a treat. The race-car steering rack is just a few inches from your feet, which rest on superbly finished pedals. You can see the wishbones and it’s all perfectly constructed.

Conventional car buyers may, therefore, look at the Ariel Atom spec list and ask about what’s missing; as a potential buyer you should revel in its detail and simplicity, and move on to the more important details of the options list, which allow you to choose from a variety of add-ons that are mostly aimed at reducing weight or boosting performance.


The Hartley V8 in the Ariel Atom

The Ariel Atom can be bought with three power outputs, varying from 245bhp to 350bhp. Even the most basic model is exhilarating, but head to the top spec 3.5R and you’re talking about the sort of performance levels that can, in the right hands, trouble numerous supercars including the Ferrari 488 GTB, McLaren 650S and Porsche 911 Turbo S while it’s being driven flat out. In our estimation, the now defunct Mugen tuned version and the V8 are best described as track biased, but the three, now considered lesser powered versions, are most at home on the road.

Each model is powered by 2.0-litre, four-pot Honda units, with the 310bhp version gaining a supercharger and the 3.5R including a charge cooler to help it reach its 350bhp power output. The Mugen edition benefited from extra tuning from the Japanese firm’s performance arm. At the heart of the outgoing Atom V8 is a Hartley-designed unit from the US and is bespoke enough in the way that Ariel has specified it to wear the British firm’s own badging. Power is a sensational 475bhp at 10,500rpm in road trim as tested (500bhp at 10,600rpm was an option).

Pace starts at blistering and ends at mind-bending. The Atom's performance is barely believable.

Shifts are made via a six-speed Honda ‘box on all versions, although you can specify a six-speed Sadev sequential unit the kind you’ll find in touring and rally cars, with shifts that are controlled by a hydraulic actuator. While the shift is notably more positive, there’s nothing wrong with the standard unit. Beyond that, all versions are nigh-on mechanically identical.

Standouts include throttle response, which is wonderfully crisp, brake response, which is firm and adjustable front-to-rear, and the steering, which is quick and accurate, if not quite on a par with that of a Lotus 2-Eleven, which is one potential rival.

It stops well, too. There’s no ABS, but the pedal gives good feel and there’s solid retardation and even very effective front/rear brake bias adjustment.


The pliant ride of the Ariel Atom

Ariel admits the handling on early Atoms was a bit twitchy on the limit. But the latest Atom, is now a very well sorted sports car, with excellent steering and a well resolved balance of ride and handling.

The ‘regular’ Atoms ride surprisingly well in every form given the car’s menacingly hardcore looks. This is because of the carefully tuned dampers, which take the harshness out of the ride: light cars typically don’t cope well with bumps, but the Atom now rides them as well as any rivals.

Ariel has given the Atom near Lotus levels of composure

The 3.5R spring and damper settings are stiffened in its standard, factory-fresh set-up, so as to be better on a circuit than on the road. However, it’s very adjustable. The dampers adjust three ways, the springs four ways.

On a bumpy road, the regular settings can leave the Atom skipping around a bit compared to the lesser powered versions, particularly on the lightly loaded front. However, even this is still a good road car, with some compliance and decent enough ground clearance, so you’re never conscious that you’re driving a track refugee.

Also, one of the joys of the Atom is that you can play around with the settings and tyre pressures to suit your favourite road or track, or find a generic set-up that suits it best. And the Atom is very communicative; through the seat and the steering wheel, you feel every millimetre of what’s going on beneath those tyres.

Handling is a strong point, too. It gently, predictably nudges into understeer, which can be kicked through under power or dialled out with a quick lift of the throttle. While the handling is perhaps still not quite as well-resolved as a Caterham or 2-Eleven, but it’s very, very good, and a lot more approachable than before. Steering is brilliant, offering up terrific road feel.


Ariel Atom

If you’re buying a car like the Ariel Atom, you probably know what you are getting into in terms of insurance, servicing fuel and so on.

Suffice to say, judged by normal, rational car buying measurements it isn’t an easy car to justify at any of its four price points. But if you’re thinking of buying one using the rational side of your brain, it probably isn’t the car for you anyway.

If you’re doing a track day, it’s worth noting how heavy the 3.5R fuel consumption is. Take a few jerry cans with you

Instead, look at it another way: the Atom delivers an unmatched blend of performance, agility and road usability, and in our book that makes buying one money well spent.

Recommending one of the three versions is hard, because they all deliver on their promise in slightly different ways. Whichever you buy you won’t be disappointed (or, indeed, anything other than thrilled). In very broad terms, the 245 and 310 are more at home on the road than track, with the reverse true of the 3.5R. That said, they can all perform both track and road roles surprisingly well.

And whichever you choose it’s not money thrown away, either. Resale values are strong, largely because production is so limited and most people buy and sell through Ariel, allowing them to keep a close control on values. 


4.5 star Ariel Atom

In every form the Ariel Atom delivers thrills that are as exhilarating as any car can deliver – and there’s no greater recommendation than that.

All Atom variants deliver drama, technical prowess and pace, yet it’s still usable as a road car. Speed humps are no problem. Dress suitably and a weekend away is entirely feasible. This is a car for people who like using their cars.

The Ariel Atom is surprisingly usable as a road car, and starting at around £30k, it's still fairly well priced

It’s not just about pace, either; there is real feel, finesse, communication and subtlety to it, too.

If you have the spare cash to buy just one ‘fun’ car for your garage, we’d point you in this direction – albeit with the proviso that you do the due diligence on rivals.

That means taking a look at alternative takes on similar themes, including cars such as the BAC Mono, Caterham Seven 620R, Radical SR3 SL and Elemental RP1, all of which have their own merits at different price points.

Which one you buy will likely come down to personal preference and circumstances; what’s clear is that the Atom buyer is unlikely to ever be disappointed. Once you sampled and lived with it, it’s likely there will be times when no other car will do.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Ariel Atom 3 (2007-2017) First drives