Ariel's third model takes the all-terrain car to another level. It's one of the best driving experiences we've ever had

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The inspiration behind the Nomad is not hard to fathom. Every big-wheeled, lightweight off-roader that preceded it – an archive of misfits that includes everything from beach buggies to extreme sandrails – was about fulfilling that impulse to abandon the road’s well-trodden path and slither excitedly off into the dirt, dust and joy of the unknown.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of taking the Ariel Atom concept off-piste has been percolating in Somerset for quite some time. Ariel is not based in a town or city. Its factory is situated in countryside as verdant as a Thomas Hardy poem.

Rather than carry over as many Atom parts as possible, Ariel incorporated a new Honda engine and experimented with WRC-spec dampers

Outside of work, many of the firm’s staff can be found ploughing through it, aboard motor and mountain bikes or motley 4x4s. The leap, then, to remaking the Atom as a marauding byway muncher is not a monumental one.

But nor was it entirely simple or easy. Ariel began work on the Nomad at about the same time as it began to develop its motorbike and, for a small company, spreading its resources between the two must have been a stretch. It also found itself limited by its own perfectionism.

Rather than carry over as many Atom parts as possible and fit knobbly tyres for a bit of gravel road ability, Ariel incorporated a new Honda engine and experimented with hugely expensive (and brilliant) World Rally Championship-spec Ohlins dampers. As a result, the Nomad’s lineage is plainly recognisable, but this is a different machine from the one made famous by track days and TV shows.

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That’s a good thing, because Ariel is entering a niche within a niche now and the Nomad’s tiny pocket of buyers will almost certainly be putting its muddy-stuff potential repeatedly to the test.

Moreover, because it still looks like an Atom and continues to drive the rear wheels alone, they’ll expect it to still thrill on the road. Covering all of those bases while continuing to travel at a suitably mighty clip is where the Nomad departs from practically anything that has gone before.


Rear of the Ariel Nomad

The Nomad may have been born from a simple idea – to give the Ariel Atom a sibling capable of all-terrain driving – but in the making, it has taken on rather more of its own identity.

Ariel’s intent was to retain as many carried-over items as possible, which is eminently sensible. But in the end, although it unmistakably looks like an Ariel, only the floor panel, instrument pod, pedal assembly and steering column and rack have been retained. Even now, Ariel is thinking about offering a slower rack than the current one, which has two turns from lock to lock.

The Nomad may have been born from a simple idea but in the making, it has taken on rather more of its own identity

Everything else is different from the Atom. Most noticeable, evidently, is the chassis, which is still built by Arch Motor & Manufacturing and still skeletal in appearance but is now stiffer and heavier. It’s beefier to cope with the rallies or competitions that, Ariel estimates, 50 percent of buyers will undertake with their Nomads.

It feels curious to call the Nomad an off-roader, but ostensibly that’s what it is, so it has stronger double-wishbone suspension than the Atom’s and a greatly increased ride height. There are three damper options: the regular Bilstein units fitted and sat on Eibach springs of our test car, adjustable Bilsteins or adjustable Ohlins. All offer dual-rate springing – softer at the top of the suspension’s travel, to easily absorb small lumps and ruts, while becoming firmer as travel increases to retain fine body control. We’ll come to that later.

The engine sits transversely behind the driver and is a four-pot Honda unit, just as with an Atom. Ariel’s store of 2.0-litre Type R engines for its track-biased car isn’t in danger, though, because the Nomad gets a torquier 2.4-litre unit, as used in the Civic Type S in the US.

It develops 235bhp and 221lb ft in this naturally aspirated form, although Ariel being Ariel, a supercharged version followed now made defunct. It drives through a six-speed manual gearbox and there is no traction or stability control here. Likewise, the steering is unassisted and the brakes are ABS-free, but the front-to-rear brake bias can be adjusted, even on the move.


Ariel Nomad's interior

Giving the Nomad a star rating here is redundant, really, because the tally typically indicates the interior’s quality versus its rivals, and the Ariel has none.

What it is like – almost precisely the same, in fact – is the Ariel Atom, which means two seats, a whole heap of metalwork, a gearstick, some pedals, a formidable-looking steering wheel and a tiny, button-festooned instrument cluster behind it. The chief difference on our test car, and the reason for a few extra buttons on the dashboard (such as it is), is the windscreen, although even this is optional on the Atom.

Listing the features of the Nomad’s spartan cabin is like cataloguing the innards of a Challenger tank

Naturally, listing the features of the Nomad’s spartan cabin is like cataloguing the innards of a Challenger tank: what’s there is less interesting than what it does, feels and looks like. In this, an Ariel product is unlike much else you’ll ever get into. But there is an LCD display which houses the speedo, rev counter and various warning lights, while the Nomad comes fitted with Ariel's road pack including headlights, fog lights, a catalytic converter and mudflaps.

This fact is made patently clear by the entry procedure, which can be achieved quickly only via a feet-first dive through the side or else a clamber over the top, followed by freefall into the seat.

Neither is outrageously difficult, but you do rather suspect that, like a new pair of skinny-fit Diesel jeans, the Nomad isn’t going to be the right shape for everyone. 

Nevertheless, if you can make your peace with both, Ariel’s austere cockpit is a splendid place to sit. The £1794 addition of the windscreen means that a helmet isn’t necessarily required (although we’d recommend sunglasses, given the breeze at speed or the splatter potential elsewhere), which, in turn, means that without realising it, your mindset is tweaked from go-faster tunnel vision to panoramic fun-a-scope.

Other options including sportier braking set-ups, four-piston Alcon brake calipers, a rally-spec wishbone suspensions set-up, a quick release steering wheel, FIA spec equipment, while inside you can have Bluetooth, a TomTom motorbike sat nav, sump guard and various carbonfibre panels.

The layout and the brilliantly exposed mechanical nature of it all do the rest. Better still, it looks just as good plastered in muck and sweat.


0-60mph in 4.5 secs by the Ariel Nomad

How accelerative your Nomad is depends on the options you fit to it. It can be had on race-track-specification Yokohama rubber if you like, and one customer has ordered his Nomad for track-day use only.

But that seems a touch incongruous to us, and the Yokohama Geolander rubber our test car arrived wearing seems a decent compromise between road and rough.

By any standards below a supercar’s, the Nomad is blinking fast.

Thus equipped, full of fuel and with two road testers on board, it accelerated from zero to 60mph in 4.5sec, which is slower than Ariel’s claim in optimum conditions but a more than respectable result for a car making 351bhp per tonne, weighing 735kg and wearing these aerodynamics. By any standards below a supercar’s, the Nomad is blinking fast.

In-gear performance is similarly impressive, too. We’re getting extremely used to turbochargers, but it’s lovely to find and experience a normally aspirated engine as flexible as the Honda unit in the Nomad. It will pull in sixth gear from less than 20mph, and even that gear will take you from 50-70mph in 7.7sec.

Of course, this being a Honda engine, it’s better still if you’re prepared to work it hard. In third gear, the Nomad can accelerate from 30-70mph in only 4.7sec, and if you put in that effort, you’ll be rewarded with terrific high-rev throttle response and a biting, rasping sound to go with it.

The 2.4-litre engine, which revs to 7600rpm and makes peak power only 400rpm before that, is neither as sonorous nor as smooth as the smaller-capacity Honda unit you’ll usually find in an Ariel, but it has the measure of nigh on all other competitor four-pots.

What is just as slick as other Ariels is the six-speed gearbox’s shift action, which is easy, short of throw and notch-free. The clutch pedal take-up is progressive and the other pedals are well spaced and weighted.

Braking is better than the raw numbers suggest. Bear in mind that the Nomad has no anti-lock, so it’s not just a case of stamping on the middle pedal and holding on. But pedal feel is good and it’s easy to feel – and sometimes see – which wheel is inclined to lock first.

With a few practice runs and some adjustment to the dial, it’s simple enough to get a good set-up to leave the Nomad at for emergency braking.

A different setting might be preferred for track or off-road use, where the rears locking first can help the car to turn. More on that in a moment, though.


Ariel Nomad has a composed ride

On the road, Ariel Atoms ride harshly but handle brilliantly. That’s the general theme that they – and other lightweight sports and track cars – tend to follow.

The Nomad is stunningly different. It still handles brilliantly, but coupled with that is now an ethereally composed ride quality.

Once you get the chassis working, it’s astonishing to sit there and watch, but not feel, how the wheels bob around to absorb ruts and bumps

That comes from the raised ride height and trick dampers, which allow surface imperfections to be batted away. In that respect, the Nomad gets better the faster you go. Around town, imperfections still filter through to the cabin. Once you get the chassis working, though, it’s astonishing to sit there and watch, but not feel, how the wheels bob around to absorb ruts and bumps.

What, naturally enough, this softer set-up brings is larger body movements than in a road or track-focused lightweight car. But don’t mistake that for a lack of body control; over crests and dips, the Nomad settles on its first iteration. When you accelerate, brake or corner, the Nomad’s body moves with you, but it is always impeccably controlled while it does it.

Partly that’s because the body is still refreshingly light – so controlling its movements isn’t difficult – and partly it’s because the way the double wishbone suspension is designed means that the car’s roll centres don’t move as the body rolls.

If it did, more of the body’s weight would fall onto the suspension under cornering, necessitating stiffer springs to resist it, thus harming the ride.

The upshot of all this is that the Nomad is supremely controlled and far more settled along a bumpy road than the vast majority of track or road-focused cars.

Even a supple hot hatch like the Volkswagen Golf GTI would be thrown off line more readily than a Nomad, whose impeccable control leaves its body flat, its steering uncorrupted and its driver – free from kickback, nagging and interruption – alone to concentrate on the wholesome business of driving.


Ariel Nomad

There really isn’t much in the UK to compete with the breadth of the Ariel Nomad’s abilities. Certainly not for similar money, at any rate.

A Bowler EXR S, the street-legal descendant of the Wildcat, will keep you drier, propel you along much faster and deliver its own thrilling brand of off-road experience, but you can expect to lay out four or five times the Ariel’s cost.

You could ask Ariel to build you a supercharged Nomad and spend your Sundays bothering Porsche 911 owners

Alternatively, for about the same sort of money, you can buy something like a Rage buggy in road-legal 200bhp spec. However, as sophisticated as these machines have become, they tend to remain on the heavily uprated quadricycle end of the scale, typically sporting bike engines and sequential gearboxes. Huge fun on the loose, then; probably less enjoyable to get back home again.

It should also be noted that the Nomad’s spec can be pushed in very different directions, resulting in a different sort of car on the driveway. There's masses of choice here and we won't try to sway you in any particular direction, except to say that the hydraulic handbrake was the most fun that any tester had while simultaneously clothed and covered in mud.

Depending on your preference, you can have the Ohlins dampers and a hydraulic handbrake with the intention of never leaving a grassy field – or you could ask Ariel to build you a supercharged Nomad with paddle shifters and spend your Sundays bothering Porsche 911 owners at Silverstone.

The choice, rather splendidly, is yours.


The 5 star Ariel Nomad

Cars like the Ariel Nomad have hitherto been reserved for special stages and open expanses of the southern US.

They’re hard work, one-dimensional and often DIY-build only. So the Nomad is a revelation: a pukka, beautifully finished sandrail/buggy/track car that excels regardless of the situation in which you use it. And it’s no more challenging a proposition than a ready-built radio-controlled buggy, thanks to the way Ariel puts them together and looks after its customers.

Get the Nomad on the road, where it’s also sensational, or loose ground, where it’s best of all, and it excels on another level.

Plenty of our testers would pick a Nomad to play with on a circuit before they’d consider a dozen high-profile sports cars and supercars, and that’s not even the Nomad’s home turf. Get it on the road, where it’s also sensational, or loose ground, where it’s best of all, and it excels on another level.

The key to it is that it’s not just technically accomplished and not just huge amounts of fun; it’s both at the same time.

No other car lets you take so much joy from so few components.

Ariel Nomad First drives