This Ariel Atom was kindly provided by-, and is currently for sale at– Road and Race Automotive in Muizenberg.
You can take any substance on earth and break it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Smaller and smaller again, until you are left with a single atom. Atoms are the fundamental building blocks of every single thing on the planet. They are the last step on the “size ladder” before substance becomes subatomic particle.
In many ways, this so aptly describes the Ariel I’m driving today. Take a car and keep stripping more and more away from it. Right down to the last little piece – if you take anything more off it, it wouldn’t be a car any more. It is the essence of car. The last step before car, simply becomes a pile of parts. A single Atom of the substance known as “car”.
where its charm lies
In a world obsessed with having more of everything though, where does a car fit in that has literally nothing. No radio, no Aircon, no Bluetooth, no electric windows…. Actually, no windows. NO DOORS! This car is as spartan as you can imagine. Ironically, in its lack of charms, is exactly where its charm lies.
By taking everything off the car that isn’t absolutely necessary, you’re left with a completely pure driving experience. Not to mention the fact that the car becomes light. Super light. Ultra light. Now, everyone knows that a lighter car is nicer to drive. However, the lightest thing most people have ever driven is usually still around a ton. When you cut that almost in half again, the effects of weight loss become really pronounced. Acceleration is obviously improved, cornering is much sharper, and braking is much stronger.
You can get similar acceleration in a heavier car by adding more power. However, in a super-light car like this, you don’t ONLY get acceleration, you get responsiveness. Because none of your inputs have any weight to work against, everything responds absolutely instantaneously. Steering is telepathic, brakes are painfully powerful, and once the turbo spools – hold on for dear life.
A few seconds later you hear a hiss behind you…
I’m always very careful when driving cars that don’t belong to me, so flooring it in first gear was never even an option. Once underway and in second, the first time I put my foot down I made the mistake of thinking “it’s quick…. But it’s not that quick”. A few seconds later you hear a hiss behind you and the shove starts swelling from urgent, to bonkers. And just when you think, wow that turbo shoves, the V-Tec kicks in and bonkers turns to WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED!!!??? Keeping the car in the boost AND in V-Tec is a little challenging on the road, but if you can manage it, this car gathers speed like nothing you can imagine.
Atom puts you on the naughty side of “very fast”
Of course keeping it in the boost for more than a few seconds also puts you on the naughty side of “very fast” so unless you are absolutely certain our boys in blue are sleeping. Best keep those bursts of acceleration short.
The speed, road holding and braking are obviously insane. Thanks to Top Gear, those qualities are very well documented. What really impressed me though, was that the car remains incredibly stable under such hard acceleration. Despite the lack of weight, and modestly sized tyres, traction is simply unreal. At no point did I feel the car break traction at the rear. Even on the bumpy coastal roads out of Simons Town, the car never skips over undulations in the surface. It simply grabs hold of the tarmac and breaks the laws of physics in a way that can’t really be explained.
a car you need to spend time with
The steering rack is very quick and the Atom has a darty front end that simply goes directly where you point it. Despite the incredible power, the rear is solidly planted. Through corners the car feels perfectly balanced front to rear. However, given the big steps in power when V-Tec and Turbo come on song, I didn’t have enough time to really learn the car well enough to accelerate hard through bends.
The Atom is definitely a car you need to spend time with to really learn what it is capable of. In fact even in my short time with it, I could feel myself getting to grips with the handling, the power delivery and how it responds to certain inputs. Because the chassis and all the controls are so communicative, the car very quickly tells you what works and what doesn’t, so learning the car happens quickly. But there is a lot to learn when you have this much power to weight.
The Atom is a surprisingly easy car to drive
In terms of creature comforts, there are none. The seats are unpadded, but very comfortable to sit in. They also hold you in place during high g-force cornering. The harness straps pull back on your shoulders when you step on the middle pedal, and the backrest gently cradles your body as the engine liquifies your organs. Despite the fact that there is no power steering, as long as the wheels are rolling, the steering is not really heavy. The brakes and clutch, likewise, are not hard work either. It’s a surprisingly easy car to drive at more docile road speeds.
The ride is firm. Very firm. Bumpy roads will see you bouncing around fairly uncomfortably, but to call this a fault of the car would be unfair. The suspension of the Atom is completely customisable and, judging by the stickers on this car, it has been set up for the smooth roads of the Simola Hillclimb, thus taking it on a bumpy coastal road was maybe not the best test of its ride quality. I’m absolutely certain that a more ‘road friendly’ setup can be achieved with a few minutes of spanner swinging and a few adjustments.
slightly battered, roughly shaken, blind, deaf and dehydrated
I absolutely love this type of car. No you can’t drive it on a daily basis. No it’s not great for sitting in traffic. It’s not comfortable, it’s loud, you’ll get hot or cold depending on the weather. Your face will be wind blasted and you will no doubt arrive at your destination slightly battered, roughly shaken, blind, deaf and dehydrated. But, you will also have the biggest smile on your face that you could possibly imagine. This is undoubtedly the essence of driving. A more pure and mechanical driving experience would be near impossible to find.
It’s a car that you build a relationship with. A car you learn to love as you get to know it. You don’t care about the fact that it doesn’t have all the toys you’ll find in a new hot hatch, because this is an event. It is an incredibly special experience and a true driver’s car.