As cars are increasingly driven by computers, and the process of driving becomes further detached from human engagement, the class of pure enjoyment-focused track weapons is likely to see continued growth. And now the Ariel Atom 4, the ultimate track toy and work-life balancing tool, has been updated to satisfy where other new cars no longer can.
(Full Disclosure: Anthony Magagnoli is a vehicle development engineer with 14 years of OEM experience, a professional race car driver, driving coach and future karaoke champion. Ariel provided him with a nice hotel room and a delicious dinner at LongHorn Steakhouse to get an early crack at the Ariel with one other publication. All other travel expenses were covered by Jalopnik.)
As a driver’s coach for owners of the Atom 3 and Spec:RaceAtom, I have some significant seat time in the 4’s predecessor. Despite it being difficult to discern the new car from the old at a glance, the reality is that only three parts carry over from the Atom 3: the brake pedal, the clutch pedal and the gas cap. That’s it.
The U.S.-market Atom 4, like its predecessor, is made in South Boston, Virginia, by TMI Autotech Inc., just down the street from Virginia International Raceway. The engine and transmission come from Honda Performance Development in Ohio, the wheel uprights are machined in-house and all the chassis tubing is bent and welded by TMI. While it was designed and developed in the UK, the Atom 4 has over 50 percent U.S.-supplied parts content.
Editor’s Note: As sold, the Ariel Atom 4 may not be certified for registering as a conventional road vehicle in all U.S. states. From the Q&A on Ariel’s website: Although the Ariel is not a “Federalized vehicle”, many Ariel owners have followed the laws of their home state and registered their vehicles for road use. This process may vary from state to state. We recommend that you research Custom Built, Specially Constructed, or Kit Car registration in your home state.
The Honda-sourced engine and six-speed transmission are supremely tractable on the road, given the potency of the Atom 4’s specs. The clutch feels like that from a street car, seeming only slightly grabbier due to the 56 percent reduction of mass that the engine is trying to move. Beyond the Atom 4 weighing in at a mere 1,350 lbs to the 3,100 lbs of the Civic Type R, the engine’s output has been increased from 306 HP to 350 HP by way of custom engine management and a three-stage variable boost controller. Should you wish to tame down the engine, it’s a matter of just turning a knob — power in the palm of your hand.
The initial feeling of acceleration was mind-warping. Even with cool ambient temps and track-focused tires, the car planted its power amazingly well. Set on its maximum level of intervention, the adjustable traction control could be heard suppressing wheelspin over irregular pavement upon hard 2nd or 3rd gear pulls. The exhaust gave off a subtle crackle as it cut spark for the briefest of moments. Since there was no change in throttle position, the cut was so brief and seamless that I could detect the traction control only through the sound change. This is a pure race-grade engine calibration-based traction control system.
Even in the town of Millville, New Jersey, near the motorsports park, which frequently has all manner of track and exotic cars rolling through, heads still snapped with a big smile and thumbs up as I rolled past. There’s something approachable about the Atom, and nothing pretentious. It’s generally viewed as being unequivocally cool, but the reactions are warm.
Climbing over the exoskeletal cage and stepping onto the seat where my thighs would rest, I lowered myself in. Once I got the four-point belts pulled out from under me, I was able to buckle the two pieces together and adjust the pull-up lap and pull-down shoulder belts to secure myself. While I would’ve rather sat closer to the pedals, adjustment would have involved removing four bolts and resetting the seat farther forward. I did this myself the next day in about five minutes and found it to be the easiest adjustment of a fixed seat I’d ever performed, as the bolt heads were easily located inside the seat.
The new wheelbase is two-inches longer, providing noticeably more elbow room in the cockpit versus the Atom 3, and the new 4 also has the most comfortable plastic seats this side of a Little Tikes car. Seriously, these composite seats were actually quite comfortable on the road for the admittedly short distance I drove, despite having no padding whatsoever. The 12 miles I got exceeded the total number of miles that were on this car when it was first presented to me. That’s the charm of driving the first Atom 4 in America.
The ride was unexpectedly compliant over smaller ripples in the pavement, nothing like I’d expect for a 1,350-pound track weapon. I proceeded to find some larger inputs, like manhole covers that were depressed around an inch from the road, and it felt a lot more like what you expected upon an initial look at such a skeletal car.
The suspension has dual springs coiled around the pushrod-actuated Bilstein dampers. There is an initial “ride spring,” which is nice and soft to provide a tolerant ride and muted reactions in both handling and steering.
When this short spring bottoms out, the remaining load is taken up by the far-stiffer main spring. This is the same principle as progressive-rate springs in road cars, except here there’s a step transition from the ride spring and the main spring. It’s much appreciated for street driving and makes the Atom 4 quite easy to drive on the road, but the difference between a small ride input and a slightly larger one can be a shift from supple to harsh, with no transition between.
My only complaint here is with the turn signal. There is a rocker switch hidden behind the steering wheel to activate the signals, but annoyingly, it does not self-cancel after a turn. I drove around half of Millville, New Jersey, indicating a right-hand turn — how humiliating.
The wind buffeting was pleasantly similar to most modern roadsters with a wind blocker between the seats. This 4 had the optional laminated safety glass windscreen and Lexan side panels; that wind blocker was a giant air inlet for the engine.
The Honda K20C1 sits behind you, but the intake is right next to the driver’s right ear. It’s louder than I’d be comfortable with for street driving without a helmet or ear plugs. You get the induction noise, turbo spooling and blow-off valve trumpeting some combination of those at all times. At constant throttle with light load, the turbo whistle sounds like “Herbert” from the Family Guy series whistling his “esses” continuously over your shoulder, at 100 decibels.
Driving race cars for as long as I have, I’ve become more protective of my hearing. I’d want to use at least an earplug in my right ear for street use. I’d happily trade off the intake noises for more exhaust volume, though! The noises outside of the car are nowhere near as dramatic as they are in the cockpit.
The experience of an Ariel is more akin to a sport bike than a sportscar. You are absolutely engaged in every aspect of operating it and extracting its performance. The more disconnected cars become, the more we will be seeking raw and visceral experiences to bring back that mechanical engagement that can only be produced by burning fossil fuels without electronic interference between driver and machine.
The Atom 4 was very well set up, balanced and rock solid as it arrived. I had no trouble getting comfortable, and the car encouraged me to start exploring the limits after just a few laps. The only minor issue was a request from the Ariel rep to short-shift up from fifth gear due to a known tuning issue that had yet to be resolved. Since our fuel in the U.S. is not the same as that in the UK, final engine tuning was still being done. Damn, guess the day is ruined!
The first thing I had to get used to on track was how short the straightaways suddenly seemed in the new car. I know the NJMP tracks well, and I’ve built a sort of rhythm to timing the driving inputs. If I relied on my internal metronome to gauge how long to stay on the gas, I noted that it would’ve been a fraction of a second too long and I’d promptly be shot off the track. Building new reference points for where to brake were critical. Likewise, every time that the shift lights flashed from yellow to red, I was surprised that it was time to change gears already.
Compared with the naturally-aspirated K24-powered Atom 3’s I’ve driven, the Atom 4 produces a tremendous amount of torque, not requiring it to be kept on boil at all times. At the same time, it never “falls off the cam” as a K24 would if it fell below the rpm threshold to ride on the higher-lift VTEC cam lobes. An Atom 3 feels quick in the first three gears, but doesn’t accelerate with much urgency in the beyond, where the Atom 4 just keeps pulling. Even using 6th gear down the front straight didn’t seem like a big compromise.
The Atom 4 has also significantly improved the frankly terrible aerodynamics of the Atom 3. At a higher speed track like Watkins Glen, I was actually arriving at terminal velocity at 129 mph in an Atom 3. Thankfully, the 162 mph top speed of an Atom 4 will keep it from falling flat at the bigger tracks around the country.
A 3 would want to spin itself around if carrying a bit of excess weight on the front tires into the corner, but then understeer like an oil tanker once power was applied and that weight came off the front. Midcorner throttle adjustments would result in major changes of attitude and yaw. It drove something like an early 1980s Porsche 911. As I pushed the Atom 4 harder in the next session, I found the handling to be positively docile, by comparison. Clearly, the revised short-and-long arm suspension with improved anti-dive and anti-squat geometry has gone a long way to taming the turbocharged beast.
Instead of the 65 percent rearward weight-bias traits dominating the handling characteristics, they can be manipulated to adjust the balance of the car. The only difficulty here was the turbo engine lacking that linear power delivery of a naturally aspirated motor. Finding the right amount of partial throttle to tweak the balance of the car in a turn was more challenging. But while fine adjustment and precise inputs are still required, the magnitude of its traits are dialed back so that it is much more manageable to drive and instantly more fun.
The softer ride springs make the car less nervous on-center, providing some initial roll and compliance when turning it. It felt like it was going to be happy using the curbs, but when it pushed through to the main springs, it jostled the car, suggesting that it would be faster to keep it gripped up on pavement, despite running a wider radius. So not too soft, then.
The manual steering rack only has two full turns lock-to-lock, but takes surprisingly little effort without being hyper-reactive. It feels like a nice production sports car would, minus the filtration and simulation created by any power steering, let alone electric power steering. The initial roll provided by the softer ride springs helps to communicate the direction change while slowing it down to a rate that does not have the driver constantly on top of the wheel simply to keep the car moving in a straight line.
I found that the best way to manage the Atom 4 on a track was to lightly trail-brake into a corner, use steering input to rotate the car in the middle of the turn while easing into light acceleration to plant the rear. Once the trajectory for the exit of the turn was set, roll on to full throttle and hope that you got it right. If so, you’ll be rewarded with a deep press into the seat as you rocket onto the next straightaway.
I was hugely impressed with how much drive traction the Atom 4 had coming out of a corner on track. Aside from the cresting turns, it planted all the power, while maintaining the trajectory that had been set before applying full throttle. In the cresting turns, the car was on the neutral side, with the traction control working well in setting 3 out of 7, with 0 being off. I preferred it in setting “1” for a bit more lively action from the rear end over the crests.
While the limited-slip differential could be credited for producing some of that drive traction, the car was a bit neutral (read: oversteer) over the crests and in the entry and middle of the long on-camber Lightbulb turn at NJMP Lightning. I generally felt like the LSD wasn’t needed since the midengine layout naturally produced so much drive traction, but I’d be concerned that not optioning for it might shift the understeer balance in the wrong direction. However, the standard single-adjustable Bilstein dampers might have some compensation hiding in their adjustment.
The car does not come with ABS brakes or stability control. While I thought I would prefer ABS, I’m now not sure that I would. The lightweight nature makes the brakes so incredibly capable that I never even locked a wheel. The brake zones are the last place I push the limits when I’m trying to drop lap time, but I know I left more performance on the table there than anywhere else on the track. I found that I used the brakes more to determine the balance of the car on corner entry than for outright deceleration.
Although I think it’s a worthless figure this day in age, if you want to go 0-60 in under 3 seconds for less than $100,000, your options are pretty much limited to a C8 Corvette Z51, Caterham 620R and, well, this. A Tesla Model 3 Performance gets close, but that is an inherently different experience. If you want to do the feat with a manual transmission, then the Atom 4 is the sole option. With a base MSRP of $74,750, and $89,110 as tested, it’s an incredible performance value claiming 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, 0-100 in 6.8 seconds, and a top speed of 162 mph.
The Atom is more expensive than the three-wheel options out there, but if you’re considering one of those atrocities, please… just stop. They’re severely compromised in every dynamic aspect. An Atom, however, provides the same wide-open look-at-me experience, but with legitimate supercar performance to back it up.
There are few vehicles that can generate the combination of raw performance, driver engagement and rewarding driving experience of the Ariel Atom 4. In fact, the level of performance may be beyond what most people are capable of fully extracting. Such is often the case with supercars. The fact that you’re chasing the limits of your own driving, though, and not navigating a sea of computer-derived gimmickry, will guarantee that the pursuit will be rewarding every time you try.