The Ariel Atom is a prosthetic. It’s something you strap onto your body that takes your physical motions and multiplies them, dramatically. All cars are like this, but the bigger and more complex they get, the less they feel like connected body augmentations. The latest Ariel Atom 4 is still fundamentally four wheels and an engine the driver wears to go fast. It’s an absurd, wonderful thing, and I got to see how they’re built and try one out.
(Full Disclosure: Ariel had me drive up in my 52 HP car to their factory in South Boston, Virginia (it’s nothing like The Departed Boston) and then let me whip an Atom around Virginia International Raceway. They also fed me, gave me a T-shirt and hid their disgust when I spoke, which was sweet.)
I need to tell you some things I learned about the Atom that make it so fascinating to me, before I get into the details about the car and its immaculate little factory. First, you know what I was told was likely responsible for more Atom sales than almost anything else? This image:
That’s right, Jeremy Clarkson getting his face nearly blown off his skull in episode nine of the fifth Series of old Top Gear has inspired so many people to buy Atoms. If that’s the machine that was whipping Jezza around so fast he almost Looked-Into-The-Ark-Of-The-Covenanted his face off, people wanted to feel that same sensation themselves. People saw a man almost drive his face clean off and thought, “Fuck yeah, that’s for me.”
The other unbelievable thing I learned about the Ariel Atom is that a shockingly small percentage of owners actually track their cars. The number they gave was something around four percent.
What? How? This makes no sense — the Atom is a car that’s pretty much designed around the whole idea of driving incredibly fast around a track! It’s a car that has literally sacrificed everything to be an incredible track machine, and there are people who buy them and don’t track them? What are they doing with them?
With those facts bouncing around in my mind, I realized that the Ariel Atom became the machine that reminded me, in some deep, deep way, that I actually genuinely love people. I can’t say I recommend spending time with many humans, but collectively there’s really something magical and stupid and wonderful and stupid and lovable about humanity.
If an alien stopped off at Earth on its way to a much more important planet, and had about five minutes to kill to learn what our deal was, I think the best way to encapsulate what I love about people might be to take them for a spin in an Atom.
I could explain that humans have figured out how to build build millions and millions of these machines to transport ourselves and various goods around the surface of the planet. We’ve also taken the same technology and built a transportation machine that really isn’t useful for much personal or goods transportation, but instead is designed to move humans around very very fast.
Objectively, it’s absolutely ridiculous and an idiotic waste of engineering, materials, time and everything. With so much careful thought and craftsmanship expended to make people feel this thrill, it’s also so, so fantastic, and feels amazing to be so exposed and still comfortable.
If the alien can somehow understand or at least appreciate why we do this, then I think that’s about as good a start at understanding what humans are as anything else I can think of. So that’s how I feel about the Atom: It’s a ridiculous, wonderful, stupid and incredible machine that makes no sense and feels potentially universally great.
Ariel Atoms have always been (pretty much) hand-built from the late ’90s in the United Kingdom up to the new Atoms built in Virginia. The TMI AutoTech factory that builds the Atom 4 (and the Ariel Nomad, sorta the SUV version of the Atom) is a ridiculously clean warehouse with a bunch of half-walled bays on one side, and some big pipe-bending machines and CNC machines and welding stations on the other.
From the time someone decides to plop down their $75,000 or so (it can get over $100,000, but averages around the mid-$80,000s, Ariel claims), it takes about six months to build the car, of which two months are the assembly process. That’s what I was invited to see in the factory.
An Atom starts life not that differently than a jungle gym or a human digestive tract: as a big bunch of tubes. This is what one Atom’s worth of steel tubing looks like this after it arrives from a facility that laser-cuts the ends into the proper shapes:
These tubes will be welded together to form the tube frame of an Atom, which also forms most of the body of the car, since it barely has any bodywork at all.
These carefully cut and ordered pipes are welded together by a number of skilled welders, including the extremely gifted (read: bearded) gentleman you see here, putting the final touches on the rear section of an Atom frame:
The quality of the welds I saw were absolutely fantastic. It makes sense, because unlike most cars, these welds will be out and visible in the final product and need to be welds that you’re proud to show off.
They look amazing in their raw state, and remain looking satisfying and incredible even after finishing and painting:
They’re painted, yes, but not hidden anywhere, and the car wears them like subtle jewelry. Collectively, all of these welds and steel tubes form the structure of the car, onto which everything gets bolted. This process is done by an individual worker assigned per car, who only focuses on that one car at a time before moving on to another.
If you’re familiar with the old Atom 3, you can spot a number of differences already; in fact only the fuel cap, clutch, and brake pedal are directly carried over from the previous model. The most obvious change may be the air intake funnel at the front, which directs air into the radiator. The whole cabin area is a bit wider, which looks even bigger still thanks to frame tubing that’s grown 15 percent larger, and there’s a new exposed suspension design and a lot more.
A number of parts that were once fabricated out of steel pieces and welded by hand are now CNC’d out of aluminum, which makes stronger, lighter, and — I think — more attractive parts, as you can see with the suspension mounting component. for example.
The engine’s turbo intercooler has also changed from a large side pod to this more compact underbody unit that helps with better airflow and aerodynamics. The Atom 4 is still using a Honda powerplant, the K20c turbocharged engine from the Civic Type R, but with an Atom-specific ECU that boosts the power to 350 horsepower. The six-speed manual transmission is also from the fast production Civic, but has custom half-shafts.
One of the funny details about the process of TMI buying its crate engines from Honda has to do with what I’m pointing to in the image above: the A/C compressor. Because the Atom has no air conditioning — or, really, no unnatural HVAC system at all — TMI just takes the compressor off, as well as the engine’s catalytic converters.
If you have a Honda that needs a new cat or A/C compressor, maybe check with TMI and see if they’ll cut you a deal on all the “junk” they’ve been pulling off their engines? They don’t officially sell them, but, you know, who knows? Just don’t tell them I tipped you off. The factory builds between 50 and 75 cars per year, so they don’t have that many, I suppose.
After years of enduring goofy fake exhaust tips on almost everything with a combustion motor in it, just take a moment to enjoy the brutal honesty of the Atom 4’s exhaust setup. It looks like the robot maid from The Jetsons’ head. It’s a big keg of exhaust gases and two massive portals to eject them, very loudly.
The Atom 4 is a car distilled down to its absolute essentials, where anything that doesn’t help it drive faster or better or more engagingly was long evicted. It weighs about 1,350 pounds and can go from immobile to 60 mph in a claimed 2.8 seconds.
That puts it very much in wildly-expensive supercar territory, alongside the subtly-named Ferrari 812 Superfast, the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, the Mercedes AMG GT 63S, the Corvette Z51, and, yes, the Tesla Model S P90 with all of the upgrades. It does this with a reliable and cheap-to-maintain Honda engine (also to Honda’s credit), and pulls it off by leaving out absolutely everything that makes those other cars quiet, comfortable, luxurious or even weatherproof.
The cockpit is pretty roomy — if you can use that word for something as open as this — though I did find I kept bumping my left elbow on the side tubes. The unpadded (yet comfortable) seats need to be unbolted to be moved, but they had enough travel to allow a short little Shtetl Hobbit like myself to get the clutch all the way down.
The Honda engine is placed transversely just barely ahead of the rear axle, making it a mid-engine car (with a bit of a rear weight bias) and locates that noisy lump just inches behind your head.
The engine is, as you can guess, pretty easy to access for repairs. There’s no body in the way and really no reason why you couldn’t take your Atom to your local Honda dealer for basic service needs. I imagine that would be worth it just to see it lined up next to all the Accords and leftover Fits.
From above, you can see how bowed-out the side rails are, and get a good look at the horizontal coilovers, which have easily accessible adjustment rings on them. The little creases on the front fenders serve important aerodynamic functions, Ariel boasted by the way, and the fenders also kindly incorporate a little round side marker/indicator repeater lamp.
There is a front “hood” of sorts, as that plastic colored center panel is removable with those two latches under the windshield, revealing the Atom’s battery, brake fluid reservoir, and, rather excitingly, a little trunk:
I do love that they managed to squeeze a bit of storage space in, and it’s perhaps the smallest trunk of any car you can buy today. I’d love to see if I could pack an overnight bag tightly enough to fit in there if they let me take one back home from Virginia one day. I might have to move that towing eye out of there to do it, though.
The Atom 4 replaces the old Atom’s archaic-looking black-on-greyish instrument display. There’s now segmented, calculator-like digits with a much more modern full-color LCD module supplied by AiM, which also incorporates advanced data-logging systems and even a track-cam setup with a camera mounted behind and between the seats:
The rest of the dash controls are pretty obvious, with the bugle button sounding the klaxon, for example (fine, it’s the horn). That big yellow knob on the right lets you adjust brake bias, front or rear, and so on. The indicators aren’t in the expected location, but are rather a little toggle on the dash, and they don’t self-cancel, so consider yourself primed for public humiliation.
The Atom 4 manages to not look crude for something with so little bodywork. Rather, it looks purposeful and lithe. The triangular bracing of the sides (covered with a Lexan panel to keep the rocks out) is bold and graphic, and the triangular motif is echoed in the aluminum triangle of the fuel tank just fore of the rear wheel.
The Ariel Quadracycle of 1900 had a similar fuel tank shape. I don’t think this was necessarily an intentional deep-cut nod to Ariel’s ancient past, but I like the connection nonetheless and you won’t get this kind of content anywhere else.
Look, I’ll be honest — we already had a real, serious, skilled driver, Anthony Magagnoli, in this car, and his review is no question a better source for impressions from a serious track driver. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, please, go read that.
If you’re okay with hearing the opinions of an affable, often confused dipshit who normally drives a car of about the same weight but with around a seventh of the power and who hasn’t been on a track in well over a COVID-addled year — and who really kind of sucked at it even before, then, read on, friend.
Your humble dipshit got two driving stints in the Atom 4 — one on the street and one on the track. While the Atom is very obviously bred for track use, it is surprisingly non-punishing on normal roads.
In fact, the biggest surprise about driving the new Atom is how, well, easy it is, at least compared to what every sense tells you it should be by looking at it.
I haven’t driven older Atoms, but I’m told the 4 is dramatically more composed and easier to handle, and I can believe it. The Honda drivetrain is very easy to shift, the throttle is responsive and predictable, and the suspension, even over bumps and gravel and small potholes does not feel like it’s trying to pureé your vertebrae. It’s possible to drive this and relax, something I would not have guessed coming in.
Of course, it’s still an absolute blast and fast as all hell, shaved and greased. The performance package lets you set a switch to choose between a few power settings, including a 270-ish HP setting for easier, non-jail-time-earning acceleration on public roads, as well as settings for 320 and 350 HP, which provides that face-peeling thrust that all the kids want from the TV.
It’s loud, too. Not just a monotonous roar — it’s a whole minestrone of pops and gasps and bangs and growls. It’s fantastic, if a bit overwhelming on public roads with no helmet.
On the track, suitably helmeted up, it’s less intense, but still extremely engaging— the turbo’s blow off valve makes this especially noticeable sound that always sounded to me like someone excitedly screaming YESSSSS YESSS YES, which I took as encouragement from the car as I clumsily whipped it around the track.
On the track, oh man, it’s just so damn fun and engaging. You really feel like you’re wearing the car strapped in with the four-point harness. The very direct steering, instant throttle response and powerful brakes makes the sensation of being in a wheeled motorsuit palpable.
Again, I’m not a great track driver, but I didn’t find the Atom hard to control or manage. There’s so little between you and everything happening that you get a constant, rich flow of feeling and information about how the car’s weight is moving, what the grip is like, how much momentum you’re carrying and, sure, I lack the skills to really know what to do with all that, but you sure as hell feel it.
I was only nervous on the long straight where the speed was creeping up around 120 mph or so and the front end started to feel a little light, but I suspect practice and time with the car would teach you how to handle that.
It’s an exhilarating experience, and probably closer to riding a motorcycle than driving a car when you go for it. If your automotive goal is to have something that accelerates incredibly fast and is thrilling to drive on a track, save yourself about $100,000 or so and ignore dumb, pretentious supercars and get yourself an Atom.
You’ll get more satisfaction learning how to handle this raw, simple machine so much more than just being the meaty component in some supercar’s electromechanical systems, and oil changes won’t cost the same as a semester in a respected college.
If you don’t really think you’ll be tracking your car much and just want to go fast on freeways sometimes, loudly telegraph how rich you are and occasionally have a passenger who isn’t interested in being ripped through the wind while tied to a lawn chair, well, you should probably get yourself something else with an audio system and a roof, at least.
There do not seem to be many situations where the Atom 4 actually makes sense in someone’s life, but there are plenty of lives out there that it can bring real joy into. I suspect those people already know who they are. That said, I want Ariel to lend me one to just try to use as a daily driver, grocery-getter, errand-runner type of car. Maybe design some custom saddles for it. I bet you could even hypermile it and get fantastic gas mileage.
Sure, a Morgan three-wheeler or something is fun and will provide a similar raw glee, but it’s not going to come close to the speed, security and driving dynamics possible in an Atom. If you want an Atom at all, and you’ve given it any degree of serious thought, then there’s probably nothing else out there that’s going to fill that hole. The Atom 4 is a ridiculous machine. Delightful, thrilling, stupid and glorious. Just like us humans.