What is it?
This is version 3.5 of the Atom. Sounds a bit ‘software update’, but Ariel doesn’t like to change the big number unless it’s using a new engine. And given that it has shepherded a couple of hundred of the old Honda Type R donkeys into various lock-ups around the West Country, that’s a little while off.
Even so, the extra ‘.5’ signals some fairly significant changes to the now-familiar Atom design. The most visible elements of the chassis are no different, but metal has been tweaked at the rear, around the engine mounts and rear suspension mounts, leaving the frame 15 per cent stiffer, torsionally, than an Atom 3. There are new springs and dampers, too, and the steering has been revised to make it less frenetic on-centre. The steering is the biggest change but we'll come back to that.
Also, there’s more power for the supercharged engine. Ariel is modest about outputs and now claims 310bhp at 8400rpm. But truth be told, when it was claiming 300bhp, the blown 2.0-litre engine would put out anything up to 10 per cent more than that. More significant than the output, then, is that the by-wire throttle map has been tweaked, aimed at improving the linearity of response. Which didn’t feel tardy before.
Visually, the biggest changes are longer front bodywork (or what constitutes bodywork in Ariel terms) and new headlights, repeaters on the front wings and rear lights. A new LCD dashboard unit features, too, showing which gear you’re in. This is a handy reminder, because all gears tend to do the same thing in a supercharged Atom: bring the horizon closer at a generally alarming rate of knots.
What is it like?
Well, the Atom's horizon-tugging ability hasn’t changed. It still pootles around very benignly when you want it to, fizzes along at low revs and is ludicrously fast at higher speeds. The throttle response feels a touch improved, it’s true, but to be honest the car doesn’t feel any quicker to me. Still, these things are relative. It’s like having seven pints instead of six: the result is pretty much the same either way.
In fact, it’s the pace of a supercharged Atom that has sometimes given the chassis some work to do. An Atom 3 is generally excellent already, with good steering and an adjustable chassis.
The steering was already extremely feelsome, responsive and hugely direct, at 1.7 turns lock to lock. But as pace increased, so too did a little nervousness at the straight-ahead. It kept you on your toes, but I’d never thought a great deal of it until I tried the 3.5. The increased toe-out under compression makes the steering far more stable, leaving it less frenetic without compromising agility. There’s a touch of understeer on the way in, followed by a touch of oversteer on the way out, both totally to the degree that you want.
Should I buy one?
These improvements highlight what we didn’t really think needed addressing until we tried the altered version, and are a boon on both road and track. You can now relax your grip on the wheel more without fear that the Atom will dart aside come the next bump. And, as a result of that, you can concentrate on enjoying yourself more. No fun has been sacrificed here.
The extra straight-line stability hasn’t had a notable effect on handling, either. The improved steering just allows you greater, more relaxed access to it, which, in turn, has made a lovely sports car even better.
Ariel Atom 3.5
Price £38,000; 0-62mph 2.7sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 25.0mpg (est); CO2 na; Kerb weight 550kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1998cc, supercharged, petrol; Power 310bhp at 8400rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 7200rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual