You need to keep both hands on the small, perfectly placed, Alcantara suede steering wheel of the Atom 4 to guide it confidently, even at everyday speeds. The rim is quite heavy – but it feeds back information from the front contact patches in a wonderfully lucid and meaningful way that’s the perfect introduction to the deliciously involving, analogue driving experience you’re diving into, fingertips first.
The car’s steering ratio doesn’t feel particularly direct, rather very intuitively paced, and is well-suited to a small, light, naturally agile car. It also communicates load brilliantly as you add lock, giving you supreme confidence as the front sidewalls begin to flex; and letting you know, as that load ebbs and flows, whether the grip level underneath you is rising or falling. Come good weather and bad, then, you’ll always know where you are with this car.
Ariel has evidently calmed the propensity of the Atom’s steering to kick back over bumps and to tramline slightly, and so only at low speeds and over particularly sharp edges do you feel the need to tighten your grip on the wheel. And yet, whatever speed you’re travelling at, the sense of intimacy with the Atom’s lightly loaded front wheels remains truly striking. On track, as the tyre temperature builds, it’s almost as if you can feel the carcasses warming in the palms of your hands.
For our track testing, the adjustable Ohlins suspension of our test car was set fairly permissively for compression and rebound damping – by Ariel itself, we should add – but a little experimentation proved that, even if you crank up the dials, this remains a dynamically characterful car with a centre of gravity that’s quite high by lightweight track car standards. It likes to move around on its suspension springs a little bit, and to master it you need to learn to manipulate its mass not unlike you might that of a sports bike or even an old Porsche 911.
That’s a process you can begin on the road, as you develop a sense of the Atom’s rearward weight bias and its surprisingly rangy gait over bumps; but it becomes really absorbing and wonderfully vivid on track, and one to savour for every delicious moment.
COMFORT AND ISOLATION
Even with those adjustable Ohlins dampers set to a more track-biased configuration, the Atom’s primary ride exudes a level of compliance that, at first, seems at odds with its hardcore ethos. It takes undulating surfaces in its stride with sophisticated suppleness, and successfully rounds off the edges from sharper, more sudden compressions without any great compromise to its otherwise excellent vertical body control.