Ariel splits the Atom

Any engine builder will tell you that the chasm between what the punter thinks he wants and what he actually needs is wider than the panel gaps on executive editor Richard Bremner’s Allegro.

It’s all too easy to be seduced by some headline-grabbing power figures only to find that the all-singing lump you’ll be paying off for the next five years has a power band smaller than a gnat’s G-string and is all but undriveable on the street.

That same rationale, it would seem, applies equally to track day cars. Ariel’s MD Simon Saunders discovered that most Atom customers were sure they wanted a full-daddy-spec 220bhp car – until they drove one, that is, and found they’d bitten off a bit more than they could chew. Plugging Saunders’ newly discovered hole in the Ariel line-up is the 160, an Atom with the wick turned down.

In place of the Japanese-spec Honda Civic Type-R engine fitted to the top Atoms, the 160 gets the milder 158bhp 2.0-litre from the Civic Type-S. There are five forward gears too, instead of six, two- instead of four-pot brake callipers and non-adjustable Bilstein suspension.

Compensation comes in the shape of a £19,900 price, compared with £23,995 for the Atom 220, but there’s more to this cut-price car than a January-sale sticker price. Far from being the poor relation, it’s an absolute riot to drive with keen, feelsome steering and the sort of adjustability that really makes circuit driving fun.

Though outright grip from the Bridgestone RE720 road tyres can’t match that of the 220’s sticky Dunlop Formula Rs, the 160 is far more predictable at the limit, meaning it’s far easier to hold in a satisfying drift.

And while it’s not quite as muscular as the 220 and runs into its rev limiter far earlier, 158bhp in a 505kg Meccano kit still equates to 313bhp per tonne, making for serious ground-covering ability on or off the track. It’s still happier on the track than the road, but you’re more likely to want to drive this one there and back, particularly if you’ve opted for the new removable polycarbonate side panels.

Chris Chilton

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