Elsewhere, the exhaust has two exits rather than just one, the intake and fuelling has changed, the throttle map is different (and, as we drove it, was still being finally tweaked), and there are two small but very important options: first is ten-way adjustable dampers, which we tried on an Atom 2 on a few weeks ago (and it made a heck of a difference to the car’s ride and on-limit handling).
You can also now spec small wind deflectors: Ariel has tried a number of different bubbles and canopies in the past, none of which with huge success. These are a just couple of very small pieces of Perspex bolted to the dashboard: simple, but they cut a hell of a lot of wind noise and buffeting.
What’s it like?
Unless you’ve climbed straight out of an old Atom, it’s hard to tell that the new seat is lower, but the seat back feels more upright which, given the wheel is un-adjustable, is no bad thing, and you’re aware of the extra cabin width, which will be handy for rapid wheel-twiddling.
The gearshift on the six-speed box is more positive, too: the six-speed Honda ‘box is the same, but the linkage is from a different supplier. Otherwise, mechanically, it’s much the same as before.
Dynamically, the difference is far more marked. Not in terms of outright performance: the Atom is just as ridiculously rapid as ever, especially with a supercharger bolted to its motor; according to Ariel, it gives around 320bhp (even though the quoted figure is only 300).
No, the difference is in overall refinement. The old Atom’s engine would fizz and rattle through that school-chair-plastic seat constantly, but particularly at 3000-4000rpm. Meanwhile. Ariels not on the latest dampers didn’t ride particularly well. The constant buffeting was a bit of a headache, too. Driving one was a bit like having sex on the top of a train; not necessarily unpleasant, but there was always an awful lot more going on than just the job at hand.
Now that’s all changed. The new engine mounts damp out the vibration from the engine, so it feels as smooth as a Honda i-VTEC four-pot should. The new dampers, set to about three or four out of ten at the front, and a bit firmer at the rear (which is heavier), take the harshness out of the ride: light cars typically don’t cope well with bumps, but the Atom now rides them as well as, say, a Lotus 2-Eleven. And thirdly, those diddy wind deflectors do a surprisingly useful job at keeping your head from getting blown off.
So although the Atom driving experience is much the same as usual, there are less distractions. You can concentrate more on the throttle response (still good, despite ongoing fine-tuning of the map), brake response (firm, adjustable for front-to-rear bias), the steering (not as intuitive as a 2-Eleven’s, but quick and accurate) and the handling.
And the handling’s come on a bit itself, too. Previously, you could never really be sure if an Atom would understeer or oversteer in a corner. Now, it gently, predictably nudges into understeer, which can be kicked through under power or dialled out with a quick lift of the throttle. It’s handling that’s perhaps still not quite as well-resolved as a Caterham or 2-Eleven, but it’s very, very good, and a lot more approachable than before.
Should I buy one?
Tough question, this. Every purist bone in my body says yes. The Atom concept is a unique and truly wonderful one. But in reality some drawbacks remain.