Ariel's Atom may be a little bigger and more civil, but it's still the rocket we all love

So what’s new?

S’obvious, innit? No? Oh. Well, this is the new Ariel Atom ‘3’. Can’t tell the difference? No, nor us in pictures, so when Ariel came to demonstrate the new car to us, they brought the ‘old’ Atom ‘2’ along with it as well. And still we couldn’t really tell.

So they pointed out the changes: every single frame in the chassis is new. It’s torsionally stiffer than before, but that’s not the significant bit – the old chassis was pretty stiff anyway.

No, the significant bit is that the latticework between the top and bottom sections has changed direction to give more shoulder room in the cockpit, which is wider overall too: 100mm in all. That’s allowed the seats to change too: you can spec two different types, one slightly more sculpted than the other, but both allow the driver to sit lower than in the old car.

The other big difference is that the new Atom uses the new Honda Civic Type-R motor. Now, I know we’ve all said that the latest 197bhp Civic Type-R engine is the same as the last one, and it virtually is, but there are a few detail differences.

The block’s largely unchanged but some ancillaries are bolted to different places and, crucially, the engine mounts are different. Ariel’s new mounts are much more pliable than before, which is meant to get rid of some of the vibration that the old car suffered. As standard it comes with 245bhp, but whenever we try one, we inevitably get to try the supercharged, 300bhp version.

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.

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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.

If you spent similar money on a Caterham it would be more difficult to get into if you’re tall, true, and it wouldn’t go so fast in a straight line. But you’d get weather gear if you wanted it. Even a heater. A Lotus 2-Eleven, on the other hand, is as impractical as an Atom, but its handling is even more beautiful and its steering is just magical.

That is a rather round-about way of writing that there’s now enough choice in this area of the market to make you think hard about what you really want from a track car. Whichever you go for – Lotus, Ariel or Caterham – you’re unlikely to be disappointed, provided you understand what you’re buying.

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Provided that, as an Atom buyer, you understand that you’re getting the quickest and most extreme driving experience on four wheels, even after these revisions, you’re very unlikely to be disappointed. However – surprise, surprise – new engine mountings, new dampers, wind deflectors and 100mm of extra elbow don’t turn the Atom into an everyday driver of any shape or form. It’s still a car you’d get very tired of driving anywhere other than a circuit, for any longer than an hour or so, and in anything other than perfect conditions.

What these changes might do, however – if you’re particularly tall, broad of shoulder or large of elbow – is change the Atom from a car you couldn’t enjoy driving into one you could. And if you can enjoy driving an Atom – if it’s possible to squeeze yourself behind those minimalist instruments, to just about find comfort in the bucket seats, and to just duck low enough to keep your hair from being consumed by the roaring air-intake – trust us, you’ll have a ball.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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