Before letting you into one of its cockpits, the RAF will insist you empty your pockets. The reason being that it’s really rather inconvenient if your Carlsberg keyring falls out and lodges itself in some vital nook or cranny mid barrel roll.
Having launched the Ariel Atom 3.5R from a standing start three or four times in quick succession, I’m not so sure Ariel’s latest marvel shouldn’t come with the same warning.
Certainly at the start line of Goodwood’s famous fishbowl of a hillclimb, a spirited (but not full bore) start results in the instant, unchecked migration of a morning’s worth of pocket bumf.
Not that I noticed for a while; the 3.5R has a way of filtering out the non essentials. To recap, Ariel has countered the current Atom’s lack of grunt (arf) by extracting 350bhp and more than 240lb ft of torque from its supercharged take on Honda’s 2.0-litre VTEC engine.
The result, shuffled through the optional – and heinously expensive – Sadev six-speed sequential race gearbox, is apparently capable of 60mph in 2.5 seconds. Given its kerbweight of 600kg-ish, that’s not necessarily a shock; what does come as a pleasant surprise, long before the marshals beckon, is how well-crafted and obliging the 3.5R feels.
Ariel has clearly learnt from its experience with the V8. Unlike elsewhere, the flat-shifting ratio-gargler doesn’t function like some preposterous add-on – rather it seems every bit like the transmission the blown Civic R motor has been waiting for. Operated via pneumatic paddle shifts (a piston-clicking symphony of carbon, aluminium and magnetics that puts every other such system utterly to shame), the new gearbox simply requires that you use the clutch for getaways and downshifts below 3000rpm – beyond that, it’s all in the hands.
The firm has put neutral under a dinky green eye-level button (a godsend for anyone who’s tried to find locate no gear on a sequential manual shifter); from here, the left paddle engages reverse, the right – with a proper gas-driven thwack – finds first. Normally, inching such a machine out of a pram-strewn exhibition hall would be gut-wrenching, but the 3.5R sidles forward with no more effort or any less close control than the Tiff Needell-piloted BMW M4 ahead of me.
Of course, no one outdoes Tiff for flamboyance away from a white line, but the Atom hardly needs a swirling billow of dry-ice drama to make the tiny world inside its framework go topsy turvy. Even with plenty of excitable slip and a short shift, the Atom is prodigiously and pocket-emptyingly direct. However, it’s less the physicality of the shove and more the fierce, all-corner immediacy that threatens to overwhelm you.
The new charge cooler – located in one of the visually imposing side pods – is the reason why Ariel has been able to raise the boost pressure by fifty per cent, and it’s inevitably the supercharger’s now haywire enhancement of the delivery that has the 3.5R stampeding from idle to wild. In between it, the upshift is less a punctuation and more a kinetic overhand smash; colliding perfectly with the next glut of induction – then popping and bucking through downshifts.
It’s a sensory deluge, no doubt. Easily enough to have me braking at imaginary corners on the still utterly unfamiliar and potentially pride-crushing course. But the drive back down – a dawdle interspersed with crowd-pleasing silliness – demonstrates just how tidily Ariel has incorporated the extra power.
Much like the V8, there is much less menace here than you might imagine; by the third go, it’s clear the massive pace has not overawed the uprated chassis – in the dry, it heaves forward with drama, rather than dilemma.
To that end, a week spent in the 245 beforehand wasn’t wasted. The 3.5R is a different and infinitely more theatrical animal to be sure – yet Ariel’s uproarious tweak of the master dial hasn’t, at first glance, corrupted the Atom’s uncanny knack for accessibility.
An upcoming in-depth look will settle that for sure, but, for now, it certainly made the 2014 Festival of Speed a memorable one. And if anyone finds a two-pound coin near the start, it’s mine.