There are few carmakers in the world as blatantly offbeat as Ariel. For the last 16 years, the company has been reaching new heights of engineering extremism. So why is it surprising that the back-to-basics sports car is now packing a V-8 and a more complex aero package? If that weren't enough, the company did a motorcycle, and just when we thought we began to understand Ariel, it confused us by extending the model lineup with an all-terrain buggy. What's next? "Why not a chauffeur-driven limousine?" wonders Simon Saunders, founder of the company and the genius behind its designs. It's difficult to keep up with the pace of Ariel development, even just the original Atom, the company's most popular model. The stripped-down road-legal go-kart is an age-defining anomaly in the modern performance car world. It inspires and threatens the multi-billion-dollar automotive industry, despite the unbelievably long 19 years since it was first dreamt and a modest production of 80 cars per year. All this from a company employing only 20 people.
The Atom's story started in the mid-'90s as a college project for Niki Smart. With the help of senior lecturer and design consultant Simon Saunders, the couple created a well-received light sports car, which would lay the foundations for a company in a few years' time. The company was to be called Ariel, after a forgotten bicycle, motorcycle, and carmaker known for revolutionary inventions and credited for pushing the whole automotive industry forward. This was a tough act to follow, but Saunders' company lived up to its name. Atom instantly gained worldwide fame by keeping the weight down with the most radical diet ever applied to a road car. It's not about getting rid of A/C or a radio, but about questioning such seemingly essential components as doors or windows. The Atom's seats are one-piece plastic shells, and there's hardly any car body to speak of. A well thought out network of tubes is all the Ariel needs. The vital equipment is attached directly to them: the lights, license plates, charge cooler, and oil cooler sitting on either side of the car, double unequal-length A-arms, pushrod suspension with adjustable Öhlins TTX dampers, and the optional 11.5-inch disc brakes, fighting hard to decelerate the sticky Kuhmo Ecsta V700 tires.
Until recently, the Atom did without any of the now compulsory aero bits of a car of this caliber. As clients' expectations grow, they have begun to gradually appear in the consecutive incarnations of the project, eventually winning over the initially poor aerodynamics (Atom started from the drag coefficient of 0.4). The wings and spoilers have evolved into a complete aero package, which is one of the raison d'etre of this new special 3.5R model. Its name can be decoded as the Racing (meaning even more racing than the standard racing) third and a half-generation of the Atom (the full digit changes only after the engine change). Despite some power inferiority to the sold-out V-8 and the recently announced U.S.-spec 3S versions, this is the most advanced and fastest Atom so far. Its 350 hp comes courtesy of a 2.0L inline-four sourced from a Honda Civic Type R, aided by a Jackson supercharger boosted to 11 psi (unlike the 2.4 with the optional turbo offered stateside). It's a race-derived unit, so the engine has kept its rev-hungry nature: the maximum torque of 243 lb-ft doesn't arrive until 6,100 rpm, and all of the fiercely kicking ponies don't gather until a stratospheric 8,400 rpm. And all of that weighing in at a scarcely believable 1,210 pounds, or roughly half the weight of other impossibly lightweight cars. The 3.5R boasts a power-to-weight ratio nearly two times greater than Bugatti Veyron. That's sportbike league performance: the 3.5R sprints to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds, while the top speed is not so much about the car as about the driver's tolerance for the immense gust of wind and noise.
Despite its brittle structure, the Atom dominates the driver. It's a terrifyingly loud and raw thing. Even if the fast Caterhams are still reasonably easygoing and BAC Mono can sometimes reveal its gentle side, the Atom is just plain mad 24/7. Like the BAC, it utilizes a racing sequential gearbox, trading the usual manual stick for a pair of perforated carbon paddle shifters. The tricky-to-operate clutch pedal is used only for starting, subsequent are like Uzi shots generated by the pneumatically operated Sadev transmission, shaking the whole car and the driver rigidly fixed to it. These are the only breaks from the relentless acceleration, distributed evenly over all of the 9,000 rpm. Driving the car is so fierce that it almost hurts: The wind reaching 60 mph in less than 3 seconds tries to rip the cheeks off the driver's face, reminding him that helmets aren't just for motorcyclists and stormtroopers. It sure feels fast, with the British tarmac and hedges swept back into hyperdrive. From behind the steering wheel, it's like watching a living organism devoid of skin: The exhibitionist pushrod suspension and rack-and-pinion steering give a theatrical performance just in front of the driver's eyes, while the wheels, also naked, are amusingly easy to position on the road with accuracy measured in millimeters. Maybe it's not all about neglecting sanity, after all the Atom is as easy to enter as a bathtub, while the unobstructed visibility is as good as it gets in a car, and the ergonomics of the no-nonsense interior are just faultless.
The Atom proves to be a design of great potential, though possibly only Saunders himself knew the greatness in the beginning. The next model to fill the Ariel price list after the 1,237cc motorcycle was in fact a serious answer to a silly question as to what would happen if you took the Atom off road. It was a prospect that probably tempted many of the Ariel staff, as the company's inconspicuous-looking headquarters is based in hilly countryside, which the workers tackle each day on their mountain bikes. The Nomad is so different, yet instantly recognizable as an Ariel car. It's the same tangled clothes hanger with the wheels pushed to its corners, a detachable steering wheel, and the same ability to deliver a euphoria-inducing drive. It's euphoria of a different kind, though. While the Atom is predestined for the track and the road, the Nomad is for everything but; sand dunes, mountain rocks, rally stages, grasslands damped by morning dew—that's the new Ariel habitat.
The Atom's structure turned out to be ideal for this kind of job. Even if both cars seem closely related, as the Nomad project kept developing, it began to depart from the initial Atom design. All the Nomad shares with the Atom is part of the floor, digital dashboard, pedals, and steering column. The top-spec suspension is still from Öhlins, but it's mounted outboard, as opposed to Atom's inboard configuration. With 10 inches of travel, it looks like equipment taken straight out of a WRC car, as it really is, and worth several thousand dollars alone. There are a few more bits of what you can call the car's body, made of the same material as traffic cones, and, as a company first, two separate bucket seats. A sign of loosing character under the pressure from clients, by any chance? After all, there's even—wait for it—a windshield.
The Nomad is propelled by the engine usually seen in U.S.-spec Atoms, a 2.4L Civic Type S K24 inline-four, here in the relatively mild state of tune, generating 235 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. The CNC-formed tube frame is slightly heavier than the Atom's, but considerably tougher to allow the driver to throw it carelessly across the landscape. The company expects the drivers won't be newbies or driving particularly leisurely, so there's no traction control, not even ABS, but there is a brake balance gauge that the driver can operate even when the car's on the move.
At the time of our visit, the sole example of a Nomad wasn't wearing those bulky BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires, which accompanied it on most of the other media outings. With the more everyday Yokohama Geolandar rubbers, it seems to be...even more versatile. Nomad may have a third less power than the 3.5R and be considerably slower to 60 mph, but it still only takes 3.4 seconds. Nomad's suspension is as flexible as its engine. Naturally aspirated genes combined with a precise manual 'box sharpen this whole mad mix a bit. Even if there's so much happening here, the driver can still maintain absolute control of it all. The Öhlinses eagerly absorb all of the road imperfections, and while the long suspension travel causes some serious lean angles in cornering with equal dive during braking, this doesn't spoil the handling. The car shows surprisingly high levels of grip. In the end, all this allows the Nomad to perform better on normal roads than most of the sports cars tuned primarily for smooth-as-glass race circuits. The Ariel's rear-wheel-drive buggy turns out to be a surprisingly effective backroad muncher. Weighing in at 1,600 pounds, it's the heaviest Ariel in history, but it still sports all of the Ariel's virtues. But while the Atom is fascinating in a kind of masochistic way, the Nomad can please on so many levels.
I don't know if Ariel hasn't just coincidentally invented a brilliant car. But maybe that wasn't a coincidence at all. After the Atom, everybody thought these guys are just about pure speed. But the Ace motorcycle was never intended to be the fastest: Saunders knew there was no point in coming second to Ducati or Suzuki at huge expense, so he made a different kind of bike, one that can be customized to a level unthinkable to any of the mass producers. So what is Ariel about really? It's a company that goes beyond the engineering perfection, offering limited editions of smart designs, tailored for smart clients. Maybe Saunders wasn't joking about that limousine after all...
We talk with Ariel's CEO and founder, Simon Saunders.
ec: You started Ariel and designed the Atom. How did it happen?
SS: I'm designer that has worked for the likes of Aston Martin and General Motors and taught automotive design. We started doing what became the Atom when I was teaching and also doing some consultancy work. [In the mid-'90s] I decided that if nobody is going to pay me to do their car, I'll do my own car. It ended up with me and one of my students [Niki Smart] doing the first car. It was the right time because there was just beginning to be interest in track day cars and there wasn't much competition: The only cars around really were Caterhams or Westfields, which were basically updates of quite old cars. We wanted an entirely new car, the essence of which was lightweight, and really nothing more than needed. The whole thing about what we're trying to do here is what the big manufacturers can't do, wouldn't do, or daren't do. Our company's motto is "Serious fun." We're not very good at taking the kids to school or going shopping, although that has been known. Basically, our goal is go fast and have fun.
ec: And still you keep yourself very open minded. It's not like all the Ariels will be just different iterations of an exoskeleton go-kart?
SS: The dream for us is to be making a number of cars that are suitable for low volume. They don't all have to be sports cars. One of my examples is that it could be a chauffer-driven limousine. Not necessarily the lightest, but possibly the fastest. A low-volume limousine is very suitable for our nature of production. We're interested in moving forward, but we don't have any thoughts to become a big company. The problem with automotive companies is you're either small, or you're big. You can't be in the middle. Our goal is to make 250-300 vehicles annually, never more than 500.
ec: Would you consider dropping beneath the price range of Atom, aiming at the likes of Caterham 160?
SS: We've looked at it and at low volume it's really difficult to go down to that price. We looked at three-wheelers, but there's no big savings. It's incredibly difficult to find any savings in the Atom; there's not much to leave out.
ec: What is the Ariel's presence in the U.S. like?
SS: We used to export to the U.S. The problem for us is that America is such a specialized market because of state laws. For us, it's like dealing with 52 different countries. And then you've got the whole thing about shipping cars or shipping parts. The way we make it work is we've got somebody there who builds the car under license. It's ostensibly the same car, and they'll be making the Nomad over there as well. We supply certain parts and they supply some parts back to us. For example, all of our rod ends on the suspension and steering bearings and are American.
ec: There are many companies in the U.S. that would tune the Atom's Honda engine and get the most horsepower possible out of it. What's your view on this as the car's maker? Remember, you did a V-8 version with 500 hp, too.
SS: Indeed, but the wrong kind of power won't necessarily make it faster. One of our owners tuned his Atom for 450 hp with a turbocharger. He went on a dragstrip with another owner who's got a standard Atom 3, which was 300 hp and our car left it down. It's one of the nice things about the standard Atom that we can beat more or less any car, be it a Ferrari or Lamborghini, we know we can beat it on acceleration. Other cars need lots and lots of power and tires this wide, and everything is so highly stressed that at one point something will just break. We've been to many acceleration tests and I've seen so many cars going back on the transporters, Paganis, Enzos, whereas our cars, everything is under-stressed.
ec: What are the strong points of the Ariel that keep the clients coming to you?
SS: Atoms are very reliable, partly because of the Honda engine, partly because we're very careful how the cars are assembled. We try to give the benefits of a race car with the reliability of a road car. One of the other things about the Atom that makes it affordable is the fact that it doesn't devalue. It's very appreciated by our owners, as they're ordinary guys, not millionaires.
ec: The Atom will remain the core model? Where do you think the Ariel's progress will be heading to in the future? The design is nearly two decades old now, but it still looks perfectly modern.
SS: As the technology progresses, we progress with it. It could be in 20 years' time that the Atom is a hybrid with a composite chassis. I'd like to think there'll always be an Atom, but it'll evolve more than, say, a Caterham. Atom doesn't have to be made out of steel tubes.
ec: You like to build on the heritage of the Ariel brand. How do you relate to the original Ariel and how did you build a relationship between it and the thing you've created?
SS: Ariel is quite interesting from a historical point of view because it's almost like a history of the automotive industry. The first Ariel was a penny-farthing; it was the first one. It was the first vehicle to have spoke wheels and pivoting steering. The guy who invented it also patented the differential and rack-and-pinion steering. We wanted to carry on waving the flag and follow on with the tradition of the old Ariel. There was lots of innovation in its products and it's a pity that names like these die out. It's nice to think we're carrying on this tradition, however, our own vehicles are always looking forward.
ec: So maybe it's high time to do a bicycle?
SS: Yeah, maybe. That's where the company started, so there'd be a lot of sense in doing a bicycle. So a bicycle, a chauffer-driven limousine, you name it. As long as it's small numbers, there's potentially room for us there.