Having just collected the keys to the Ariel Atom 160 from Company boss Simon Saunders I head out the door of the Ariel Motor Company into a midwinter blizzard. Determined to cover the 50m to my ride in the shortest possible time, I don my lid in midstride (A stroke of genius, considering the 180km trip ahead).
It’s then that I realise the futility … What am I rushing to? A climate controlled 23Deg cocoon? Turn on the stereo and heated seats? No not this time! No doors; no climate control; actually nothing that could be confused with creature-comfort! Nothing has been sacrificed, because the only consideration was ultimate performance – the type that regularly rearranges your face, without you complaining. The type that has you taking a 4 hour round trip to the supermarket … 2 blocks away.
Access to the Atom is very easy; once you’ve cleared the main frame it’s easy to slide into the surprisingly comfortable seats. If you’ve never driven a Go-Kart or single seater, the seating position will feel a little strange. Like sitting flat on the floor; in actual fact the Atom’s so low it does feel as if you’ll take off the seat of your Levi’s on the first bump.
First impression of the driving position is that all controls are extremely well positioned; with the spacing and height of the pedals just right for enthusiastic toe-and-heel downshifts. Steering to pedal to gearlever is also a perfect fit for me – full opposite lock should be a fun filled affair.
Two years ago I tested the Atom 300, and walked around for a week with a stupid grin on my face, picking midges out of my teeth. Today I get to drive the 160HP version from the factory in Somerset to Heathrow, from where it gets shipped to Phillip Island. Half the power, half the fun?
Firing up the Honda K20 engine (In the 160, it’s lifted from the S variant, as opposed to the 200hp R version) it purrs like a contented Cheetah, rather than roar like a Lion. While the rasp of the exhaust promises to be a great stereo replacement, the induction effect that many drivers comment on, is nonexistent through my Arai’s padding. Clutch weighting is firm, without requiring great doses of steroids to operate, while selecting first is like flipping a switch; light, short throw and very positive.
As I clear the parking lot there’s an Atom sized gap in the traffic; an ideal opportunity to try a brief aim and squirt, and WOW does it accelerate! It’s very difficult to accurately gauge speed and acceleration, with your bottom scraping the ground, the icy wind blowing under your helmet, the nakedness of the machine and the now noticeable induction noise. Suffice to say, the last time I felt this abused was in a Formula K 250 racing Kart.
Unexpectedly the ride is very compliant over this pock-marked secondary road. I suspect the ride height might be set to clear speed humps, while the pre-load on the variable rate springs set very soft for the road. The steering somehow has a direct link to your cerebral cortex; A case of “I see a corner, look at the apex and I’m there”! While talking about apexes, the open wheel configuration is much like a stripper – leaves nothing to the imagination.
Now while the merits may be debatable when applied to your favourite lady, in a motor car it’s amazing. You can put the inside front wheel exactly where you want it – hell you can see where it is, and coupled directly to your brain, it just follows your line of sight. Turn-in at sane speeds will make many race cars hang their double wishbones in shame. The low mass and near neutral weight distribution, coupled to the uneven-length control arms, that really DO control the camber, sees the Atom turn like a fox with the hounds hot on its heels. For me it’s this single characteristic that defines a well designed chassis, and sets this car apart from most other supercars.
Approaching Salisbury my fun comes to an abrupt halt as the tail end of a traffic jam comes into sight. Until now I was having so much fun that the freezing weather only served as an air-conditioner, now it was as if someone opened the arctic freezer- door! At this speed I have the opportunity to take a closer look at the detail. The beautiful TIG welded Exoskeleton frame; the effective analogue instrument cluster – Rev counter on the left and 140MPH speedometer to the right.
All of a sudden I see the sign for the A36 which fortunately is devoid of traffic. With a little over an hour before I have to hand over the car at Heathrow, and 100km to cover, I decide to head for the M3. I’ll also get a small taste of the Atom’s behaviour at higher speeds. With no traffic to hinder my progress, I manage to cover the 40Km’s in about 15minutes. At these speeds the Atom is like a thoroughbred straining at the bit; waiting to unleash all 160 horses.
With no traffic I decide to prod the herd into action! Approaching the left turn onto the M3 at a speed that would have a Caterham pilot looking for the Eject button, I drop two gears, turn in and firmly accelerate through the turn. Impeccable! Even the provocation of the turn-in under power, only induced minimal oversteer on entry; easily corrected with the well balanced steering.
Due to the bad weather and slow-moving traffic I’m forced to keep the speed down for the remainder of the trip, but still manage to arrive with time to kill. With time to reflect I think about my time with the 160; Did I notice that half the herd was missing? Would I notice that the afterburner in a Harrier wasn’t lit up? No! When the whole is so much more than you can use on the road, less can be more; £4,000 more in your pocket!