Ariel Atom 3 - Specialty File
Small tweaks and a berserk Honda powertrain make the near-perfect Atom lighter, faster, and better.
BY DAVE VANDERWERP, PHOTOGRAPHY BY VICTOR NEWMAN
Car and Driver, June 2009
Those who weren’t among the half-dozen anxious souls who had an Atom on order as its former U.S. builder, Brammo Motorsports, closed its doors are excused for missing the track toy’s one-year hiatus. The builder’s baton has since been passed to TMI AutoTech, a recently formed U.S. subsidiary of Canadian firm Trak Motorsports, which ran the Ariel Atom Experience [Upfront, October 2007] and, in March 2008, set up operations in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on the grounds of Virginia International Raceway. The first Atom emerged in January from TMI’s facility, where the steel-tube frame is bent and welded and the car is painstakingly hand-built by the company’s five employees. TMI plans to produce 50 cars this year and with additional staff, 100 the next.
This latest Atom 3, as distinguished from the first model sold here, Brammo’s Atom 2, is now essentially identical to the version built in the U.K. and sold in the rest of the world. Changes include Honda-only powertrains—the majority of Atom 2s were powered by the Chevy Cobalt SS’s supercharged 2.0-liter—as well as seemingly small but important tweaks such as specifically tuned Bilstein shocks that replace the off-the-shelf Konis, and slight modifications to the frame, suspension, and seats.
The base price has increased significantly, to $65,000, and the options list, as before, is long. Our car had most of the performance-enhancing goods, including Alcon four-piston brakes ($3975), 10-way-adjustable shocks ($2720), and one of the most popular options, a nonintercooled Jackson Racing supercharger ($8500) that adds 7 psi of boost and 55 horsepower.
VEHICLE TYPE: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 0-door roadster
PRICE AS TESTED: $85,479 (base price: $65,000)
ENGINE TYPE: supercharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 122 cu in, 1988cc
Power (SAE net): 300 bhp @ 8400 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 190 lb-ft @ 5800 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 92.3 in Length: 134.3 in Width: 72.0 in Height: 47.0 in
Curb weight: 1388 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 2.9 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 6.4 sec
Zero to 130 mph: 12.6 sec
Street start, 5–60 mph: 3.4 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 11.2 sec @ 125 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 155 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 158 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 1.12 g
In the past, the Atom always seemed to be in one of two modes: either glued impressively to the pavement or spinning off the track backward. And for drivers used to street cars, the Atom still corners with an initially unsettling amount of steady-state oversteer. But the transition from that point to a slide and then into a spin is now much more progressive and easier to decipher. Jumping off the throttle midcorner, however, heaves the back end around with a viciousness surpassing that of a vintage 911.
The 8400-rpm, 2.0-liter K20A engine and six-speed manual are from the not-sold-here Civic Type R, but renowned Honda electronics fiddler Hondata squeezes out another 100 rpm, 24 horsepower, and 11 pound-feet of torque—yielding 245 horses and 170 pound-feet in the base car. The supercharged variant ups those figures to 300 horsepower and 190 pound-feet, and the result is an extravagant linearity and immediacy connected to one of the slickest-shifting manuals on the planet—it seems incapable of landing in the wrong gear—with which to harness the hysteria. Likely spoiling any engine-swapping fantasies is that Honda only accepts orders for this divine powertrain in batches of 20. Which would set you back a quarter-million dollars.
Quite surprisingly, even from a standstill, the Atom delivers the power to the rear wheels in a drama-free manner despite a power-to-weight ratio that’s 27 percent more savage than a 505-hp Corvette Z06’s. Fierce acceleration is the payoff: Zero to 60 mph comes in 2.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 11.2 at 125 mph. That’s an improvement of 0.1 and 0.3 second, respectively, and the Atom 3 would be even more meteoric if it weren’t for two things—short gearing that necessitates two shifts to reach 60 mph and the school-bus–like aerodynamics that result from its open cockpit. Adding to the chaos is a menacing, brain-rattling shriek from the supercharger. To reproduce the sound of an epic lap in an Atom in your garage, throttle a circular saw about 12 inches from your right ear.
Also take note of what the track-focused Atom does without: ridiculously wide tires (just 205/50R-15 fronts and 225/45R-16 rears), anti-roll bars, and a kidney-pummeling suspension. Weight is indeed the enemy, so when it’s pared down to 1388 pounds (43 lighter than the last Atom 2 we tested), none of those automotive-grade girdles are needed to dominate track days or achieve 1.12 g of skidpad grip.
Naturally, near perfection on four wheels doesn’t pass government regulations, although there are numerous owners who have managed to register Atoms for street use as a kit car. It’s a worthwhile pursuit because there’s almost as much satisfaction to be had during a wind-in-your-face drive on back roads on a warm, sunny day.
But beware: The Atom is so rewarding, its responses so urgent, and its unassisted steering so pure that an encounter with one—short of a professional racing career, perhaps—may steer you onto a lifelong path of automotive disappointment.