Most cars are defined by what forms them. The Ariel Atom is about what doesn’t.
Sorry to start all Sartre, but the skeletal Brit sports car has always been an intellectual exercise in minimalism as well as a means of A-to-B. The Atom is about what’s missing as much as what is there: no roof, no doors, no glass and pretty much zero bodywork.
It’s more of an artfully assembled collection of gaps and spaces than a solid object.
Company founder Simon Saunders says he has always regarded the Atom – which was launched in its original form 20 years ago – as being a four-wheel motorbike. That sums it up neatly, but it also gives an indication of the need to wear climatically suitable clothing to drive it.
This being England in the late autumn, that means the need to dress for cold and rain. Skies are grey and look angry on the day I visit Ariel’s small factory in rural Somerset for a first drive in the fourth-generation Atom.
The less-is-more concept is unchanged and the design sticks closely to that of previous Atoms, but the new car is almost entirely new. Ariel says that the only carryover parts are the pedal box and fuel filler cap, with the big news being the arrival of the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine from the Honda Civic Type R.
Honda doesn't normally do engine supply deals, but has long regarded Ariel as a whim to be indulged; previous Atoms used both naturally aspirated and supercharged versions of the VTEC donk. Ariel was given access to the new K20C1 engine ahead of the Type R going on sale, and has created its own bespoke ECU to give variable power levels, with the peak of 239kW being pretty much identical to that of the Civic.
There are no mechanical changes, and the mid-mounted motor turns the demonstrator’s rear wheels through the Type-R’s six-speed manual gearbox.
The more interesting number is the one that sits on the other side of the scale. Despite a modest increase in mass over the last car, thanks to some structural upgrades, Ariel says the Atom 4 weighs just 595kg with fluids. That's a power-to-weight ratio slightly better than the McLaren 720S.
Okay, that's not quite fair – British Atoms are sold without windscreens, which aren't required for road use in the UK, but we can expect the car that will be given ADR certification next year to be wearing front glass and to be a chunk heavier.
But for today, I’ve got a full-face helmet and a set of waterproofs and thermals.
Distractions are minimal. The cockpit is empty enough to make most competition cars feel like ornate gin palaces. Seats are nothing more than plastic shells – padding is provided by clothing and subcutaneous fat.
There is a motorsport-style display screen behind the steering wheel, and a small console with buttons and switches for lights and indicators. The bigger novelty is getting used to the gaps: glance down at your legs and you can see straight through the latticework structure to the road surface. At least accurate parking is a doddle.
Despite evolution, the fundamentals remain unchanged, and Saunders's motorbike analogy is still on the money. There's a fizzing vibration through seats and pedals with the engine running; a sense of pace and movement even at low velocities through air pressure and buffeting on your helmet.
Within a few hundred metres, I've remembered something else unusual about the Atom: that the sight of the ground rushing past can produce a sensation like vertigo if you let yourself get distracted.
Not that wandering attention is too much of an issue given the severity of the speeds the Atom can seemingly magic out of thin air. Ariel claims a 2.8-second 0–60mph (0–97km/h) and a 6.8-second 0–100mph (0–161km/h) time, but that underplays the overwhelming sensation of speed at even a scant percentage of its abilities.
Half throttle and short-shifting at 5000rpm already feels daring on rural England's damp, tight-fitting roads. I need to give myself a stern talking to inside the helmet to press harder, especially as the traction-control system that has been developed for the car hasn't been implemented on the factory demonstrator. I could use the lower power settings – '1' limits it to just 164kW. But where would be the fun in that?
No surprise that, in the lower gears, the rear tyres struggle to digest full throttle. Fully unleashed it devours its gearing with the savage joy of a sportsbike. I reckon in second gear there's less than a second before the first change-up LED illuminates and the engine finds its limiter.
Traction improves with speed, but even apparently sizeable straights don't last for long enough to get more than a fleeting impression of what max attack feels like, especially as the track-biased Avon ZZR tyres have a strong aversion to even small amounts of water under braking.
The gearbox is a gem – the shift action is pretty much as clean and accurate as it is in the Type R despite the relocated powertrain – with snappy changes and an enthusiasm for heel-and-toe rev matching. Ariel says it will also offer a race-style sequential gearbox as an extra-cost option.
Earlier Atoms could be decidedly snappy at the limit, but this one has been retuned for more benign reactions. The suspension now has both anti-dive and anti-squat geometry, and stays level under big loads. Steering is accurate and fast-acting – there's no power assistance – but the front end feels less darty than before.
Oversteer is easy to engender in tight corners, but easy to correct as well. Ride is firm, at low speeds rougher surfaces feel corrugated, but the Atom deals with bumps at speed with iron discipline.
The Atom works well on-road, but I suspect it really needs a race circuit to shine. This will be one of those cars that humbles vastly more exotic machinery at track days. Sadly, I only had public roads, plus the pressing need to maintain possession of my driving licence, so I didn't get to experience it in full flight. I already know it will be awesome.
Ariel has committed to putting this Atom through ADR and a very limited number will make it here. Global production is limited to just 100 cars a year due to the limitations of the company's insistence that a single mechanic builds each one of its cars (or bikes) from beginning to end.
Pricing is still to be confirmed and it will certainly be expensive – don't expect the UK's £39,950 (AU$73,500) base price to translate. But I can pretty much guarantee that, for the money, nothing on four wheels will go faster.
Engine: 1996cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power: 239kW at 6500rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 3000rpm
Top speed: 261km/h (mfr claim)
Price: £39,950 (UK)
MORE: Everything Ariel
NOTE: Due to a number of variables to be considered, we'll leave the Atom unscored until we can drive it on local roads.