Before we get into the actual meat and potatoes of this review, please know that the absolute absurdity of the Ariel Atom 3 is not lost on us. It starts out as a sordid collection of mild steel tubing and a somewhat unassuming 2.0-liter K20Z four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual, both pulled from the Honda parts bin. Throw in some fiberglass and a smattering of carbon fiber, four wheels, two lightweight racing seats with four-point harnesses, a steering wheel and some pedals, and that's just about it, save the optional windshield.
Getting into the driver's seat of the Ariel Atom is an interesting exercise. The car has no doors, no roof and no hood. It's like climbing into a four-wheeled jungle gym. Because of that, it's necessary to step on the driver's seat (wipe your feet, please) after throwing your leg over the high, unmovable latticework of tubes that make up the Atom's basic structure. However, once you learn the routine, it's not too difficult, and the payoff – something we've been aching to sample for more than a few years – is assuredly worth the effort.
So with visions of Jeremy Clarkson's misshapen face dancing in our brains, we unleashed the clutch in the Ariel Atom 3. And promptly stalled it.
Now would be a good time to talk about the starting ritual of the Atom 3. There's a big red plastic key on the outside of the cockpit that needs to be turned on, followed by toggling an aircraft-style switch and then pushing the unmarked starter button. Once you've done it a few times, it's no problem, but to the uninitiated, it's a built-in theft deterrent device.
Now, with the engine started and humming at idle, everything is as you'd expect from a well-sorted Honda K-series powerplant. Hit the gas, though, and all hell breaks loose thanks to our tester's $7,171 supercharger option, which boosts output from 245 naturally aspirated horsepower to an even 300. If that doesn't seem like a ton of force, consider that the Atom weighs in at just 1,350 pounds. For the math averse among us, that equals (carry the one, move the decimal) just 4.7 pounds per pony – proof that fun and fear can co-exist.
Exacerbating those feelings of terror and ecstasy is the supercharger, which produces a whine like an X-Wing Fighter with an uncorked exhaust. The sensation is magnified by the Atom's Formula One-esque snorkel, which sits inches behind the driver's right ear. The supercharger's constant song is reason enough to drop the extra coin on the blower. Almost. It sounds as if it's sucking the life out of everything around it, like an internal combustion black hole. We found ourselves tap-dancing on the gas pedal just to hear the rush of air whizzing down the intake and into the small-displacement blower just inches from our backs.
This time, we feed in a little bit more throttle and we're off. The first thing you notice about the Ariel Atom is that you can see literally everything around you. That includes the grain of the road surface, the spattering of insects on every forward-facing surface and the wheel wells of the vehicles around you. It's all a bit disconcerting at first, so we nudge the gas and rocket away in search of uncluttered tarmac.
Once out of harm's way, things really begin to click. You're able to constantly witness nearly all the components ahead of you, from the movement of the pushrod-activated, all-aluminum inboard Bilstein shocks to the back-and-forth twitching of the hyper-quick ratio unassisted steering rack. No other car in recent memory provides such an honest-to-Colin Chapman connection as the Atom.
Feeling more comfortable with each passing mile, we downshift to second at about 20 mph and stab the throttle. The supercharger erupts, our vision warps and our head snaps against the back of the seat. Milliseconds later, we're sitting on the rev-limiter. Perhaps the optional steering wheel-mounted shift light would be a good idea. We shift to third, repeat and there's no time to take a gander down at the speedometer before the familiar feeling of self preservation tells us that it's time to take our size 13 off the go pedal. Ariel tells us that the supercharged Atom will handily accelerate to 60 mph in well under three seconds, and we're true believers of that figure. And now it's time to stop. Wow.
Here's another interesting statistic that was hurtling towards our frontal lobe as we grabbed a footful of brake: Zero-to-100 and back to zero in under 11 seconds. That, friends, just about sums it all up. Usually, such massive, mind- and physics-bending acceleration is delivered on two wheels, and we've enjoyed that three-two-one-blast-off kind of thrust a few times in the past. But it's never been quite as intense as in the Atom. Or so easy to replicate, time and time again.
Our test car was fitted with the optional Alcon Track Brake Package ($3,975), and though we would have used the remote brake adjuster to alter the front-to-rear bias a bit, there are few times in our lives we can remember decelerating as forcefully as in the Atom. In other words, it stops even better than it goes. And it goes really, really well.
And then it comes time to turn. Our particular copper-toned Atom (a custom color at $750) was festooned with the optional 16x7-inch wide wheel package ($453.75), onto which a fresh set of Yokohama A048 tires, sized 225/45/16 ($367), were spooned. The aforementioned suspension setup has been optioned up with twin coil springs with differing rates to provide a relatively tame ride while still maintaining back-road and race track prowess. Partnered with the sticky rubber, grip was otherworldly. So much so that tail-out hijinks are damn-near impossible to perform. Yes, it can be done (see our image gallery for the tire-smoking evidence), but it takes either a genuinely concerted effort or outright clumsiness to break traction between those sticky gumballs and the gritty asphalt below. And besides, such merry andrew shenanigans are to completely miss the point. There's well over 1g of lateral force to deal with when cranking the wheel in any direction other than straight ahead, so why spoil all that supercar-spec adhesion with opposite-lock antics?
Our tester was fitted with a healthy smattering of optional bits, some of which are rather obvious with even a casual glance. There was the full glass windscreen package for $2,850 (alternatively, you can get two small aero screens for just $146.85) and clear plastic side panels, both of which do only a mildly effective job of diverting the inevitable wind blast of such an open cockpit. Perhaps more appreciated is the screen's ability to deflect such detritus as small pebbles and large grasshoppers. If you opt to forgo these bits, we'd strongly suggest a full-face helmet or, at the very least, adequate eye protection.
As you can probably tell by now, it's quite easy to add a substantial margin to the Ariel Atom 3's base price of $49,980. In fact, our test car carried a sticker that nearly doubled the starting price, and it seems likely that a bone-stock Atom (well, bone-stock plus the available supercharger, of course) would provide nearly as many smiles per mile. Still, there's easily $82,695 worth of performance wrapped up in our tester's gracefully arcing powdercoated chassis. The next closest car in design and intent would have to be the Lotus Elise, which starts at very nearly the same asking price. Yes, the Elise is undoubtedly an excellent vehicle and (we can hardly believe we're typing this) vastly more practical. But if you think it's more fun... well, think again. There is no more visceral an experience on four wheels than the Ariel Atom 3 and comparing it with any other car currently in production is simply an exercise in futility.
So instead of thinking of the Atom in vehicular terms, allow us to take a completely different tack to sum up the feeling of piloting such a machine: Imagine for a moment that you're Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius). You've just strapped a set of red Acme rockets to a pair of inline skates in yet another futile effort to catch and cook one particular bright blue roadrunner. Striking that fateful match and setting the wick ablaze is roughly akin to rowing through the six forward ratios of the supercharged Atom's manual transmission with your foot to the floor.
Come to think of it, perhaps the Ariel Atom was the lone missing link that would have earned the Coyote that warm feathered dinner that had eluded him for so long – after all, this thing can corner. Egads indeed.