The Ariel Atom 3S is the latest, most comfortable, almost civilized version of the revolutionary original Atom that took the enthusiast car world by storm almost 20 years ago. The company lists a 0-60 time of “less than 2.8 seconds.
Ariel’s small ultralight gets more power... and a windshield!
What Is It?
The Ariel Atom 3S is the latest, most comfortable, almost civilized version of the revolutionary original Atom that took the enthusiast car world by storm almost 20 years ago. It maintains the same basic exoskeleton chassis of the original, with the same rear engine location and rear wheel-drive, giving it the same slight rear weight bias owners and testers have always loved. But it gets improvements everywhere else. The engine is now a turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter i-VTEC four from the Civic Si, making 365 hp and 310 lb ft of torque in this application. TMI AutoTech, which builds the car for the U.S. market, designed an intercooled turbo system for the four-banger. The cooling radiators in the side pods distinguish the 3S from earlier Atoms. The changes give the open-cage screamer the power-to-weight ratio of a supercar.
The company lists a 0-60 time of “less than 2.8 seconds,” a figure TMI says is "an estimate." We didn’t get a chance to test 0-60, either, but we’d say it’s quick. Even if it’s only three seconds to 60, or closer to four, subjectively speaking the 3S still has acceleration about that of a bottle rocket.
The balance of the car is biased to the rear about 57 percent. That’s because the Civic Si engine that sits mostly forward of the front axle in a Honda now sits mostly forward of the rear axle in the Atom 3S. It’s like that Consulier thing that had a 2.2-liter turbo four engine swap. It’s a very simple and solid way to make a sporty kit car and we wish more small, fringe-element sports car makers would try it. No drivetrain re-engineering required, just move the whole powertrain, transmission, LSD, half shafts and all, from the front axle back to the rear axle. Voila – mid-engine supercar!
TMI Autotec is located about 500 feet from the Oak Tree Turn at Virginia International Raceway. There they do everything from bending the frames into place to installing the engines and track-testing the setups.
What’s It Like To Drive?
If you find the perfect road or, more likely, the perfect track, you’ll find that the Ariel Atom 3S is the perfect car...as long as you understand that it’s a race car at heart. On a couple of drives in Northern California we never really found the perfect location to match this car.
If you don’t find the perfect road, track or slot car setup, you might find the Atom 3S to be “challengingly uncomfortable.” Our first drive of the 3S on Highway 1 south of Carmel, for instance, was way too harsh a surface for this car. Bumps and holes whack and bang right into the chassis and the whole thing bucks and wallops like a washing machine filled with floor mats. Plus the wastegate and intake are right next to your ears, whooshing and squealing like little porcine breathing apparatii every time you get on and off the throttle.
But once you manage to find an empty, flat road with a curve or two in it you find that the car is, indeed, perfectly balanced. You can make it over- or understeer by mere judicious application or release of the throttle. It’s like a really, really powerful go kart with seating for two. Yes, it’ll wear you out after even a short drive, but maybe you could stand a little wearing out now and then. No one but the hardiest racer is going to commute to work in one of these. It’s made for weekend flings, either alone – which ups the power-to-weight – or with a passenger who will no doubt beg to be allowed behind the wheel (or beg to be let out at the nearest bus stop). In that regard it helps you sort out who your passengers should be.
When we mentioned the harsh ride on Hwy. 1 to the Atom guys they agreed to let us drive it on a better road. They offered Hwy 198 between the 101 and Interstate 5. This is a road we sometimes take when we have something interesting to drive to or from Monterey but have to make good time, too. Here the 3S is far more civilized than you would expect and far more comfortable than previous Ariel Atoms we have driven. Compared to, say, the BAC Mono that we drove a couple months ago it is downright plush. While the Mono engine was bolted straight to the frame and vibrated our poor esophagus and all internal organs and tooth fillings until we wanted to get out and cough for about a week, the Ariel Atom 3S transfers car-like levels of engine vibe into the cockpit, at least in comparison. Likewise the suspension is far more civilized than a Mono or a go kart or a typical club race car while offering similar levels of handling. It’s not soft by any means, but neither should you expect vintage Formula-Whatever levels of abuse.
However, Hwy. 198 may not have been the perfect venue for this car, either. It’s a faster road than Hwy. 1, with wide-open, faster curves. We took the whole thing almost entirely in sixth gear, downshifting to fifth only occasionally. Not to complain, again, but there surely is a better road out there for this Atom 3S, something with second-, third- and fourth-gear curves. That’s one thing about the Atom, it needs to be matched with a very specific road or track to be enjoyed to its fullest.
Nonetheless the 3S did well. The only problems we encountered on Hwy 198 were in spots where the road was starting to slip off the edge and there were uneven pavement undulations. Whanging over these upset the chassis enough that we had to correct the steering to keep going straight. Softer spring settings might have made it better on this stretch, but as it was the car handled it all pretty well. We had it for about 60 miles, from the parking lot of the King City Taco Bell to the parking lot of the Coalinga Burger King (monuments, both).
At first the car seemed to be chugging under acceleration in lower gears, but the Atomites said it was just the traction control button, which had been twisted around by the power cable on a Passport radar detector. Once the traction control had been set back to zero intervention and the cable put away, that problem was gone.
“We’re still in R&D on that,” said an engineer on the traction control.
The biggest leap in civility for the 3S model, however, is the windshield. Though it looks like it’ll slice your head clean off given the opportunity, not only did it not slice any heads off during our drive, it made the whole drive far more palatable. The windshield, along with those matching wind guards on the sides screwed into the big tubular frame, made this Atom far more like a real car than any Atom has ever been. It’s not a Camry XLE with gold kit and curb feelers, but it’s a lot more comfortable than Atoms have ever been.
“We have one guy who uses his as a daily driver,” an Atom salesman boasted.
That is one tough customer.
Do I Want It?
Do you have a long, twisting private driveway like Lord March, or your own private race track? If so, yes, get one. Or get something like it. There are lots of those motorsports clubs springing up all over the country -- for those, an Atom 3S would be perfect. You might even have the track record. If you don’t have such a setup but do have a kidney belt and are made up of mostly lean, USDA Prime Grade A flank steak, then maybe you can handle one on real roads. It’s a judgement call on your part. The Atom faithful enjoy their cars more than anything. Just don’t expect it to be a 911 or Ferrari in terms of daily livability.
Autoweek | MARK VAUGHN