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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ariel Atom Driven- insane!

Think about the quickest road car you've ever driven. No, wait, scratch that. Think about the quickest road car you've ever heard of. No, wait. That won't do, either. Think about the quickest road car that's ever been. That's more like it. Now you're in the right area code.

Here's why: This highly modified 2005 Ariel Atom with its supercharged, 375-horsepower, 2.0-liter Honda engine hits 60 mph from a standstill in 2.8 seconds. Two-point-eight seconds! With an exclamation point! (And we never use an exclamation point.)

Measure its time to 60 mph with 1 foot of rollout like they do on a drag strip, and the Ariel gets to the mark in a scant 2.6 seconds — less time than we require to decide between paper and plastic.

For those of you keeping score at home, this makes this 2005 Ariel Atom quicker than any car we've ever tested — any Porsche, any Viper, any Vette and any other specialty marque like the Noble M400. But it gets better. The little Atom goes on to further embarrass the big names by punching its way through the quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds at 128.4 mph. It's the hardest accelerating car we've ever driven.

Let's put this into perspective. This supercharged 2005 Ariel Atom's performance in the quarter-mile is a full 1.1 seconds and 11.6 mph quicker than the 2008 Nissan GT-R we tested in May. The 100-mph mark arrives in only 6.1 seconds. So brutal is the acceleration that these numbers align more closely with motorcycles than with cars. As proof, we offer Cycle World's test of the 2008 Honda CBR600RR, which showed almost identical numbers to the Atom: zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 10.6 seconds at 130 mph.

That, friends, is impressive.

The motorcycle parallel works in other ways as well. The Ariel's open cockpit obligates a prudent driver to wear a helmet for protection from the elements, not to mention stray animals or discarded appliances. Eat an opossum or a Kenmore at the speeds this car can achieve and you'll need more facial work than Joan and Melissa Rivers — combined. Then there's the sound. With a Rotrex supercharger only inches from your eardrums that's churning out noise like a mulching machine full of marbles, ear protection is a must as well.

Even driving the Atom is simply otherworldly. First, the combination of a helmet and earplugs separates you from the machine and the elements, so there are remarkably few distractions. Forward visibility is unencumbered by pillars or hood lines, so you're almost unaware of the machine, and engine noise is just a reminder of when to shift. Really, it's just you and the road. The Atom's tires are in clear view, so it feels effortless to place the car in a corner compared to anything else with four wheels. And as speed builds so does airflow over your nether regions, as if you were simply flying over the ground (also eliminating the possibility you'll leave the experience with swamp ass).

The Other Numbers
The physics test continued with braking performance. With no electronics to affect the result, the 2005 Ariel Atom stopped from 60 mph in 100 feet (99.7 actually, if you want to be utterly precise). Few cars that we have tested have stopped shorter, and these include the Nissan GT-R and the 2008 Porsche GT2.

This physics-warping performance is thanks to Alcon four-piston calipers at all four discs, not to mention sticky Toyo Proxes R888 tires (205/50ZR15 in front and 245/45R16 in the rear). The key to making a simple braking system like this work extraordinarily well without the aid of electronics lies in perfect pedal modulation plus excellent effectiveness. And the presence of only 1,345 pounds helps, of course.

At the same time, not all of the Atom's performance numbers are so mind-boggling. Its 70.4-mph speed through the slalom and its 0.90g performance on the skid pad are about the same as a Subaru WRX STI but far less than the Lotus Exige S, which cranks out 74 mph through the slalom and 0.96g on the skid pad.

Tuned for Slicks
Part of the problem, we suspect, is a suspension setup that favors the massive Hoosier slicks that car owner Peter Thomas uses for track days with the Atom (he switched to the Toyos at our request so the Ariel would be street-legal). Since the Atom's suspension is almost completely adjustable just like that of a racing car — ride height, spring rate, damping rates, wheel camber and alignment — the process of dialing in the perfect setup isn't easy or quick.

Nevertheless, the Atom's chassis offers magical, ultra-quick steering — perhaps the best example of manual steering in the world. The unassisted rack-and-pinion unit offers only 1.75 turns from lock-to-lock. And the effort level never gets really heavy, even at full opposite lock when a Lotus will make you plead for power assistance to correct a slide.

Subtlety and Restraint
Not even a lime green Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder with Carmen Electra riding shotgun gets more attention on the road than the 2005 Ariel Atom. (One bicyclist nearly rode himself off a cliff trying to photograph this Ariel with his cell phone.) One baffled onlooker even halted his Suburban in the middle of the road to ogle. People notice, and they should. The Atom looks bizarre to the uninitiated, especially with this car's big aftermarket rear wing.

And it's stupendously powerful. Car owner Thomas commissioned a specially built Honda K20, the same engine used in the Japanese-market Honda Civic Type R. The Rotrex C30-94 supercharger is part of a kit from TTS performance in the United Kingdom, which includes an air-to-air intercooler and larger, 750cc/min. fuel injectors. A Hondata K-Pro ECU does the brain work.

The list of engine mods reads like an engine builder's dream: Darton cylinder sleeves, Carrillo rods, Wiseco forged pistons — you get the idea. HyTech exhaust in Irvine, California, installed a baffled oil-sump kit and designed and built a custom exhaust. Cylinder head work was performed by Endyn in Fort Worth, Texas. The compression ratio is 11.5:1 and peak boost is 15 psi — a combination that requires 110-octane race fuel for safe operation.

Thomas says the engine cranks out 375 hp and 275 pound-feet of torque to the wheels on a chassis dyno. Power goes to the ground through a stock Honda six-speed transaxle and gear-type limited-slip differential.

The Rest of the Story
What, you've never heard of the 2005 Ariel Atom? We're not surprised. The concept came from Nik Smart, a design student at Coventry University in the U.K., and the car was first shown in 1996. Simon Saunders undertook production at the Ariel Motor Company in Somerset, England, and the first-generation cars were powered by a 1.6-liter Rover inline-4. The car then came into the hands of Brammo Motorsports in Oregon, which developed the Atom 2 powered by a supercharged, 245-hp, 2.0-liter GM Ecotec inline-4.

Just last spring, TMI Autotech, Inc. purchased the rights to the car and set up a dedicated factory in the small industrial park at Virginia International Raceway. TMI also undertook the Ariel Atom Experience to help promote the car, a traveling road show that offers drives in the Atom. The latest Ariel Atom 3 is powered by the Honda K20 from the Japanese-spec Civic Type R (both normally aspirated and supercharged), and TMI offers a machine similar to this one for about $85,000. A 500-hp Ariel Atom RS Performance model is also under development.

And in case you didn't already gather, the 2005 Ariel Atom has no audio system, no air-conditioning, no heater, no doors and no bumpers. Hell, it's not even a car by American standards — which is why this car is registered as a "specially constructed vehicle." And that's exactly what makes it so great. It's a special machine built for people with special needs. And by special needs we mean the need to circle a racetrack faster than damned near any other road-legal car on earth.

We spent the better part of a day behind the wheel of this Atom and after having our lungs collapsed by its crushing acceleration for roughly the 50th time, we've reached one conclusion: It deserves the exclamation point.