Posted on: Sep 03, 2012
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Track Day Icons: Ariel Atom


It just gets better with age: the ultimate track car for the true enthusiast.
In truth, there are quite a few track-ready cars out there for you to buy straight from a dealership, far too many to list here with boring you to tears. So when picking the cars for this series, we went with cars that aren't simply stripped-out versions of other cars and are completely unique models. The also had to be street-legal, or at least potentially so (more on that later). Lastly, and somewhat obviously, they had to be at least reasonably well known, and not built by my cousin Greg.

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The clearest first choice to cover was also the car with the best name, the Ariel Atom. As this most excellent of names implies, the Atom was designed to be the absolute most basic car that it was possible to make. Eschewing even bodywork, just looking at the Atom reassures you that you are only paying for the parts which make it go fast, and nothing else. This is a car where even the small windshield is an optional extra. This incredibly minimalistic approach means that the Atom lacks all of those important safety features which are required to make a car street legal. Fortunately, there is a loophole.
Ariel will ship you your Atom in pieces, complete with the optional "road pack" (turn signals, a horn, etc.), and if you assemble these parts yourself, then the Atom will be street legal. Presumably the thinking is that if you assemble it yourself you will be acutely aware of the lack of airbags and are therefore taking the responsibility for your own safety. Not that driving it on the street would be the most pleasant motoring experience of your life. The Lotus-tuned suspension is unforgiving, and the low-profile tires and racing buckets won't do much to keep it from transmitting every single bump in the road straight up through your spine.
But those few oddballs who decide to drive their Atoms on the street aren't important. This is a car designed for the track, and it is utterly brilliant in this environment. The aforementioned suspension allows for excellent handling, and the car has a power-to-weight ratio seldom seen outside of a few select low-volume hyper cars. But with all of this simplicity, this kind of speed is much cheaper than it would be in a hyper car. The Atom's US base price is $39,203, which is still a lot for a toy, but it would be immensely easy to spend many times that amount on a similar toy.
There have been three generations of the Atom so far, The Atom, Atom 2 and Atom 3. Changes have been made to the design, but it takes a very keen eye to spot them on a car which doesn't even have a body. The car still looks basically the same as it did when it was first introduced in 1996. Several engines have been offered, such as a Honda four-cylinder and a GM four-cylinder, each with optional superchargers. These can produce as much as 300 horsepower with the superchargers and this is a hell of a lot in a car which weighs only 1350lbs.
But even more impressive is the Atom 500, a 500-horsepower V8 version of the Atom which is absolutely insanely fast. The engine is a 3.0-liter unit which is essentially two Suzuki Hayabusa engines stuck together, and it revs up to a screaming 10,500rpm redline. The 500 will hit 60mph in just 2.5 seconds and a top speed of 175mph. To aid in dealing with all of this speed, the 500 has some bodywork, there to help with aerodynamic duties. However, if you think that this power has also led Ariel to make a bigger and softer Atom, you'd be dead wrong. The 500 is actually more than a hundred pounds lighter than the standard car, and that's saying a lot.
Of course, that's not to say that there isn't a compromise, and it comes in the form of the price tag. This comes in at around $230,000, a noticeable increase over the base price. Some people dismiss the Atom as nothing more complicated than a four-wheeled motorcycle, but the simplicity of the Atom is deceptive. Quite a lot of work is needed to make a car that is so minimalistic. The exoskeleton which serves as a replacement for the body is unlike anything you'd find in any other car, and quite a bit of work is needed to make this even remotely aerodynamic.
For those still in doubt, the performance numbers speak for themselves, nobody could just make a track car which is faster than Porsche 911 GT3 RS by accident. This is not just a track car, it is the ultimate track car icon.

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by Jacob Joseph
Track Day Icons: Ariel Atom
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