Ariel Atom: the ultimate track-day toy?

The Ariel Atom has bit of a cult following. Many have seen videos of this barely street-legal car on YouTube, or would have read about it in European car magazines, but chances of a close encounter with one in Canada are scarce.

Ariel has no retail distributor in Canada, and the ones that are here mostly belong in private hands. However, a few weeks ago, I found out that out of Oakville, Ontario, a company which specializes in renting out all manners of exotic cars for road tours and track days, has just acquired an Ariel Atom. I did what anyone with high-octane fuel in their veins would do, and asked to get some seat time.

Thankfully, they said yes, and I was all set to have a go in this scaffolding on wheels.

Approaching the Atom, you can’t help but smile at its rawness. It’s like a race car, only with fewer creature comforts. While most race cars have an enclosed tub, this doesn’t. So you are about as open to the elements as a motorcyclist. Best then to wear full-length clothing and a helmet.

Looking at its racing seat, which was fixed in one position in this example, I wondered if my portly proportions would fit. To my relief, I did. After struggling to get the five-point racing harness on, I was all set to get it moving. This particular Atom had no ignition key, so all you needed to do to fire it up is flick up a toggle switch, and press a rubber starter button. The motor came alive with a menacing growl.

While customers can pick from a number of engines for their Atom, this example had a 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor out of the previous-generation Honda Civic Si. This i-VTEC engine in its unmodified form produces 197 hp at 8,000 rpm. That is enough to propel a 2,895-lb Civic Si coupe quite swiftly, so imagine what this engine is capable of in a vehicle that weighs just 1,350 lbs!

The end result, as you can imagine, is bonkers fast. This particular example I tested is said to cover the 0-100 km/h sprint in about 5.0 seconds. Trust me, it felt far quicker than that.

At wide-open throttle, this car is savagely fast, which makes it hilariously entertaining. At times, it was hard to figure out which was louder: the screaming engine, or the screaming me.

Honda’s i-VTEC engine makes a great sound in a Civic Si, but imagine that motor sitting six inches behind your shoulders, with no soundproofing! Yeah, it sounds just as crazy as you might imagine, but multiply that by nine.

I took a lap to familiarize myself with the Atom, and then started pushing. This car has an amazing chassis which offers a lot of mechanical grip, and has a suspension setup similar to real race cars. Treat it with respect, and it rewards like nothing else, but if you are not paying attention, it will bite you just as quickly. Many people who showed up at the track that day spun out. I am happy to say, that while I had a few oversteer moments, I kept it on the tarmac.

Lap after lap, I was getting better and faster. You can learn very quickly how to properly handle this car. Placing it into corner is extremely easy, because you can actually see where your front tires are from the driver’s seat. It is quite rewarding to be able to see that you have hit the apex dead-on. It is equally as rewarding to heel-and-toe on downshifts, because the pedal position is just perfect for such manoeuvres and the six-speed manual gearbox (also taken from Honda) is a delight to use.

All too soon, my track time was done, but I just didn’t want to get out. I returned to the pits and just sat in the car for a few minutes, gathering my thoughts.

I have driven a lot of cars at the three-kilometre road course at Toronto Motorsports Park, but nothing comes close to the thrill and excitement I got from the Atom. It truly is the ultimate track-day toy.

If you want to have a go in this Atom, will charge you $299 for five laps. It is worth every penny. If you consider yourself a true automotive enthusiast, driving an Atom should be on your bucket list. It really is that good.