and an article:http://www.edmunds.com/insideline/do/Features/articleId=105504
By Alistair Weaver
Date posted: 05-02-2005
From my perch on the plastic driving seat, I can see the inside of the Atom's left-front wheel, its front wishbones and where the steering column joins forces with the front axle. I can see it all because the Aerial Atom has no doors, no windows and no side panels. In an Atom, you don't just feel the car working, you see it. It's a living dissection of a car, and it feels fantastic.
The Atom is the brainchild of Simon Saunders, an automotive designer with an impressive r?sum?. After starting life as a motorbike designer for the now defunct Norton, he moved to GM and then Aston Martin where he designed a stillborn V12 supercar. His next step was to take on contract work for Porsche, where he worked on a car you might just have heard of ? the 959.
By the mid-'90s, Saunders was a design consultant with a yearning to do things his own way. "Everybody was talking about a latter-day Lotus 7," he explains, "but nobody was doing it properly, so I started with a clean sheet of paper."
He focused on simplicity. "Doors, windows and roofs are difficult to engineer, so the Atom doesn't have them," he says. "There was no point designing an MR2 because Toyota would always do a better job. I had to do something the big companies won't, either because the car doesn't fit with their corporate image, or because the returns are too small."
Early versions of the Atom were powered by a Rover engine but Saunders achieved a major coup by convincing the famously reticent Honda that it really wanted to supply him with an engine and gearbox.
The 1,998cc i-VTEC units are sent direct from Japan to Aerial's tiny workshop in Somerset, England. There are two standard versions ? boasting 160 and 220 horsepower ? and Saunders is about to introduce a 300-hp, supercharged flagship. If those figures don't sound like much, consider this: the Atom weighs just 1,034 pounds.
"One of our U.S. customers rang up concerned that the Atom he'd ordered was less powerful than his Honda NSX," says Saunders. "But he changed his mind when we pointed out that it was the equivalent of a 1,000-hp NSX."
Although the engine is exposed and mounted just in front of the rear axle, it's the Atom's chassis that is its dominant styling feature. Bronze and MIG welded by hand, phosphated and powder coated, it frames the cockpit before tapering to a pointed racecar nose. The only bodywork to speak of is a tiny nose cone and a subtle rear wing that doubles as an engine cover. Road cars come no more extreme than this.
The rest of the specification has been pinched from the racetrack. Double unequal-length wishbones are featured front and rear with pushrod-operated inboard Bilstein dampers. Owners can adjust the ride height, toe and camber angles to set up the car for road or track, while the extensive options list includes such niceties as adjustable dampers, a limited-slip differential and uprated Alcon brakes. Most owners are expected to use their cars on track days, and Aerial will configure the car accordingly.
You Climb In
The absence of doors makes it tricky to access the cockpit. If you're lanky enough, you can throw a limb over the side of the chassis and stand on the seat. Small peddlers must climb up the side frame before depositing themselves inside. Rumor has it that BAR Formula One star Takuma Sato had to be lifted into the car when he took it for a test-drive.
Driver and passenger sit together on an injection molded seat, which is bolted into place and more comfortable than it looks. The fascia, such as it is, mixes an SPA electronic instrument pack with a simple, analog speedometer and rev counter, while the tiny suede steering wheel contains green, amber and red shift lights. There's no heater, stereo, carpet or any of the other luxury nonsense.
The initial sensations are pure racecar. There's a four-point harness to be buckled and tightened and you really need to wear a helmet if your journey stretches beyond the city limits. Saunders does offer a wind deflector but this is no more than a token gesture ? this is proper wind-in-the-helmet motoring.
Easy to Drive
Although the controls are pure racecar, the Atom is road car simple to drive. The clutch is light, the engine torquey and the six-speed gearbox, pinched from a Honda Civic Type-R, snicks merrily from cog to cog. Saunders says he didn't want the car to be too intimidating but it's a mark of how focused the Atom is that the gearbox ? so quick and precise in the Honda ? suddenly feels long-winded.
Saunders was responsible for the Atom concept and styling, but the suspension setup was tuned by the gifted guys at Lotus. Anyone who has driven a selection of Lotus-tuned cars, such as the Elise, the Aston Martin Vanquish and the Opel Speedster, will notice a common feel or signature, and it's replicated here in the Atom.
The comfortable low-speed rise, the supple damping and the exceptional high-speed body control are all present and correct, despite the challenges posed by the car's lowly mass. Watching it all working at speed is a genuine, if distracting treat.
It has become a clich? to talk about a car handling like a single-seater, but the Atom is about as close to a genuine road-going racecar experience as you're likely to get. Its natural balance is neutral tending toward understeer, but by playing with the throttle, it's possible to encourage mild oversteer on entry or even a lurid power slide. This is a car that indulges the experienced without ever intimidating.
And it is quick. The rev limiter is set to 8,600 rpm, by which point the whole car is screaming headfirst for the horizon. Aerial claims it will crack zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and we've little reason to doubt it. Third and fourth gears are truly monstrous, delivering up a savage slice of performance. Legality aside, the only bar on performance is the excessive wind buffeting, which becomes uncomfortable above 80 mph. Saunders says he encourages inexperienced customers not to order the 300-hp car and it's easy to see why ? on the road at least, the 220-hp car is ample.
Available in America
The Ariel ? the name harks back to an old British motorcycle manufacturer ? is priced from ?19,922 ($37,350), but our road-legal test car would trouble the checkbook to the tune of ?26,244 ($49,202). It would be easy to spend more than ?35,000 ($65,000) on a 300-hp car. Most cars are sold in Britain but Saunders has already shipped rolling chassis to customers in California, Texas and Washington and is "close to signing a deal to export the car to the U.S. market."
This is a lot of money to spend on what is an obviously compromised car. Alternatives such as the Lotus Elise and Caterham 7 offer a similar experience but add an extra dose of all-weather practicality. They would be a more sensible choice but one suspects that few of the 100 or so people who buy an Atom each year are interested in practicality. This car is a toy to be played with.