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First Drive: Ariel Atom 3 Mugen Edition


While a thousand cars is a day's worth of Camry sales, that number represents an astounding decade's worth of success for Britain's tiny Ariel Motors, builder of the astoundingly original Atom. Call it specialized, call it user-hostile -- you can also call the Atom some of the most fun you can have on four wheels.

The Atom has succeeded because Ariel is a lean, well-run little company. It has even managed to internationalize, with a manufacturing license in the U.S. through Virginia's TMI AutoTech. But the Atom also has succeeded it's a simple, focused concept, beautifully executed. It does one job, and it does it fabulously well.

It accelerates, brakes, and corners like few other street-legal cars in history. But it's not just the vehemence -- no, violence -- of these forces that make the Atom special. It's the exaggeration of their effects because of the wind and the noise, and paradoxically the precision of its responses to your inputs.

Sometimes, after a few Atom miles, it's necessary to stop, take a deep breath, dry your watering eyes, and get your pulse down. Those few minutes will be well spent enjoying the marvelous manufacturing standards and component quality. Some low-volume sports cars have a reputation for a slightly haphazard build standard, but not the Atom. It's a precision instrument.

 The Atom became a YouTube star thanks to the clip from the BBC's "Top Gear" of its typhoon acceleration giving Jeremy Clarkson's cheeks the wave patterns of a North Atlantic gale. But it's a recent "Top Gear" moment HONDA THAT S more relevant to the car we're talking about here: The V-8 version of the Atom is the fastest civilian car to ever lap that show's track.

That record-breaking Atom is equipped with a 475-horsepower, 3.0-liter Frankenmotor based on a pair of superbike blocks that turns as much as 10,500 rpm. Unfortunately, if you want one, you're looking at about $200,000.

So to give the V-8's track-biased chassis settings a very slightly wider audience, as well as to celebrate a 1000 Atoms over 10 years, Ariel Motor Co. in the U.K. is building a limited edition of 10 Mugen-tuned version fitted with the Honda K20Z Type R 2.0-liter Honda twin-cam. The price in the U.K. is just under £50,000 ($81k), or roughly one-third the cost of the V-8.

The Mugen car's naturally aspirated 270-horsepower engine is a little short of the 300-hp supercharged versions, but it's more intimate, more revvy, more hot chili-intense. Peak power is at 8300 rpm, and redline hits at 8600.

Mugen is Honda's captive tuning arm, so we can trust the engineering here. It's blueprinted. The compression is raised, and so is valve lift, using new cams and springs. Balance shafts are removed, and the uprated oil pump chatters harshly. The result is a cement-mixer rattle at low revs. There's also a flat spot around 4500 rpm. But below that rev level it's actually very tractable.

 And above 5000, it's bonkers. The air box alongside your head threatens to eat your skull. The mechanics of the engine shriek; the intake howls; the exhaust explodes. Even if you wear a full-face helmet, it's death-metal loud.

You're projected forward as if strapped to a giant firework. The change-up lights flicker and you bolt through another of the short-travel gearshifts. And in a moment, another. The ratios are close, and there's a limited-slip diff to keep things running on the straight and narrow.

The chassis is uprated to match. High-performance Alcon four-piston brakes on vented rotors sit behind the magnesium wheels and semi-slick tires. The formula-car-type bell-cranked suspension gets stiff springs and adjustable dampers with remote reservoirs.

Your racecar fantasies are bolstered by the non-upholstered molded seat, adjustable only if you have a lot of time and wrenches. You strap into a five-point harness, steer with a non-airbag wheel and read your speed through race-type LCD instrument panel. The tiny pedals are unassisted, but they're light, because the car is a featherweight.

 How light? Try 1200 pounds, or about 1400 with me aboard, with 270 horsepower on tap. Do the math. It's drastically accelerative. There's no ABS. There's no windshield. The suspension and tires are set up for track use. But our first drive is on the road. Oh, dear.

Actually, it's fine. Yes, the noise and the rattle are debilitating in traffic, and at low speed there's no driving reward to compensate. Your backside gets numb from that Seat after a long highway haul. And you're ridiculously conspicuous. But once the traffic clears, it's just astounding.

The hard suspension, with a bit of speed under it, begins to breathe. You can see the wheels move up and down. The sharp steering is so full of road feel that, if a corner is clear-sighted, it goads you to nibble close to the limits of the brutal grip. Grip so ferocious that on dry pavement it will exceed that of the regular Atom 3, which is saying something. Brakes are full of feel and approachable. HONDA THAT S the thing: macro forces under micro control.

Control is a pivotal question with the Atom. As a driver, you are connected to those forces by a steering wheel and pedals that work with almost atomic-level precision. Yet sometimes, it feels like the car has control over you. All that elemental energy just seems to take over. Have you got the necessary self-control?
.hdr {color:#ffffff;font:bold 12px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#343434;} .hdr1 {color:#000000;font:bold 09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#aba9a9;} .hdr2 {color:#000000;font:09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#dddddd;} .hdr3 {color:#000000;font:09px verdana,arial,helvetica;background-color:#FFFFFF;} Ariel Atom 3 Mugen Base price N/A Price as tested N/A Vehicle layout Mid-engine, RWD, 2-pass, no door roadster Engines 2.0L/270-hp DOHC 16-valve I-4 Transmission Six-speed manual Curb weight 1200 lb (mfr) Wheelbase 92.3 in Length x width x height 134.3 x 72.0 x 47.0 in 0-62 mph 2.9 sec (mfr) EPA city/hwy fuel econ N/A mpg On sale in U.S. Never

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