Pro Racer’s Take: Ariel Atom 3S
Light weight, big power, loads of grip, and even more fun
Wind and fury, signifying plenty.
Forgive me, Shakespeare fans, for mangling his words, but those words seem appropriate for the Ariel Atom 3S.
This story begins with me noticing the drive chain on my Ducati Monster 1200R motorcycle needed a little lubrication. Time spent foraging in my garage eventually located nothing but an empty can, so I wobbled off to my local dealer, Two Wheels World in Pompano Beach, Florida.
As the dealership came into sight I noticed an Ariel Atom 3S sitting out front with several people standing around it. The dealership owner informed me his company is now also an Atom dealer, and then he asked if I'd like to take the demonstrator out for a spin. He didn't have to twist my arm.
Also on hand was Jesse Kenealy, director of sales at TMI AutoTech Inc. in Virginia. TMI is the company Ariel licenses to manufacture Atoms in the U.S. TMI doesn't just assemble them; it actually manufactures the cars at its factory about 20 minutes away from Virginia International Raceway. TMI has the rights to sell Ariel's in North, Central, and South America. The parent company, Ariel U.K., takes care of everywhere else.
Let's get the psychology out of the way. Nobody looks at this vehicle as a daily driver. Complaining that it doesn't have cup holders, for instance, would be asinine. It's not practical and if you think it's a ridiculous waste of space, you're obviously not in the market—and you're probably missing the point altogether.
I like the Atom's shape, especially from the front and sides. This particular 3S reminds me a little of a Pikes Peak Hill Climb Coyote race car, having the pronounced front wing and dinner-table size rear wing option. It certainly makes a statement.
Getting ready to drive the Ariel reminded me of the steps I take when preparing to ride my motorcycle. Most folks who drive Atoms in the U.K. do so without the windscreen in place and wear helmets for protection from the elements, suicidal birds, and discarded cigarette butts. In the U.S., windscreen and wiper come standard, so no need for my helmet. Part of the preparation means checking weather radar before setting off. The 3S is completely open and unless you're never stationary, you will get soaked if it rains. I made use of the small storage space under the removable front hood for a rolled-up change of clothes, just in case. Storing a backpack on the passenger seat or down in the passenger foot well works, but other than that, whatever else you need should probably be in your pocket.
Getting into the 3S is no issue at all, as long as you can climb over stuff. Grab the roll cage, step onto the driver seat, and use the roll cage and seat bolster to lower yourself in. Even though the steering wheel is removable, it's tiny and was never in my way during ingress or egress. This particular 3S has four-point harness seat belts for both seats. There is also a six-point option, which Ariel recommends for track work. Learning that 90 percent of owners never take these cars to the track surprised me, as I know I certainly would.
The 3S has two items necessary for starting the engine. One is a small proximity fob and the other is a red master key for turning the power on and off. Happily, I could reach the master key's exterior location while sitting in the driver's seat, a good thing since on several occasions I forgot to turn it on before climbing into the car.
Both seats are bolted to the floor, but TMI provides several location holes so some customization can be done for each owner. The demo car's seat was a little far away from the pedals for me, so I used some padding to get properly sorted. You certainly need to be in the right position when driving this little rocket.
The steering wheel has no distracting, stupid, needless buttons on it. Not one. This alone might make the 3S worth the $89,975 entry fee. Optioned up with the carbon wing package ($5,975), premium paint, powder coated chassis, and logo-trimmed seats, this 3S listed at $101,515.
I found the brakes very easy to modulate and not grabby. The brake-bias adjustment is nice and progressive, though the 3S has no ABS. The adjustable traction control is not overly intrusive in the lower settings and can be turned off completely if you so desire.
Seeing the 3S's front wheels turn while driving reminds me of being in something like a Formula Ford. Each parking lot feels like your own a racetrack paddock, adrenaline building by the second as you make your way out. A bit melodramatic? I can assure you, the friendly low-speed engine burble masks an underlying violent streak the UFC would be proud of.
Due to low gearing, launching the 3S is very easy. There is no need to dump the clutch to achieve a really hard launch. I found that spinning the engine to 2,500 rpms and a quick clutch release (not a dump) produced a rocket launch and virtually zero wheel spin or traction-control intervention. The nicely tuned suspension setup, rear engine weight, low gearing and Toyo R888R tires all combine for excellent launch capability.
The 3S weighs just 1,450 pounds. Its 2.4-liter i-VTEC Honda Civic engine springs to life the moment you press the starter button located on the dash near the steering wheel. Turbocharging takes engine output to a healthy 365 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. The six-speed manual gearbox is superb and also comes from the Civic. It is a beautifully easy gearbox to use, whether shifting fast or slowly.
The steering wheel is small and needs a reasonable amount of effort to turn in parking lots. All necessary switches are behind or next to the steering wheel. Similar to riding a motorcycle, you'll get used to where the controls are located, ultimately using them without looking. For instance, the turn signals operate by a little left/right toggle switch and do not self-cancel. I had no issue remembering to cancel them as operation is identical to a motorcycle's; regular car drivers may need some time. But many new U.S. Ariel buyers are people who come from motorcycles because they see too many distracted car drivers out there and want a little more protection while having their fun.
I found road and wind noise to be reasonably acceptable with no hint of buffeting. Should you in fact want to talk to a passenger, you can certainly do so at low speeds and in a louder voice at freeway speeds. If you don't like your passenger, just keep it above 80 mph.
On-center steering is stable, requiring very little driver input to stay centered on freeways or around town. Uneven pavement might require a little steering correction but no more than it does with most sports cars. The Toyo R888R tires are nice and sticky, but you don't need to be in a four-wheel drift and totally on the limit to appreciate the performance of the 3S. The chassis immediately transfers what's going on with the tires back to the driver, through the steering wheel and seat; it is very similar to a well setup race car. I found corner carving at 6/10ths almost as much fun as at 10/10ths, and a tad less traumatic for more sensitive passengers.
The 3S is incredibly quick off the line. The low gearing means you'll blow through first and second gear in around two seconds. You almost have to shift out of first gear as soon as you fully release the clutch pedal, in order not hit the rev limiter. Zero to 60 mph is quoted at an admirable and socially unacceptable 2.8 seconds. Below 100 mph, the 3S will pull away from almost any other production car. But don't only look at the raw numbers—remember, the 3S needs two manual shifts on its way to 60 mph, certainly losing time against a double-clutch automatic gearbox. Still, with driver weight added (let's say the driver weighs 165 pounds), a Porsche 911 Turbo S has about 6.4 pounds per horsepower, while the 3S has only about 4.4 pounds per horsepower. Manual gearbox or not, the 3S really is explosive on acceleration.
I am an auditory junky when it comes to cars and motorcycles, and the 3S is one of the best overall sound machines I have ever driven. I can't point to any one thing, it's a mix. Let's say you're going along at 30 mph in third gear and decide to punch it: You immediately hear the exhaust note get seriously deeper and louder, along with an increasing rush of air noise starting to bellow from the massive air intake. In my cartoon mind, I imagine water from some broken dam hidden deep inside the intake is rushing toward my right ear. An increasing whine from the turbocharger finishes off this whole symphony perfectly. But wait, there's more. As you lift off the gas to shift, that awesome twitter sound, loved by turbo fans everywhere, literally blasts from the turbo blow-off valve. I swear it sounds exactly like the old Porsche 935 and Audi Quattro turbo race cars.
After 5 minutes I was addicted. I would drive along in one gear for miles, accelerating and then lifting off the gas just to hear all the wonderful ear candy. The fact the 3S accelerates quicker than virtually anything on the street and handles like a slot car was actually lost on me for days. All I could talk about was the amazing soundtrack. Of course, I do find it hard to keep friends, as you can imagine.
The Ariel Atom 3S is a rather special vehicle. It certainly isn't cheap, but I suspect the folks seriously looking at purchasing one aren't worried about cost. The 3S is rewarding to drive at any speed and let's not forget the incredible ear candy. I received more attention while driving it and more questions while parked than with any other vehicle I've driven; nothing even comes close. You buy a 3S because you want to have a ridiculously fun experience, which it provides in shovel loads. Expensive? No argument. Worth it? Heck yes.