A decade and a half since the Atom 3's introduction, and it's still hard to beat for visceral fun on four wheels
By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, January 23, 2022 / Loading comments
- Available for £37,000 (see Verdict text)
- 2.0-litre Type R inline four, NA or supercharged, rear-wheel drive
- Not much will keep up with one round a track
- Excellent rep for reliability and build
- You really don’t need a supercharged one to go fast
- Demand outstripping supply, so values aren’t going down
Search for a used Ariel Atom here
Seems hard to believe, but the Ariel Atom has now been around for more than 20 years. Jaws dropped when the first one was released, and they still drop today. Perhaps more than any other car, the Atom was something you drove simply for the hell of it, not to get anywhere other than maybe back to the start line in the shortest possible time.
It was the creation of Simon Saunders, a transport design lecturer and engineer who, along with Nik Smart (one of his students) had produced some CAD renderings showing his idea of an updated Lotus Seven. Having come up against a brick wall when it came to getting anyone to build it, Saunders decided to set up the Ariel Motor Company and build it himself.
The first non-working concept had a 1.4 Fiesta engine and was displayed at the 1996 British motor show. Development work on a 495kg ,1.7 Puma-engined prototype was carried out in 1997 in conjunction with Ray Mallock Racing and Stewart Grand Prix. This culminated in a complete redesign at the end of 1997 and the release of a Rover K-Series 1.8 engined car in 1999. The K-Series was a light engine with 120, 140, 165 or 190hp. In a car now weighing not much more than 450kg, even the 120 was good for a 5.6-second 0-60 time.
To disinterested observers the Atom looked like a racing car with numberplates and was mentally filed under ‘kit car’ – in fact it was anything but. The Ariel was a proper production vehicle built to high standards from high quality components. There’d be no shortage of wags asking you where the rest of the car was, but there was certainly nothing missing when it came to the driving experience on both road and track.
When sales began in 2000, Atom 120 prices started at under £17,000 (although most of the 100 or so Atom 1s made went to Japan). You could spend more if you wanted by optioning a close-ratio gearbox, grooved brake discs and adjustable Koni dampers.
In 2003 the £24,000 Atom 2 upped the ante with a Civic Type R engine that put out 220hp in standard, naturally aspirated form. From 2004 it could also be had with a Jackson Racing supercharger, which took power to 275hp at 8,400rpm and torque to 192lb ft at 7,650rpm; in 2005 that was lifted to 300hp, equivalent to 600hp per tonne or thereabouts. Acceleration was stupid (3.4 seconds 0-60) and, if you were brave enough to keep your right foot in, seemingly relentless. Top speed was 150mph.
In 2004 a low-powered Atom 2 160 came out using the five-speed 160hp drivetrain from the Civic Type S, plus less powerful brakes and non-adjustable Bilstein suspension. With just 505kg to move, its 313hp per tonne was more than enough for most. Better still, it was £4,000 cheaper than the Atom 220.
The Atom we’re focusing on here is the 2007-2018 Atom 3. This used the new K20 Type R engine, still generating 300hp in supercharged format but ramped up to 245hp in normally aspirated guise. There was a new fuel system, a new two-pipe exhaust and new engine management. Power ran through the new Type R Civic’s close-ratio six-speed box and (optionally) a Quaife limited-slip differential. Adjustable dampers were standard, but you could tick a box for better Bilsteins that could also be tinkered with.
The unique exoskeleton design of the Atom chassis more or less stopped any new model from looking much different to the previous one, but Ariel assured its audience that the 3 was ‘all new’. Although wheel track and overall width were unchanged, the chassis was cunningly bent to make it wider and stiffer and, perhaps most significantly for those who had felt a little hemmed in by earlier Atoms, to give passengers more shoulder and elbow room. You sat lower in the 3 too, in a choice of two seat styles. Engine mounts were tweaked to smooth out vibrations through the chassis.
In 2010, the Atom 500 appeared. Its bespoke 3.0-litre flat-plane V8 produced 475hp at 10,600rpm and 284lb ft at 7,750rpm, numbers that reflected its creation from two Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engines. There was a six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox and magnesium wheels to keep the weight down to 550kg, at which point you had a remarkable p-to-w ratio of around 865hp/tonne – double that of an F3 racing car. Performance claims were 2.3sec (0-60) and 5.4sec (0-100), with a rev-limited top end of 170mph.
To mark the V8s out from ordinary Atoms they had gold chassis tubing. Journalists wondering how they were supposed to avoid crashing in one were assured by Saunders that ‘the key was to maintain driveability… our customers are normal drivers, not astronauts.’ And indeed the V8 was docile, so long as you didn’t try to keep the throttle pinned for much more than half a second in any gear.
Just 25 V8s were penned for production at a price of not far short of £147,000, which was a bit more than the sub-£100k mark that Saunders was hoping to hit. That flagged up the horrendous costs involved in developing a small-volume car featuring a bespoke engine, top quality running gear and high build quality. As it turned out the price didn’t matter because by September 2010 just four V8s remained unsold. A month later only two were left. By the time deliveries started in early 2011 they were all gone. V8s on the used market are unicorn events. Ariel has a 2012 one on its website with ‘sold’ stamped across it. The price? £170,950.
In 2011 the red, white, and black Mugen Atom 3 Mugen was announced. This track-focused model’s normally aspirated Type R engine was tuned to 270hp at a heady 8,600rpm, with 188lb ft at 6,000rpm. The Mugen had the V8’s springs, dampers and digital dash, along with four-piston brake calipers, ventilated discs and a limited-slip diff as standard. It weighed 550kg. With a skilled driver feverishly working the six-speed box it would do the 0-60 in 3.0 seconds. Ariel made just ten of those at £49,470 each.
In late 2012 the Atom 3.5 arrived. This featured a stronger chassis developed from V8 and Mugen learnings. It had uprated rear suspension uprights and wheel bearings, new LED rear light clusters, LED front indicators, twin projector headlights and a reshaped bonnet. The normally aspirated 245hp engine was also available for the revised chassis, and there was a 10hp upgrade for the supercharged version taking it to 310hp.
For an extra £9,000, Ariel would fit a chargecooler and oil cooler into side pods on the supercharged car to lift the numbers to 350hp at 8,400rpm and 243lb ft at 6,100rpm. In that 3.5R configuration it weighed 550kg, hoisting the power-to-weight ratio up to 636hp per tonne and chopping the 0-60 to 2.6 seconds with a 0-100 of 6.0 seconds. It’s thought that just 12 3.5Rs were made, half with a six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox and half with a manual six-speed.
Also in 2012 Ariel announced a one-make race series for 2013, the Atom Cup, designed to evoke the good old days when folk used to drive to a circuit, race, and then drive home again, all in the same car. Atom 3 Cup cars came with the Honda K20 engine, six-speed manual gearbox and the 3.5R chassis with Alcon brakes and Ohlins dampers, along with different wishbones for more extreme camber settings. A roll cage and fire extinguisher were standard, but a handbrake wasn’t. Still, it wasn’t too much bother to fit one.
Atom Cups cost £42,000. Only a dozen or so were made, but wonder of wonders, if you skip to the verdict you’ll find one for sale in PH classifieds.
Since 2018 there has been an Atom 4. Powered by the latest 320hp version of the turbocharged Type R K20 motor, it accelerated even harder than the 3 (0-60 in 2.8, 0-100 in 6.8, top speed 162mph) and generated more lateral g than a Porsche 911 GT3. It was named Britain’s Best Driver’s Car of 2020 by a well-known British car mag. For those for whom too much was never enough, there was a 350hp engine upgrade and the option of the Sadev sequential box which, by the way, was very highly rated by Atom owners, some of whom paid to have it retrospectively fitted to their manual cars. The Atom 4 was priced at a few pounds under £40,000 before options.
We only mention this current Atom because new car models generally have a depreciating effect on the values of the preceding ones, but that hasn’t been the case with Atoms because they’ve acquired a reputation for build quality that’s on a par with the one, they established for driving dynamism. Plus, there’s a disparity between the numbers built and the demand. For these reasons, at the moment at least, it’s a seller’s market. Even pre-2007 Atom 2s will easily hit the £30k mark on the rare occasions that they become available.
If you’re set on a used Atom, it makes a lot of sense to strike up a relationship with the Somerset-based factory. They generally have a good selection of cars for sale, and you can’t really do any better than the horse’s mouth for advice. If you’re looking in the big wide world outside the factory and you find an Atom that’s been looked after by the factory – and there’s a good chance it will have been – then they will happily pass on any inside gen on it. The Ariel Club is another invaluable source of info and assistance.
SPECIFICATION | ARIEL ATOM 3 245 (2007-18)
Engine: 1,998cc four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],200rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],100rpm
0-60mph (secs): low threes depending on skill level
Top speed (mph): 150
Weight (kg): 520kg
Wheels (in): 15 (f), 16 (r)
Tyres: 195 (f), 225 (r)
On sale: 2007 – 2018
Price new: £29,750
Price now: from £37,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
Ariel’s use of top-name componentry in the build and the wise choice of Honda for the power parts has given the Atom an excellent reliability record. Very little goes wrong with either the engine or (on supercharged cars) the blower, unless you run the oil level right down and then experience surge-related problems on a track – but the level would have to be pretty low for that to happen. The Type R oil pan was baffled.
Some owners have noted erratic acceleration on part throttle. That could be down to the throttle positioning sensor (checkable via a standard OBD), maybe a grubby throttle body, or even some water in a plug cap if you’ve been a bit liberal with the power washer.
The gearboxes on Atom 2s had a bit of a rep for weak synchros between third and fourth and between fifth and sixth, but the box on the 3 has no known issues in that area. The 3’s gearshift lever was more upright and user-friendly too, with a tighter action than before. The clutch will last well under hard use. Replacement clutches are cheap at under £250, but that only represents a quarter of the overall bill as the engine has to come out to fit it.
Even supercharged 300hp Atoms will hit 30mpg, which is just as well as the petrol tank holds less than nine gallons – we think. We couldn’t find any hard and fast data on that. The extra ethanol in today’s petrol does make the fuel lines vulnerable to disintegration. Replacement pipes in PTFE have been tried but it’s tough to get good seals with them owing to their stiffness. You can get ethanol-safe rubber pipes now.
If you’re not having your car serviced by Ariel, specialists like Backdraft Motorsport in Milton Keynes have plenty of experience in the model. They will do you an annual oil and inspection service for a flat fee of £395 (including VAT). The seller of one car we found said that they had paid £688 for a non-Ariel service, but that price did include four new Toyo Proxes tyres.
As mentioned in the overview, the 3’s chassis was stiffer than the 2’s. All the hand-brazed tubework was newly specced to boost torsional rigidity. The tubework was well rustproofed and powder-coated but it’s important to check for stone chips and other nicks that can open the door to corrosion. Silvery patches or crazed lacquer could indicate crash damage. You probably wouldn’t be driving it much on salted winter roads and the car will thank you for that.
It goes without saying that more than one Atom has been smashed in the course of going about its duties. Repairs by Ariel will be costly. Even back in the early 2010s a new chassis cost £18,000 plus VAT.
In terms of both ride comfort and extreme handling ability the 3’s adjustable damper units were a big improvement on the old ones. The suspension is rose-jointed and will wear over time, as do track-rod ends, but you can literally keep a stress-free eye on it because it’s all so easily visible. Before Ariel switched to higher-quality German wheel bearings in 2011 the rear ones in particular were known for dying. Now, not so much. Steering column bushes also wear but they’re not wallet-bustingly expensive at a hundred quid or so fitted.
Alcon doesn’t make the one-piece brake discs anymore. If you want direct Alcon replacements you must go via Ariel, and again they won’t be cheap. Floating two-piece items (which work well according to those who have used them) can be sourced from outfits like Skunkwurx or Reyland Motorsport. Brake squeal at low speeds is common.
If you want different wheels there’s very little choice as the stud pattern is unusual, but Skunkwurx can supply lightweight (6.3kg front, 7.5kg rear) Rota wheels in black powdercoat for around £600 a set. The Atom’s light weight helps normal road tyres to last for up to 20,000 miles, but track rubber could wear out after just a fifth of that mileage.
Well, there isn’t a body in the conventional sense, but you could turn the collection of tubes into a sort of body by fitting Perspex infill panels, remembering of course to use some kind of damping medium between the plastic and the chassis lugs (assuming it has them, not all Atoms did) to minimise annoying rattling. Unsurprisingly, filling in the gaps significantly reduces the draughtiness to the extent that it can make the Atom almost too warm ‘inside’.
The beauty of an Atom is that you can change the colour for a fraction of the price it would cost for a full respray on a normal car. A new bonnet panel and air intake cover (around £650 the pair) will fool others into thinking that you own a stable of Atoms. Or you could go for a wrap. Hydro-dipping and then clear-coating the result is another option for some panels.
Believe it or not there is actually a boot. It’s under the trailing edge of what you could call the bonnet, which is the car’s main bit of vaguely recognisable bodywork. Owners that needed to increase the luggage capacity for touring discovered a neat solution: waterproof kayaking bags strapped or shoved into cargo nets in the space between the main chassis side members. With reusable cable ties for fast access it works a treat apparently, even at three-figure speeds.
The 3’s extra 100mm of shoulder space made possible by the tweaking of the chassis tubing wasn’t exactly glaringly obvious to the average Joe, but it certainly was to larger-boned owners of earlier Atoms. That extra four inches also paved the way for new seats, of which there were two varieties. Whichever ones you chose, you’d be sitting lower than you had been if you had a 2 before.
Most owners keep their Atoms in a garage, but the ‘interior’ fixtures and fittings do withstand English weather well. If the speedometer and/or rev counter readings seem a touch random it will most likely be an issue with the distance between the sensors and the magnets they worked with rather than the display hardware.
The plastic bucket seats are handy from a weather perspective and the driving position is fine even for tall people, but if you’ve gone past the carefree age it is possible to make them more sympathetic to your body. The options are a bespoke moulded resin insert, which firms like Indi Seat will make for around £500 (kit plus fitting), or for somewhat less cash, sets of pads for the seat base, shoulder, back and head from someone like like JK Composites.
Unless you enjoy the feeling of sharp stone fragments entering your eyeballs at armour-piercing speeds you will probably want to buy a crash helmet as the Atom 3’s Perspex wind deflectors didn’t make a lot of difference, and even the optional full windscreen was more decorative than functional. Alternatively, a very well clamped on hat, a pair of wraparound sunnies and a decent noise-reducing intercom headphone set by someone such as Stilo will make long trips considerably less tiring.
If you would like to add modern touches like phone chargers to your Atom there should be capped 12v aux feed connectors either between the seats or under the dash, or both. To run a mobile phone or a sat-nav via USB you’ll need a converter to reduce the 12v DC to 5v. The digital display below the dials is known for fritzing out, and replacing the pack is a stinger at getting on for £1,000. A reversing camera option might seem over the top for such a skeletal vehicle but the engine and intake gubbins right behind your bonce did rather restrict your view in that direction.
The first thing to say about the Atom 3 is that you shouldn’t run off with the idea that nothing short of a supercharged one will do. The normally aspirated 245 is massively fast – 0-60 in 3.2 seconds is only part of the story – and you might well find yourself preferring its induction snort to the ever-present (if you’re giving it plenty) whine of the blower. Not everyone rated the response of the 3’s new fly-by-wire throttle over the old cable affair, but that’s a tiny niggle.
The most obvious main rival to a regular Atom 3 was a Caterham. Not the one that might be popping into your head right now, but the exotic Toyota 2ZZ-engined Lotus 2-Eleven should also be considered; like the Atom 3, it came out in 2007. Finding a 2-Eleven won’t be any easier than finding an Atom, as they only made a hundred or so and owners appear to be hanging on to them. If you do find one you may be shocked at the asking price, as some PHers were when Matt dug this one up from the PH Classifieds last month. The first 2-Eleven was sold for over $80,000 in the US in November.
As an aside, Caterham had another rival to the Atom V8 in the traditional Caterham shape of the Levante. Coming out in 2008, two years before the Atom, it weighed 520kg and was reputed to be putting out 550hp from its RS Performance Rotrex-supercharged 2.4 V8. That was 27hp more than the Porsche GT2, a great car in its own right but a bit lardy looking next to the 920kg lighter Levante. At £115,000 the Caterham was a good chunk cheaper than the £147,000 Atom V8, but they only made eight Levantes, so one of them would be even harder to find than an Ariel.
How much is an Atom 3 on the used market? It’s hard to come up with a definitive answer on that because there are so few on sale at any one time. Ariel has a 7,900-mile 2008 245 on its website with a ‘sold’ sticker on it and a price of £31,950, but in researching this story we found nothing anywhere near that. We did find a privately-owned 2008 310hp car at £37,000, so we’ve quoted that as our start price. You might find one cheaper, or there again you may never find one so cheap. It all depends on when you’re looking and how lucky you are. The fact that Atom 3 245s were £29,750 new tells you all you need to know about their value retention.
This 310hp supercharged Atom 3 from 2012 might appeal at £38,000. Or, as promised earlier, here’s one of the rare Atom Cups These were £42,000 new: this 2016-registered car is £43,950. They can be a bit tramliney on public roads, depending on setup. Examples of the 3.5 and 3.5R rarely come up for sale. When they do, prices are high. This mint-looking 400-mile 3.5R from 2018 with all the aero gear and the full-house 350hp motor is £69,950 – which is about what you’d be paying for a delivery mileage or nearly new Atom 4.
Search for a used Ariel Atom here
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