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Ariel Atom 3S first drive: More power for the ultimate go-kart

Time:2018-08-09 03:01Turbochargers information Click:

First more Drive Po Ariel

The Ariel Atom 3S is the latest, most comfortable, almost civilized version of the revolutionary original Atom that took the enthusiast car world by storm almost 20 years ago. It maintains the same basic exoskeleton chassis of the original, with the same rear engine location and rear wheel-drive, giving it the same slight rear weight bias owners and testers have always loved. But it gets improvements everywhere else. The engine is now a turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter i-VTEC four from the Civic Si, making 365 hp and 310 lb ft of torque in this application. TMI AutoTech, which builds the car for the U.S. market, designed an intercooled turbo system for the four-banger. The cooling radiators in the side pods distinguish the 3S from earlier Atoms. The changes give the open-cage screamer the power-to-weight ratio of a supercar. 

The company lists a 0-60 time of “less than 2.8 seconds,” a figure TMI says is "an estimate." We didn’t get a chance to test 0-60, either, but we’d say it’s quick. Even if it’s only three seconds to 60, or closer to four, subjectively speaking the 3S still has acceleration about that of a bottle rocket.

The balance of the car is biased to the rear about 57 percent. That’s because the Civic Si engine that sits mostly forward of the front axle in a Honda now sits mostly forward of the rear axle in the Atom 3S. It’s like that Consulier thing that had a 2.2-liter turbo four engine swap. It’s a very simple and solid way to make a sporty kit car and we wish more small, fringe-element sports car makers would try it. No drivetrain re-engineering required, just move the whole powertrain, transmission, LSD, half shafts and all, from the front axle back to the rear axle. Voila – mid-engine supercar!

TMI Autotec is located about 500 feet from the Oak Tree Turn at Virginia International Raceway. There they do everything from bending the frames into place to installing the engines and track-testing the setups. 

Ariel Atom 3S rear 3 4

Ariel Atom 3S has 57 percent of its weight over the rear axle. Photo by Drew Phillips

What’s It Like To Drive? 

If you find the perfect road or, more likely, the perfect track, you’ll find that the Ariel Atom 3S is the perfect car...as long as you understand that it’s a race car at heart. On a couple of drives in Northern California we never really found the perfect location to match this car.

If you don’t find the perfect road, track or slot car setup, you might find the Atom 3S to be “challengingly uncomfortable.” Our first drive of the 3S on Highway 1 south of Carmel, for instance, was way too harsh a surface for this car. Bumps and holes whack and bang right into the chassis and the whole thing bucks and wallops like a washing machine filled with floor mats. Plus the wastegate and intake are right next to your ears, whooshing and squealing like little porcine breathing apparatii every time you get on and off the throttle.

But once you manage to find an empty, flat road with a curve or two in it you find that the car is, indeed, perfectly balanced. You can make it over- or understeer by mere judicious application or release of the throttle. It’s like a really, really powerful go kart with seating for two. Yes, it’ll wear you out after even a short drive, but maybe you could stand a little wearing out now and then. No one but the hardiest racer is going to commute to work in one of these. It’s made for weekend flings, either alone – which ups the power-to-weight – or with a passenger who will no doubt beg to be allowed behind the wheel (or beg to be let out at the nearest bus stop). In that regard it helps you sort out who your passengers should be.

When we mentioned the harsh ride on Hwy. 1 to the Atom guys they agreed to let us drive it on a better road. They offered Hwy 198 between the 101 and Interstate 5. This is a road we sometimes take when we have something interesting to drive to or from Monterey but have to make good time, too. Here the 3S is far more civilized than you would expect and far more comfortable than previous Ariel Atoms we have driven. Compared to, say, the BAC Mono that we drove a couple months ago it is downright plush. While the Mono engine was bolted straight to the frame and vibrated our poor esophagus and all internal organs and tooth fillings until we wanted to get out and cough for about a week, the Ariel Atom 3S transfers car-like levels of engine vibe into the cockpit, at least in comparison. Likewise the suspension is far more civilized than a Mono or a go kart or a typical club race car while offering similar levels of handling. It’s not soft by any means, but neither should you expect vintage Formula-Whatever levels of abuse.

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