► CAR reviews the madcap Ariel Nomad
► Half buggy, half car, all Ariel
► A new type of sports car is born
Imagine being strapped into a sinking dinghy with a 235bhp VTEC outboard motor thrusting you to your doom. Water pours into the cockpit like you’ve just taken a U-boat hit and then struck an iceberg for good measure. Gallons of the stuff fills the moulded floor like a bath. And then your shoes. And then your pants. Your brain is telling you to climb the hell out of there, but the four-point harness has other ideas.
I’ve driven cars through massive water hazards before but they’ve mostly been shiny Jeeps and Range Rovers, and the water stays firmly on the outside, even when it’s up to bonnet level. But the familiar tube chassis and the shockingly open sides are telling me I’m in an Ariel Atom. This can’t end well.
But I haven’t spun into the lake at Mallory Park in the middle of a track day, and this is no Atom. This is the Ariel Nomad. And there’s almost nothing it can’t do. We’ve become used to the absurdity of cars such as the Range Rover Sport SVR, a machine built to drive through rivers trained to lap tracks. Now meet a car designed for the circuit that’s reimagined for the swamp.
The Ariel Nomad vs an old coal mine
Today’s swamp is actually the remnants of an old coalmine near Glynneath in south Wales. It’s called Walters Arena, after the Walters Group engineering giant that owns it, but you can forget about fancy grandstands and hospitality suites. This place is as earthy as boyo-done-good Dai Walters himself. Earthy and woody and muddy and 3000 acres of bloody brilliant playground that’s used by everyone from Land Rover’s development team to rally teams looking to find that last tenth on next week’s stage.
In fact, it’s all rather over-awing. The place is so vast and the car such an oddball, that I don’t really know where to start. Can the Nomad really climb that near-vertical-looking slope? Traverse that terrifying wall of rocks? Be so uncomfortable on my bony back that I feel like I’ve just donated a dog’s dinner’s worth of bone marrow? Tick, tick, tick!
The tech spec
Before we get muddy though, it’s worth taking a look under the Nomad’s skin, or it would be if it had one. Although the Nomad looks at a glance like nothing more than an Atom with a chassis structure extended to provide an enclosed passenger cell, the two have little in common. You still get a mid-rear-mounted four-cylinder engine, but it’s an entirely different motor. And you still get an aluminium-tube chassis, but it’s completely reconfigured to incorporate two half-moon spans that make up an upper cage structure, and cut lower at the flanks to make it possible to climb in. Some things never change though. A windscreen is optional and there’s nothing so unseemly as doors or side glass, although you can specify a kind of burqa that drapes over the roof and sides to keep the cold and rain out.
Even with the detachable steering wheel removed, it’s not easy to thread yourself through the gap between the roof bars and sill. I’m advised to go feet first and not worry about getting the wipe-clean seats dirty for reasons that soon become clear. Once inside, it’s broadly familiar Atom territory. There’s a vestigial dash featuring an LCD display, a smattering of small, unmarked switches, and that’s pretty much your lot. A dainty gear lever like an unopened tulip sprouts from the floor, just like in an Atom, but this time there’s something new towering above: a giant rally-style vertically-mounted hydraulic handbrake lever.
When the engine fires it sends a familiar barrage of Atom-like fizzes through the structure to every contact area. But a short shift to second and prod of right pedal reveals a massively different character. Instead of the 2.0-litre Honda VTEC engine fitted to UK Atoms, the Nomad uses the 2.4-litre four fitted to Atoms sold in the US. You swap the screaming top-end drama of the old K20Z for a more sedate sub-8000rpm limit, but torque shoots up by nearly 50lb ft to 221lb ft, almost the same as the old supercharged Atom made. And that’s a sensible trade if you want to cut it off-road, particularly given that at 670kg (nearer 720kg with our car’s extras), the Nomad’s chunkier wheels, new chassis and revised suspension bring an extra 150kg of ballast.
The genius of Ariel's open body
The other big shock if you’ve never driven an Ariel, or like me, not recently, is the sight of the road and the suspension through the body of the car. It’s like driving a Westfield while wearing X-ray specs and absolutely mesmerising seeing the oily bits in action. And the muddy bits. I’ve brought along a motocross helmet and goggles primarily because I thought they’d look good in the pictures and am certain I won’t need them with our car’s optional screen. Er, wrong. Every time I crank the wheel right, the road wheels fire a barrage of brown slop at my face through the lattice of the chassis. Never mind getting close to the action. I can quite literally taste it.
Powering through the network of connecting roads, the sheer amount of grip on offer is staggering. We’re wearing balloon-like BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres, the kind of thing you get on a Defender, and they are physics-bendingly brilliant in the rough, delivering incredible drive out of bends and huge mechanical grip when braking into them. On tighter corners a tug on that giant one-armed-bandit limb of a handbrake tucks the nose in, but to really string the faster bits together you need to get the weight moving and set the car up for each curve. So you tread on and off the accelerator like a 19th-century seamstress going full-chat on her sewing machine, getting the front tyres to tuck in and sending the back free as you come off the gas and jink the wheel simultaneously.
Rally-stuff done, we look for something more challenging, tick off the terrifying mud bath we opened with, then try a jump. I don’t know much about jumping cars off-road but there are loads of ready-made jumps so I pick one, unwittingly take off from the wrong side, and soar through the air, landing with a thump that would send the struts through the inner wings if this were a regular car. But the Nomad soaks it up and the other dozen air-grabs we make throughout the rest of the day. This is one tough buggy.
It’s not that there aren’t vehicles that can do this stuff; it’s just that it feels so wrong doing it from behind the wheel of what still feels like an Atom. Wading through water almost half a metre deep, crawling over boulders that you’re sure will be gouging their way through the floorpan any minute. Scrambling up gigantic earth mounds that’d make a soft-roader wince. It’s a total find-muck.
And it’s absolutely exhausting. Shattered and shat-on, I kill the engine, remove my mud-soaked waterproofs, helmet and goggles, and get ready to venture out onto the road. I twist the wheel to the right, pull away, and immediately take a clod of earth to the forehead. This is a car that throws up lots of surprises, and other stuff too. But has it got any surprises in store in the nearby Brecon Beacons, on the kind of roads its Atom sister could have been made for?
On road in the Ariel Nomad
We switch keys so often in this job, jumping from supermini to supercar that you get used to the open-mouthed stares and cameraphone barrage. But tooling through a sleepy town like Upper Brynamman in a mud-splattered freak of a car that looks like it just took a 5000-mile wrong turn in the Baja 500 is a recipe for attention like no other.
That torquey engine makes itself useful again, letting you trickle in higher gears, and squeezing you back into the moulded seat when the A4069 opens out heading due north. But that squeeze isn’t as acute as it is in an Atom. Ariel says the 0-60mph time is 3.4sec, up from 3.1sec, while the 0-100mph sprint now takes 8.7sec, not 7.8sec, and the (academic in one of these) top speed is slashed by a massive 20mph to 125mph.
Let’s get some perspective on this though. The Nomad is still a match for almost anything you’re likely to come across on the road, and even if you’ve lost some of that top-end bite, the roar as air gets hoovered into those combustion chambers is more than fierce enough.
The scenery feels vast up here, but the road to Llangadog itself is deceptively narrow in places, narrow enough to force you to think far more about your position when facing an oncoming car mid-bend than you would in an almost 300mm narrower Caterham. And the Nomad’s taller scuttle compared with an Atom and those new A-pillars makes it harder to see the car’s corners, and consequently place it on the road.
'The Nomad is a fascinating, ludicrous machine'
But it is still laugh-out-loud hilarious to drive. Not as sharp on its off-road rubber and more conventional strut suspension (rather than a fancy rose-jointed in-board setup), but still massively entertaining. And in fact, though other more road-biased tyres are available, those Mud Terrain boots only add to the mischief, the rears gently letting go as you brake heavily into corners, and spinning up freely with a manic whine if you give it the beans on the exit.
Even with that screen in place your head takes a bit of a pounding. It’s cold up here on the Black Mountain and while I’m toing and froing for photography I quickly graduate from sunglasses to goggles, and then to goggles and helmet, to keep my face warm as much as anything else. But properly equipped with lid, gloves and a decent outdoor coat, I’m ready for anything. And so is the car. Every so often I’ll spot something off in the moorland and suddenly remember that there’s nothing but a respect for Wales’s National Park preventing me from veering right off the tarmac and into the scenery to investigate. That notion might not seem strange if your daily steer is a Range Rover. But it probably hasn’t crossed many Atom owners’ minds.
Now, it can. The Nomad is a fascinating, ludicrous machine. How good it is, is not in doubt, but perhaps you’re wondering: why? What’s it for, exactly? As a specialist track-day toy, the Atom makes perfect sense, but the Nomad is a little more confused. With the right tyres it can do the circuit stuff too, but with that extra weight and less track-focused suspension design, almost certainly not as well. And impressive as it proved off-road, it’s never going to be as adept as something like a Defender, with its four-wheel drive and vastly more generous ground clearance.
Genuinely new ideas confuse people. Back in 1987 before track day supercars were all the rage, we called the stripped-bare but competition-ineligible Ferrari F40 insincere. Now it’s revered as one of the greatest supercars ever. That’s not going to happen to the Nomad, and maybe you can’t see Ariel’s misfit slotting into your life. But imagine living in the wiles of southern California with miles of desert at your disposal, or, if things go Ariel’s way, flicking on the TV to see a one-make series where a gaggle of the things are belting round a rallycross track switching effortlessly from soil to circuit. Suddenly this incredible creation, an all-star decathlete to the Atom’s dedicated sprinter, starts to make sense. Or as much sense as anything that comes from the brilliantly unhinged minds at Ariel ever does.