► Ariel's road-focused Nomad R
► Supercharging and road tyres
► Plus a £20k sequential 'box
Imagine the fury of a ghost train distilled into a road-legal vehicle: the mechanical clunks and whines from carriages, screaming riders, groaning skeletons lurking round darkened corners, shocking pneumatic bursts, the adrenaline that tingles your toes and somersaults your stomach as you plunge into compressions.
That’s how it feels to drive an Ariel Nomad R over this tumbling North Devon landscape, clinging on just as hard as you’re smiling. Add a disclaimer to the windscreen about dodgy tickers, bad backs and pregnancy, and a tedious queue before being seated, and this is an automotive Alton Towers.
Let’s back up a bit…
The regular Nomad buggy’s been around since 2015 as an all-terrain, all-weather alternative to Ariel’s original track-focused Atom, if still rear-wheel drive and with its engine behind the driver. There’s more ground clearance, a proper windscreen and wipers, and a structural web of steel tubing extends protectively up and over the occupants. The Nomad is Ariel showing how a maker of sports cars should actually build an SUV.
This R version takes those fundamentals, but it ditches the 2.4-litre engine from the US-spec Honda Civic (235bhp, better at torque than searing revs) and its six-speed manual gearbox, and drops in the Atom 3.5 R powertrain. That involves an Eaton supercharger and charge-cooler added to the incendiary old K20Z3 Civic Type R engine, as well as a six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox, like you’d find in a rally car. It produces 335bhp and can rocket from zero to 62mph in a claimed 2.95sec.
Ariel has committed to building only five Nomad Rs, but exclusivity is not its justification for the near £40k leap over other Nomads. It’s hardware. Henry Siebert-Saunders explains that the gearbox alone adds £22.5k, then the charge-cooler system is more than £6k, then it’s a load of extra hours to assemble.
‘We certainly aren’t just adding digits to the price tag,’ he says. ‘In fact it’s the opposite – we keep the price as affordable as possible, though I understand that’s a bold statement at this price.’
So the Nomad R sits between the Nomad and the Atom: more fast-road-focused than the regular Nomad, less track-capable than an Atom. Driving to Ariel’s base in Somerset this nagged at me.
So, it’s less laser-focused than other Ariels?
From the seat you can pore over the engineering detail like you might a Tamiya model car – watching the steering shaft barrel-roll where it meets the rack near your toes, glancing ahead to the gold Öhlins dampers that are adjustable for bump and rebound and inclined between unequal-length double-wishbone suspension. There’s space to spare, and a well-sorted, purposeful driving position, though I’d want padding on the metal by my right elbow.
Slide the quick-release steering wheel over the steering column’s splines, tighten the four-point harness, press the rubbery start button to wake the engine and then engage the clutch – because it’s a competition-spec auto ’box you still need to dip the clutch at a standstill, and you use it for upshifts during gentle driving. Gears are selected by a single paddle to the right of the steering wheel: pull to go up a gear, bat away for down. I pull up and trigger the kind of metal-on-metal clank you might hear in a forge. This is normal, and soon we’re off, making our way north through Somerset.
Aside from the powertrain, much of the Nomad R is as per the standard Nomad, but the super off-roady Fox shocks are off the menu, because such suspension travel is inappropriate in a road-focused car. Instead you get specially tuned Bilstein shocks as standard, with the option of Öhlins suspension, fitted to our test car along with Yokohama A052 tyres with pastry-pattern tread and uprated Alcon brakes from the Atom V8.
So equipped, the Nomad R has an altogether more serious character than the Nomad CAR recently had on long-term loan: more grip, less roll, and a ride that’s firmer if still very much tolerable – you can see the front wheels parrying bumps that your bones don’t feel, and the exaggerated roll oversteer I brace for at the first couple of roundabouts doesn’t materialise.
Let’s get driving
With this transmission, it doesn’t particularly enjoy trundling through town or behind traffic on B-roads. There’s wearing transmission whine, the accelerator flicks between on and off, and you’ll spend much time easing it through gears on the clutch after finding the paddle as unresponsive as an over-ambitious tombstoner. The R strains impatiently, desperate for velocity, so if you do much bumbling, you’re better off with the more relaxed 2.4-litre engine and standard transmission.
On the motorway the Nomad R begins to settle. It rides comfortably, and the windscreen and silvers of weather protection provide surprisingly good shelter from the wind. In fact, on the baking hot day we test it, it’s invigorating to drop a hand hot from gripping the saucer-sized suede steering wheel out into a cooling breeze.
Performance doesn’t so much build as explode, and the gearing is astonishing: the R will do 60mph in both first and sixth, can’t stretch beyond 121mph, and it’ll pull 5000rpm at 80mph in sixth. Drop those kinds of ratios in any car and they’d perk up acceleration at typical driving speeds no end, but the Nomad weighs just 670kg and produces 335bhp, which means 500bhp-per-tonne, similar to the rabid Ferrari 488 Pista.
When I give it a few squirts of throttle, the supercharger yelps with a high-pitched shriek and the acceleration hits in volleys of violence, compressed into such staggering bursts of energy and battering through pneumatically activated gearshifts that I can’t fully extend it for more than a few seconds at a time. It’s as though you’re two or three gears lower than you actually are, and so quickly does the R blitz towards the 7600rpm peak that the usual thrill of hearing a VTEC engine rise to a climax is gone, replaced by a primal rush more akin to bungee jumping. Yet the R cruises happily, and because everything’s loud, the fast-spinning crank doesn’t seem such an issue. I’m far happier here than I would be in an Atom.
This is a buggy with a dynamic focus to make a sports car feel flabby, and it’s an Ariel that’s more at home blatting over the gnarled imperfections of a British B-road than an Atom. Forget about that halfway-house compromise I feared, because it feels like it could have been built for this road.
The unassisted steering is sneezy-rapid at 1.7 turns lock-to-lock, and the turning circle is poor, so watch those tight hairpins. When you really pile it into the apex, there’s the kick-back you should expect from a system this unfiltered. More striking is just how obediently it follows your instructions, no matter the cambers, curves or imperfections. The suspension’s working hard, ironing it all out, leaving you the unflustered little spirit-level bubble in the centre.
While there’s no question of the R’s performance, it stops short of feeling excessively quick, even though there’s no stability control to catch talent shortfalls. It’s because the chassis is so well sorted and there are such deep reserves of mechanical grip that you can actually use all the power (at least in our bone-dry test conditions), and because the relatively modest 243lb ft of torque is on the top shelf in a bag at 5500rpm. You don’t work the Nomad R hard by accident.
Similarly, there is no ABS, but in a car so light, with such powerful brakes (optional more powerful stoppers, remember) and with tyres that bond to this hot, abrasive surface like chewing gum to the sole of your shoe, it seems unlikely you’ll lock them. When you do brake hard, the lack of mass and the fact so little of it is located at the front means weight transfer wields less of a destabilising influence over the Nomad than you get in a normal performance car. I wouldn’t particularly want to, but you could make this machine faster still, and I imagine it’d cope very well.
Do more miles and the fear of uncorking so much performance begins to lift. It’s so driveable that you trust you can work the Nomad hard into corners. You can squeeze the throttle generously and early to revel in the grip available (and hear the supercharger whoop when the tyres just begin to fizz and the revs flick). Or brake late so the Nomad rotates fluidly through the apex while still the gummy grip and unflustered body control hold physics at bay with an outstretched palm. Then it’s the next straight, the spit of a 40-millisecond upshift, the mechanical smack of a downshift, then leaning hard on a brake pedal with its ideal weight, twisting the steering and throttle, more throttle, griiiiiiin.
These miles, up on the moors, is where I really click with the Nomad R. Use it like this, or for sprints or hillclimbs or even trackdays, and you’ll struggle to reap more reward from anything else on four wheels. But before you make that call, we need to talk about the Nomad R’s £77k price.
Ariel Nomad R: verdict
I feared that the Nomad R might be neither fish nor fowl, as well as very expensive, but the team at Ariel have the most remarkable way of turning barking mad ideas into brilliance. And as I unbuckle the harness and reluctantly hand the immobiliser key back, I wonder if this isn’t the Ariel I covet most of all.
Check out our long-term test of an Ariel Nomad