Ariel Nomad long-termer: an off-road adventure

Published: 02 April 2020

► Ariel's off-roader on our fleet
► Ours to enjoy for a few months
► Can you actually live with one?

Month 6 living with an Ariel Nomad: time to pull a sickie and get muddy

The Nomad shudders as the weather hits it broadside, like a wooden lifeboat in a 100ft swell. A band of showers first thing, they said. No kidding. Climbing up into the Peak District before dawn, the chill of night still in the air, it is the sky that disappears first. Then the distant hills, the murky treeline and, soon enough, the car in front but for the ember glow of its rear lights – one by one the rain and the fast-rolling cloud take them all.

The Nomad is more weatherproof than Ariel's Atom sports car only in the same way that a small hole in a submarine is better than a big one. It may have a screen (heated, handily) and clear plastic panels mounted to the sides of the frame, but nothing is sealed and there are no doors and no roof (as standard, though you can spec a stretchy fabric one).

On the A515 heading north from Ashbourne, spray soon engulfs the car. Crosswinds gallop unchecked across the open landscape and – choked with rain – blow right through the Ariel. You can just about drive a Caterham in the rain roof-down and stay dry unless you stop. The open Nomad filters the weather less.

Regrets? Not yet. I knew last night that I wasn't going to work today. I couldn't: everything had fallen into place. The forecast (after 9am at least...) looked good. What's more, time was running out. Ariel, quite understandably, wanted their car back. And I'd had the text – a reply from a friend who lives and works in the Peak District, leading gaggles of off-road motorcyclists, to say his diary was clear.

All set, then. The Ariel and I would tail Boyd and his Honda (appropriate, given the Civic engine in the back of the Nomad) across some of the UK's most spectacular green lanes.

This morning I woke before my alarm, pulled on a bizarre post-apocalyptic fancy-dress outfit – thermals, sacrificial old trainers, trusty waxed-cotton ⊲ Belstaff, racing gloves – and as the dog watched, bemused, from the lounge window, dropped into the Ariel's unyielding bucket seat. The drive up is weather-beaten at times but there's a thrill to it nonetheless. Truth is there's a thrill to almost everything about the Ariel: its analogue, electronics-free controls; the theatre of it (Race harnesses! Brake-bias adjuster! On-demand oversteer!); the enthralling, immersive driving experience. Add to that the naïve joy of bunking off work and you've a heady cocktail.

Just south of Buxton I hang a left for Longnor, and worry briefly that a car this superb on tarmac must be fairly hopeless off-road, surely. The cloud and rain are gone and the sun's finally climbed above the ridgeline but the roads are wet; the tarmac still cold. In Hurdlow the Royal Oak pub stands sentinel over a wicked uphill left-hander. In second gear the Ariel slurs sideways and spins its rear wheels up over the crest, the grunty Honda motor way too much for the knobbly Yokohama rubber in these conditions. Now I'm awake.

Half a mile later, just outside Crowdecote, the tarmac plunges downhill via a couple of proper, Alps-worthy hairpins, the view out over the armco worthy of a couple of hours with easel and oils. Months ago, when I first picked the car up and its sensations were alien, the Ariel was daunting in such conditions. Without ABS or stability control I feared death and destruction at every turn. But so transparently does the Nomad telegraph its behaviour, and so direct and well resolved are its controls that nothing could be further from the truth. Within a few days you're unthinkingly nuzzling up to the point of lock-up on the brakes, and nudging up to – and just over – the limits of both axles with every corner.

Sunshine blazes over a landscape glittering with dew. The engine, warm and working hard now, fills my world. Road streams beneath the wheels as the morning air stings my cheeks. The slipstream tugs happy tears from my eyes. My brain's 150 per cent more awake than it's ever been at work. And it's not even breakfast time.

At Boyd's we do little more than chuck some tools in the Ariel, pack a tyre pump and spend a few moments contemplating what is by some margin the weirdest vehicle he's ever led into the hills. Green-laning in the UK isn't as straightforward as it is in less populous nations (almost everywhere else, then). Each tribe – ramblers, mountain bikers, trail riders, 4x4 drivers, land owners – is quick to hate the others, causing tensions and pressure to close some routes to powered vehicles. That being the case, and with Boyd understandably keen to keep the trails open, he's a little worried about heading into the hills in a car that looks like a US Army recon buggy. I see his point, so we make two rules: stick to the rockier, more durable trails; don't be a dick.

There's no chance to get apprehensive, either about getting stuck (unlike most off-roaders the Nomad is two-wheel drive and has no low-range transmission) or getting soaked and frozen – we're straight into it. After a water splash (gentle by the standards of what's to come...) we rip uphill before turning off the single-track tarmac and onto a deeply rutted mud track that worms its way back down between overgrown verges of enormous ferns. Gently, I feel the Nomad's armoured underbelly begin to surf the track's raised ⊲ middle, the steering wheel gently tugging in my hands as the front wheels follow the ruts. I keep waiting for the Ariel to grind to a halt, stricken, but it refuses, instead driving on with the engine on tickover and the Yokohama tyres finding grip where your eyes tell your brain they surely cannot.

Nomad greenlaning

Back down on the valley floor we hit a faster, hard-packed trail, bounding over crests and dropping into flooded dips at a decent lick in third gear, the more open country affording us the luxury of some speed. The Ariel blasts through standing water, plumes of the stuff fizzing off its hot exhaust. In the cockpit, my face and right shoulder soaked and plastered in mud, I can't stop laughing. Boyd, who long since disappeared up ahead on a mix of talent, local knowledge, power and long-travel suspension, doubles back to find the Nomad powering from a storm-swollen river, murky water sloshing in the footwell and pouring from the car. 'Having fun?' I'm laughing too hard to answer.

The miles pass in a blur of trails, tracks, astonishing views and short bursts of road work, on which the Nomad now looks even more brutally zombie-ready, its tubular frame and rugged bodywork (its spun from the same indestructible stuff used to make traffic cones) plastered in prime Peak District muck. The ease with which the Ariel tackles both surfaces is deeply impressive – even Boyd, who cares little for cars, can't help but begrudgingly admire the thing.

We don't see another vehicle all day but most green-laning four-wheelers are Land Rover-based; heavy, slow and about as much fun on the road as trying to play five-a-side football in hiking boots. The Ariel's is a gentler, lighter approach; easy drive, a healthy power-to-weight ratio, exceptional suspension (our car wears Ariel's most off-road-centric shocks, a £3k option from springy-bits specialists Fox) and low weight are as valid on the road as they are off it.

We swerve lunch, determined instead to milk this day of days for all it can give. Two sections stand clear as 'pinch me' moments of man/machine bliss: a rapid stretch of forest track covered in what looks and feels like graded aggregate, and offers so much grip the Ariel asks that I tweak the fly-off handbrake to help rotate the car; and a viciously steep climb strewn with boulders the size of wild boars.

Nomad mud fast track

That the Nomad laps up the quick stuff goes without saying, and our 'don't be a dick' game plan pays dividends – the mountain bikers and dog walkers we meet along the way do more smiling than swearing, and launch into all the questions Ariel's unique creation always prompts in newcomers.

I feared the steep climb might be too much, so slow and technical is the terrain and so clearly hostile to four-wheelers the lumpen, rain-soaked topography.

But no. The Fox dampers shrug off the hits, the rear Yokos refuse to give up their purchase and the winch stays in place, unused. Even the clutch, which gets a workout as I endlessly swap between the first three gears and modulate the power at walking pace via the left pedal, refuses to wilt. (Our car has the uprated clutch option.)

With one last giant body of water forded (keep moving, mindful to ensure the nose – which contains the battery and fuse box – stays clear of the water), we emerge onto a ridge. The views stretch for miles. To the north-west we can see the high-rise buildings and chimneys of Manchester through a gap in the hills. We park up and take a moment resting on England's most scenic drystone wall. My phone pings a reminder for a meeting starting in 15 minutes. Not today, sorry – too busy feeling on top of the world.

Reader Stephen Cummins and his Nomad

CAR reader Stephen Cummins, whose other cars include a McLaren 540C tuned to 650S power, started down the path to Nomad ownership when he bought a secondhand off-road buggy as a toy. 'I took the train to Glasgow and drove it home in the snow – six and a half hours at 53mph. I've never been so cold. It was fun but I wanted something faster; that's when I saw the Nomad. My mate said, "Why are you spending that much on a climbing frame? Just go down to the park with the kids..."'

Cummins Nomad

Steve got his name on the list early but still had an 18-month wait. 'Ariel were brilliant. I spec'd the car on their configurator, but also spoke to Henry [Siebert-Saunders, part of the team behind the Nomad] a couple of times. The wait meant I kept adding bits to the car as I saved more money... Mine's on the standard dampers, with the heated screen, front and rear bumpers, heavy-duty clutch and the winch. I bought it on the 18-inch road wheels (pictured) but I've since swapped them for the 15-inch off-road wheels and knobby BF Goodrich tyres – they look cooler! I'd love the supercharger. It might be a bit scary with that much power but it's got to be done.

'My accountant tells me I should sell it but I just can't. It's so much fun, I grin every time I go out in it, and with Ariel you feel part of a family.'

Have dirty fun, stay legal

Miller muddy Nomad

Finding legal green lanes isn't rocket science – you can buy maps or download routes. But a guide ditches the hours of tedious map-reading, the getting stuck and the being shouted at when you stray onto private land, and instead makes for an unforgettable day of challenging, rewarding and legal off-road driving. Get in touch with overlandertrailtours.co.uk

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested) 
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 221lb ft, 3.4sec 0-60mph, 124mph 
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 26.2 mpg (tested) 
Energy cost 23.4p per mile 
Miles this month 338
Total miles 1561


Month 5 living with an Ariel Nomad: where's the cupholder?

Nomad coffee

So profound is my addiction that not having an extra-hot triple-shot cappuccino on hand as I cover the miles simply isn't an option, even in the door-less, roof-less, lane-keep-assist-less, cupholder-less Ariel Nomad. Ordering's easy enough, though with no engine stop-start (just one of the great things about this pretty great car) you've no option but to kill and re-start the Honda engine yourself; honestly...

Back into gear, roll around to the booth, answer all the guy's questions about what you're driving, who makes it and what it might be for, wince as the giant whippy aerial (illuminated at night like a 6ft floppy lightsaber) clatters off the roof, and you're done – ready re-join the bemused motorway traffic.

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested) 
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 221lb ft, 3.4sec 0-60mph, 124mph 
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 26.2 mpg (tested) 
Energy cost 23.4p per mile 
Miles this month 176
Total miles 1223


Month 4 living with an Ariel Nomad: farm tracks for now

Nomad drift

In reality, unless you live in one of the UK's wilder corners, you need a farmer. Lincolnshire might be free of teeming cities but it's heaving with farmers who love cash, guns, shirts patterned like graph paper and – inexplicably – pick-up trucks almost as much as they hate trespassers. Which makes off-roading fairly difficult.

Fortunately, having bought the right people pints over the years, I know one or two farmers. And so the Nomad and I finally turned off tarmac this month, for a bit of a play/important test-car analysis. The tracks on which the Ariel and I found ourselves were dry, flat and largely boulder-free. I've negotiated more challenging car parks. But still, they were ours. For a bit.

Just as, on paper at least, the Nomad looks completely 'wrong' as a fast road car, so it doesn't look particularly 'right' as an off-roader, either. There's no low-range transmission, no hill-descent control, no locking diffs and no four-wheel drive. More encouraging are the knobbly tyres, the Baja-spec Fox dampers and the winch.

Ariel nomad farm tracks

Turning off the road and onto a farm track potholed like the moon, the first thing that strikes you is that little changes. The Ariel barely notices the transition, its decadently damped, long-travel suspension rendering even huge wheel deflections almost entirely benign. So you go faster, and if anything the Nomad feels better. This 'issue' – that the Ariel's so together that it actually feels better the harder you go – is equally applicable on tarmac and dirt.

Inevitably, you quickly get carried away. As on the road, the Nomad likes a trailing throttle or some light braking as you turn, to help the front bite. What the rear does is entirely up to you, the sublimely physical, interactive steering making catching slides as easy as breathing. A comet's tail of dust fills your mirrors. The Honda engine, bolted to your back, pours revs, torque and oversteer into the Yokos as it fills your world with noise. In your peripheral vision wheels bounce, dampers damp and the rest of the world tries to ignore this mechanical menace charging about an otherwise unspoiled rural idyll, having what looks suspiciously like an obscene amount of fun.

Must. Buy. A Nomad. And a sprawling farm.

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested) 
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 221lb ft, 3.4sec 0-60mph, 124mph 
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 25.9mpg (tested) 
Energy cost 24.6p per mile 
Miles this month 284
Total miles 1047


Month 3 living with an Ariel Nomad: sticking the boot in

Ariel nomad boot

When, like Jason Derulo, you're riding solo, you can pile quite a bit of stuff into the Ariel. There's the passenger seat (with a bungee strung across to secure the load under braking) and the passenger footwell. What's more, on closer inspection it turns out the Nomad does have a boot of sorts.

In time-honoured mid-engined tradition it's at the front, under a textured plastic hatch secured by a lip at the front and a couple of Dzus fasteners at its trailing edge. I've tried to stash a laptop in it, but my laptop's too big. So's my lunch most days (I'm a growing lad). But it's perfect for carrying a couple of tie-down straps and some zip-ties, which is all you need to securely strap your laptop and lunch to the spare wheel.

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested) 
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 221lb ft, 3.4sec 0-60mph, 124mph 
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 26.7mpg (tested) 
Energy cost 24.4p per mile 
Miles this month 182
Total miles 763


Month 2 living with an Ariel Nomad: sensory overload

Nomad LTT drift

If, like me, you’re guilty of buying a few issues of nerd pamphlet Racecar Engineering and spending way too much of your childhood trying to make your Tamiya buggies faster, you’ll know enough about automotive engineering to know that the Nomad is less than ideal.

The centre of gravity – which absolutely, positively must be scraping the deck, of course – is a couple of feet off the floor. And while we all know bodyroll must of be strong-armed into submission with Victorian spring and damping rates and sway bars like scaffold poles, the Ariel is clearly wrong – its desert-ready Fox dampers acquiesce to force like Neville Chamberlain. And let’s not get into the Geolander tyres and their feeble levels of mechanical grip, or the fact that the Nomad, whose electronics architecture extends to a horn and some lights, has no confidence-swelling variable drift control. 

So the Nomad is all wrong – right up until the moment you guide it, via the weighty, unassisted and infectiously direct steering, into a corner. If all you’ve ever wanted was a car that on corner-entry kept its front axle on line while slurring its rear end into the most harmless, benign and adjustable oversteer yet witnessed by mankind, look no further than Ariel’s tube-framed work of twisted genius.

Ariel Nomad: prices, specs and what it's like to live with

What’s more, so accessible is the Nomad’s very special brand of silliness that driving it at all sorts of angles comes naturally within a few moments – not years – of driving time in the thing. Like a bicycle or a kart or a Mini or British motorcycle from the ’60s (pathetic, leaky engines; pathetic, squealy brakes; superb chassis good enough to win races in spite of the former) your brain and the Ariel understand each other, via an immediately nuanced and intimate line of communication, from the very moment you first pull away.

Whether by accident or design, all the factors that should hold the Nomad back as a satisfying road sports car are, in fact, responsible for its quite profound brilliance.

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested)
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 221lb ft, 3.4sec 0-60mph, 124mph
Efficiency n/a mpg (official), 23.3mpg (tested)
Energy cost 25.2p per mile
Miles this month 250
Total miles 581


Month 1 of our Ariel Nomad long-term test: the introduction to half a year living with Somerset's special brew

Ariel Nomad: the CAR magazine long-term test

The thing is, it's still a car. The Ariel Nomad might look more like a lunar lander/Honda Civic mash-up (the engine's shared with a US-market Civic), a Tamiya R/C buggy made real or an escaped special forces plaything, but as soon as you're in, you know what to do.

Ignition on, immobiliser off, prod the correct black button. (Handily, the other, identical one is the horn...) Engage first gear on the beautifully crisp and short-throw six-speed manual 'box, clutch (measured, firm-ish), gas, go. And then you're off, rolling across the face of the Earth in a car determined to make a playground of everywhere and anywhere.

How it drives beyond that really isn't like any other car, but we've plenty of time – six months or so – to get to that. First there's the matter of precisely what breed of Nomad we have, for they're not all created equal.

The Nomad is, of course, the product of Ariel Motors, in Crewkerne, Somerset. In two decades Ariel's become a humming little craft car maker with a global profile at odds with its tiny size and output (some 30 employees, 80 to 100 cars a year). The waiting list for a new car is a little under three years, depreciation simply isn't a factor and the masterstroke (together with an eye for designing great-looking, wild-driving masterpieces) remains Honda power. A supply deal with Japan's great engine maker means Ariel's vehicles (its Ace motorcycle also uses a Honda engine) circumvent all the reservations you'd normally have buying a low-volume, niche machine, namely fears of unreliability and parts availability.

Ariel Nomad handover

A couple of hundred Nomads have been built since it launched in 2015 – and they've been bought by a truly global fanbase. It's designed as an all-terrain, all-weather plaything, and buyers tend to fall into one of three camps. 'First off, there's the quad-bike guy,' says Ariel's Henry Siebert-Saunders. 'They want the mud-ready tyres and it'll never see a road. It'll get blasted around a field and rolled, probably. Then there's the sports-car guy. He's probably had an Atom and now he's curious to try the Nomad, with the bigger, 18-inch wheels and track rubber, short-ratio 'box, Öhlins... And then there's the guy who really doesn't know what he's going to do with it: he just knows that he wants one.' That's me. I've built, run and raced a Caterham, I've enjoyed sports cars on road and track and I've ridden off-road pretty extensively on two wheels. But I've no idea what I'm going to do with our Nomad – I just know that I want it.

To cover all eventualities, our car's pretty loaded. While the basic price, £36k, undercuts a fair chunk of Caterham's range, the options list – and therefore the potential to swell that sum – is vast.

'The price can climb quite quickly,' says Henry. 'Some buyers double the basic price but most are more careful. They come in with a budget – we advise that buyers come here to spec their car, if at all possible – and most only exceed that by maybe 10 per cent.'

Nomad interior

The core of the car is simple, and simply perfect: a 235bhp 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels via a six-speed 'box and a standard limited-slip diff, snug behind two seats in the back of the car's beautifully welded tubular steel frame. Suspension comprises unequal-length double wishbones front and rear (the camber angles are outrageous) and the steering is unassisted, quick and worked by a (detachable) suede racing wheel. There are three pedals in the race-style pedalbox, harnesses in place of seatbelts (four-point, with an easy buckle on our car; a six-point set-up is optional) a fly-off handbrake and – serving as a constant reminder of what a spectacularly purposeful tool you've chosen – the most colourful thing on the dash isn't an infotainment screen but a bright yellow Tilton brake bias adjuster. The least autonomous, least connected car on sale? Lovely.

Our car chimes in at £55,677. Key options include the overhead lighting bar (£1198), the winch (£1025), the heated front screen with washers and wipers (£1938), the multi-adjustable Fox off-road dampers (£3416), that hydraulic handbrake (£594, and a lot more in engine repair bills if you neglect to dip the clutch when you tug it...), a heavy-duty clutch and the £2379 pack required for legal road use.

Among that lot you'll notice no roof, windows or doors. Yet on the six-hour drive home I get wet only twice, a miracle given the persistent slate skies. On motorways the Nomad's comfortable and capable but wasted like crop-dusting in a Spitfire. It's when I swing off the A14 onto roads that require driving that the outrageous Ariel – on knobbly tyres and dampers soft like cake mix, remember – brutally machine-guns every preconceived notion I have of what a fast and fun road car should look and feel like. Ten innocent miles of B-road and everything is changed.

By Ben Miller

Logbook: Ariel Nomad

Price £33,996 (£55,677 as tested) 
Performance 2354cc four-cylinder, 235bhp, 3.4sec 0-62mph, 124mph 
Efficiency N/Ampg (official), 23.3 mpg (tested)
Energy cost 25.6p per mile
Miles this month 331
Total miles 331

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

Comments