► Ariel's off-roader on our fleet
► Ours to enjoy for a few months
► Can you actually live with one?
Month 2 living with an Ariel Nomad: sensory overload
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.
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
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.
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.'
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