Video: Inside the Ariel Atom 3S

The Ariel Atom is, in many people’s eyes, the ultimate trackday tool. With a small-bore V8 option and even an off-road variant, the Atom is a thriving franchise, but not often do people get to understand how much effort actually goes into the construction of these monsters. More importantly, this tour shows how the small car business isn’t entirely dead, and how the American manufacturer of Ariel’s products — TMI Autotech — is doing an unbelievable job of extending this trackday special’s fanbase.

Among real driving aficionados, trackday fiends and amateur racers, it’s often said that modern sports cars are just a little too comfortable for their own good. The chubbiness brought on by complicated layouts and plush amenities not only makes the cars of today less engaging to drive, but it also makes the car harder to work on. In short, it’s a much more distant relationship than the one had between a driver and a vintage sports car, or even a dedicated racer.

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Through TMI, racing Atoms wheel-to-wheel can be had for relatively little.

The Ariel Atom carries the mantle for the bare-bones, minimalist sports car designed exclusively for thrills. It’s weight of 1,350 pounds, coupled with a variety of punchy, compact Honda engines make it an utter rocketship. Honda’s reliability is one of the reasons the K24 powerplant has been selected. In addition, Honda Performance Development’s involvement was instrumental in establishing a compromise between power and reliability. Tuned conservatively, this motor chucks out 360 horsepower with the addition of a turbocharger. The electric meow of the supercharger is gone with the 3S, but with that huge intake next to the driver’s head, the whistling and popping is equally exciting, if not more so.

One advantage of working in small numbers, as TMI does, is that the cumulative experience grows exponentially. There’s little bureaucracy, no service lines, and an infectious enthusiasm that make their way into the products, but crucially, they learn the finer points of sports car manufacturing with a greater efficiency than a big marque ever could. This build ethos produces something that is incredibly refined for what might consider a kit car, yet provides more performance than just about anything road-legal and available to the public.

This review also takes the everyday manners of the Atom into account. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that the machine isn’t the most practical machine around, but there’s plenty of refinement for the context. It’s no Rolls Royce, but it does seem to ride most roads well, and even the bumpiest roads aren’t necessarily going to rattle one’s fillings out of their head. Who buys an Atom for comfort though?

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The Ariel Atom might provide the most performance for the dollar of any American-made sports car, thanks to TMI Autotech.

It’s hydraulic steering, lack of bodywork and snorkel intake right behind the driver’s head add to the purposeful feel of the machine. It’s absolutely, overwhelmingly simple and honest, and every input has a direct reaction. The Atom does not babysit, either. The car’s willing to do anything the driver asks of it, but without ABS or any real creature comforts, the experience is raw and unfiltered and needs an experienced hand to get the best out of. It doesn’t discriminate entirely — multi-stage traction control comes in helpful with all the torque on hand and sport tires, which aren’t too effective when cold.

Observing the onboard footage shot at Virginia International Raceway, the response of the turbocharged engine is instantly recognizable and an indication of how this is a modern car. It’s also snappy, twitchy and violent. However, it appears to have a modicum of civility dialed in. Even on cold tires, the car appears progressive at the limit. For a turbocharged, mid-engined car on sports tires, that’s a serious engineering feat. Braking can be left late and there’s a hint of trail-braking oversteer here and there, which looks helpful rather than harrowing.

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Spec Racer Atoms litter TMI’s factory. The Spec Atom series is raced at the nearby Virginia International Raceway.

That sort of performance is scarcely believable considering it comes from such a small company. As a small, standalone business, TMI Autotech is responsible for the stateside production of the Atom and the Nomad from start to finish. Despite setting up in a small, rural town without much in the way of resources, TMI typifies the ambitious, small business and appears to be expanding at a respectable rate. With such demonstrable passion in the air, a quality product, and the organizational benefits that come from a small, like-minded company, one can expect to see a greater number of Atoms dotting racetracks across the country soon.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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