TWIN TEST. Ariel Atom 3.5 vs Caterham 420R


Model Engine Power Torque 0-100kph Top speed Weight Price
Caterham 420R Inline 4cyl, 1999cc 210bhp @ 7600rpm 203Nm (150lb ft) @ 6300rpm 3.8 secs 219kph 560kg (375bhp/ton) $49,820 (as tested)
Ariel Atom 3.5 Inline-4cyl, supercharged, 1998cc 310bhp @ 8600rpm 310Nm (229lb ft) @ 7200 rpm 2.7 secs 250kph 520kg (596bhp/ton) $47,200

We cannot display this galleryAdmittedly, in terms of outright pace, the 310bhp Ariel has the upper hand. At 560kg and 520kg respectively, both the 420R and the Atom offer performance that makes one weak at the knees, but the more equally-rivalled Caterham 620R is not set to arrive in the Middle East until at least early next year. The 210bhp 420R is thus outgunned on the sprint to 100kph by over a second – 3.8 secs to 2.7 secs – and overall top speed, the Caterham nailing 220kph as the Ariel tips a (limited) 250kph.

“The supercharger was actually optioned by the previous owner, but I’m really glad he did,” Mohammed explains. “I remember watching [Jeremy] Clarkson’s video, and thinking, ‘yes, that’. The acceleration of this thing is just brutal, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.” A point the good doctor demonstrates by jumping in, firing the starter button on the dashboard, and launching away from a startled, and now-dust coated, Hari as he’s taking a reference shot of the exhaust pipes. After some brief faffing with the immobiliser, I’m away in the 420R, which, there’s little doubt, is also seriously rapid.

Even with just a modicum of extra power and torque over the similarly engined 360 – 30bhp and 7lb ft, if you must quibble – the naturally-aspirated 420R feels like an entirely different animal. From the initial, immediate pick-up that causes even the grippy Avons to snatch briefly, there’s a raw potency at work, the wide torque band causing those now dry-sumped four-cylinders to eat their way through the revs to the 8000rpm limit with gusto. Short ratios through the five-speed manual gearbox meanwhile aid almost outrageously large momentum build instantly. I’m left with the impression, as the revs hurtle like kamikaze banshees to the redline, that I’m constantly reaching for the next gear through the short shift lever, give or take a bit of time to get used to the clutch pedal’s surprisingly high biting point. Mohammed and the Ariel’s high-mounted exhaust tips are already out of sight, but this is still a seriously strong engine, thriving particularly in the high revs.

It’s not the speed of the Caterham though that reaches for my eruption button. It’s the handling. Even with the ferocity of the rear-biased power delivery, there hasn’t been the arm-flailing locks of oversteer I’d expected. With the 420R, Caterham has focused more on track-performance, transferring the suspension componentry, brakes and stickier Avons from its headlining 620R accordingly, the latter of which can feel quite spiky on initial start-up as grip is lost and regained rapidly.

Once up to performance temperature though, the difference is striking. Lift off the throttle mid-corner and the rear axle will break with progression into gentle flicks, rather than wild arcs. Part of this is down to Avon’s semi-slicks, which dig deep into the asphalt under turn-in, the rears accordingly locking onto line with only the assurance of your right foot allowing them to break free.

“There’s a raw potency at work, the wide torque band causing those now dry-sumped four-cylinders to eat their way through the revs”

The heavily weighted steering requires a huge amount of physicality at lower speeds, but the intricate feedback offered through the small Momo wheel has never been anything less than exceptional. The chassis, archaic though it may be, is beautifully balanced, and there’s not a hint of understeer. The brakes meanwhile offer superbly judged pedal weight and progression that, hard as you try, will not snatch. A dash more lumbar support from the admittedly very comfy leather seats wouldn’t go amiss, and the vibrations sent through the lightweight doors make the wing mirrors next to useless, but I care very little about this. There’s nothing to rely on but my own skill, and it’s no real wonder that the Caterham remains among the most immersive driving experiences you can have.

Further up the road, gentleman that he is, Mohammed has resisted the temptation to jump from his Atom and lean against the skeletal steel frame smugly. While I’ve been pratting around and attempting to break the 420R’s monumental traction, the Ariel has simply got on with the process of covering an insane distance in a time most mortal minds can barely fathom. Don’t be under any misapprehension; the supercharged Atom 3.5 is stupidly, heroically, eye-wateringly quick, and Mohammed is allowing to take this, one of only three road-legal Atoms in the Middle East, for a drive. “Just go for it.”

The process of getting in is much the same as the Caterham: right leg in, balance weight on the right arm, left leg in and shuffle arse cheeks until you realise you’re sitting on the four-point racing harness. As an ‘occasion’ though, there’s something different.

“There’s nothing to rely on but my own skill. It’s no wonder Caterham remains among the most immersive driving experiences you can have”

In the 420R the bonnet stretches way out in front of me as I sit vertically in the leather seats mounted just in front of the rear axle. In the Ariel I’m almost reclining in the more canted carbon-backed sport seat, front axle – seemingly – just beneath my knees, and the Honda four-cylinder poking me in the shoulder blades. By my right knee is the long-stalked six-speed gear lever (with optional Mugen gearknob), the linkages on full display just ahead of the master switch for the ignition. If I cock my head to the side, avoiding the chassis-mounted handbrake by my left elbow as I do, I can see the lightweight, cross-drilled pedals that are mounted more ‘aerodynamically’ and certainly closer together than in the Caterham: for a moment, I worry I’m going to ride the clutch under braking. It’s like I’ve dropped into the cabin of a small Le Mans prototype, which makes the switchgear for indicators, high beams, and even the windscreen wipers on the pseudo-flat-bottomed steering wheel all the more bizarre.

A twist of the master switch and the LED display springs into life. The anger of Honda’s four-cylinders has yet to show itself, although I can feel the chassis twitching beneath me with each rumble. Interestingly, there are few cars I’ve been in that offer a greater sense of exposure than the Atom, and yet, the high shoulder line of the chassis, plus the low mounted sport seats actually makes me feel less vulnerable than the Caterham. Then I press the throttle…

Story concludes on page 3

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