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 galleryMohammed, now in the 420R, disappears immediately in the dashboard-mounted screen that acts as my rear-view mirror (there’s no way a conventionally mounted one would be able to see around the airbox). I’ve only depressed the throttle about halfway, but the travel and the precision thereof has already proven incredible: over the ensuing half an hour, I get steadily braver with the throttle, my right foot exploring the immediacy of the throttle more and more, the supercharger emitting a whine akin to a bench saw cutting through metal as I do so. Then comes the explosion.

Pure adrenaline ignites in every part of my body as I open the throttle fully. The soundtrack attacks my ears, the savage turn of speed as the Atom leaps onto its toes and starts sprinting is unlike anything, I have ever experienced, on four wheel or otherwise. The optional side panels hold back little of the wind that smashes its way into my chest, the Atom consuming each passing metre with neither turbo lag nor fatigue holding it back. This thing is utterly, UTTERLY insane. It’s almost a disappointment when the first corner hoves into view. Almost.

Much like the acceleration, the immediacy under turn-in catches me completely off-guard, an inadvertent mid-corner lift making me all the more appreciative of the Atom’s colossal traction. Not wanting to fart around with the setup too much, Mohammed admits that the Ariel’s overly urgent handling caused him to swap his stock 15in alloys for larger examples. The wider rubber does mean the rear is considerably less intimidating, which is just as well, given that the only thing preventing a spin are my own reflexes.

Fortunately the terrific rate of response through the helm, plus superb feedback from the front wheels, means that, once I’ve relaxed and start feeding the front end into the turns rather than throwing it, those sharp edges of threatening oversteer begin to fade. There is no understeer at all, but I’m less pre-possessed to steer the Atom on the throttle than I was in the Caterham: in the 420R, despite the raw speed, you’re encouraged to let the innate playfulness in the chassis take control; in the Atom, hustle the front end by the scruff of the neck as if daring it to snap at you. It’s visceral. Intense.

“Then comes the explosion. Pure adrenaline ignites in every part of my body as I open the throttle fully”

In a bizarre parallel to the frenzied madness under acceleration, the front end is so progressive in its movements yet so immediate in its response, that you’re unlikely to find a wilder handling performance machine this side of a superbike.

So infected am I with THAT adrenaline rush that I almost double my allotted time behind the wheel in scant regard of the dropping fuel level, and even when I do calm down and pull to a stop, I motion to Mohammed that I’m still not going to get out. He smiles, clearly amused by the grin that threatens to crack my jaw in half. “Yeah. That’s how it gets you.”

The power and speed delivery in the 420R is raw and potent. But this? This is savage, ethereal, and brutal, threatening to fill every fibre of your body with shock, awe, and, most importantly, adrenaline when you put the hammer down. It doesn’t matter that the gear lever is mounted slightly too far forward, that the shifts through the enormous stalk and extra light clutch pedal are less intuitive than the Caterham’s short shift setup. It doesn’t matter that, arguably, the Atom’s more grounded – though superbly balanced – chassis is less playful than the slightly more rear-biased 420R. It’s not even a concern that the Ariel’s edgier and hyper-sensitive steering at high speeds is less confidence-building than in the 420R. You won’t care about any of that when the Atom’s supercharged whine attempts to bullet through your temple, the explosive forward momentum causing your internal organs to slam together and puree themselves. No question, through the corners, the Atom is impressive, but it’s the adrenaline-pumping savagery under acceleration that will get you. Every. Single. Time.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by questioning whether these niche British marques offer the thrill of driving akin to a high-tech supercar. That the Caterham 420R remains one of the most engaging, playful and rewarding performance machines you can buy for less than $50K is beyond doubt, the 420R mixing lightweight agility together with ‘edge’ and spectacular bursts of aggressive acceleration in stunning harmony. Few things are more fun and sensational to spend an afternoon with than a Caterham. Except a supercharged Ariel Atom 3.5.

  • Technical specifications available on page 4

Enjoy our Ariel Atom 3.5 vs Caterham 420R feature?

You can find more Caterham stories HERE, more Ariel articles HERE, and more of our Editor’s Picks HERE

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