TWIN TEST. Ariel Atom 3.5 vs Caterham 420R

Does the latest high-tech supercar hold the key to driving euphoria? Or might the answer be something a little…simpler? We find out with two well-established giants of the lightweight sports car world, a Caterham 420R and a supercharged Ariel Atom 3.5

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

The noise from the airbox over my right shoulder drills itself so vehemently into my skull that I’m concerned about permanent damage. It’s extraordinary, a high-pitched wail of pure, unadulterated anger that makes me yearn for the safe confines of a helmet, and at the same time, anything but. Do I pull over to salvage what remains of my eardrums? Jog on.

The polycarbonate windscreen arcing towards me is the only reference point I have for the front end, given the aggressive banking of my seat: I may as well be sitting on the front axle for all I can see of the wheels and the dual wishbone suspension pummelling away either side of the nose cone. In my peripheral vision, a blue light on the digital LCD dashboard flashes from orange to blue, signalling another gear change, the supercharged falsetto shriek taking a microscopic breather before filling its lungs once more.

In my hands, the suede steering wheel jimmies from left to right as the wheels and dampers telegraph the undulating road surface through the competition steering rack. I have no idea how fast I am going – my peripheral vision can’t quite register the triple figures on the digital speedometer – but I’ve just snatched fourth, so chances are I’m going at a fair lick. Every sane fibre in my body is screaming at me to calm down, ease down, “for the love of God man, stop!”, especially since the Atom’s owner – crankandpiston.com reader Dr Mohammed Al Suwaini – is standing on the side-lines watching my progress. My right foot ignores all of this, as does the side of my brain that allows another maniacal blast of laughter to escape my lips. The Ariel Atom 3.5 is, unquestionably, the most mental thing I have ever driven. And yet, it’s so simple.

Let’s be honest, complex driver-assistance tech is actually quite dull. Developed by men and women with the kind of brain circumference my meagre grey matter can only dream of, absolutely. But when it comes to the actual thrill of driving, conceptually, these systems are just plain boring.

Take for instance the McLaren 720S recently launched at the Geneva Motor Show[cough] link HERE [cough] – about which CEOs and Woking’s marketing elite lauded new and improved steps with the new carbon fibre MonoCell II, the hydraulically-operated air brake, and the double-clutch automatic gearbox, through which gear changes have been sharpened to within fractions of milliseconds. Each of which, we’re assured, will set new benchmarks for ‘the thrill of driving’, though even my sceptical self can’t deny that.

And yet the Ariel Atom 3.5 and the Caterham 420R with us today, two of the finest handling machines you can buy for less than a fifth of the McLaren’s asking price, have none of these. in fact, their construction is almost rudimentary by comparison.

“Every sane fibre in my body is screaming at me to calm down, ease down, “for the love of God man, stop!” “

Power for the 420R comes not from a 4-litre birtubo V8 but from the 1999cc Ford Duratec four-cylinder, the Atom’s 1998cc example having been lifted from the relatively humble Honda Civic Type-R. The Caterham’s now legendarily simplistic – and lightweight – louvered bodywork has been built atop essentially the same steel frame chassis since the late 1950s. The more ornate steel chassis of the Atom meanwhile wraps itself around the cockpit as an elegantly straightforward steel lattice, while standard-fit carbon fibre over the 15in wheels, air intake and front canopy are about it as far as bodywork goes.

At each corner of the Caterham, there are 15in ‘Orcus’ alloys clad with Avon ZZS rubber as part of the optional ‘R’ pack trimmings. At the back, there’s a roll-cage behind the two mounted leather seats, local dealers Al Futtaim having decided against the composite race seats for the sake of ‘comfort’, but retaining the four-point race harness. And….yeah, that’s about it, if you don’t count the carbon fibre rear mudguards. No torque vectoring or performance Pirelli P-Zeroes in–sight.

The more ‘opulent’ Ariel meanwhile adds optional Jackson racing supercharger to hike the Atom’s base 245bhp to a loftier 310bhp, and torque from 165lb ft to 229lb ft. Mohammed’s example also houses an LCD digital display in front of the driver, plus a very visible mounting rig on the passenger side for right-hand drive markets. There’s revised three-bulb LED headlights – a welcome change to the ‘bug-eyed’ first Atom – and an ‘aerofoil’ rear spoiler for even more downforce. Compare that with the 420R’s analogue speedo and odometer with a couple of gauges set aside for oil and water temperature. Plus, removable doors on our test model. Seriously, nothing spells ‘simple fun’ quite like a Caterham.

Even before Mohammed and I have started our run then, we’re already in agreement: the 420R’s small rear wheels look lost in those massive rear wheel arches but it’s hardly a deal-breaker; the Atom’s more visceral looks certainly don’t dent the old school charm of the Caterham; and while a day in a McLaren 720S is undoubtedly on the bucket list – hint, hint Woking – can these two British track weapons offer just as scintillating a driving experience? Of course. But which one gets the nod?

Story continues on page 2

Categories: Editor’s Picks

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