Expert Reviews

Bored of Boring Old Cars? Try an Ariel Atom!

It’s a unique concept for a fundraising event with a unique automotive tie-in: The Life Lists Challenge is a program deployed by Parkinson Canada to set fundraisers up with a “Partner with Parkinson's” for help understanding the disease, and achieving fundraising goals.

Jon Collins is the Senior Manager of Events and Partnerships at Parkinson Canada. “In recognizing that there may be a less direct connection to Parkinson’s among a millennial audience, we’ve created six ‘life lists dreams’ to entice people to participate,” he comments.

The gist? Fundraisers are rewarded for meeting goals with a unique Life List dream, designed to encourage living life to the fullest. Among the rewards for top fundraisers are events centered around hot-air balloon rides, sky-diving, zip-lining, bungee jumping, and rock climbing. And, for gearhead fundraisers after a one-of-a-kind experience, there’s a car-themed Life Lists event, with closed-car lapping and a driver training experience on a high-speed track, as well as some time in the legendary, ultra-frisky, non-street-legal Ariel Atom.

With the body-less Atom attracting more attention than a laser-dot in a cat shelter at this year’s Life Lists dream event, fundraisers who chose the motorsports experience, and your writer, present as a media guest, were in for a highly memorable ride.

The Atom in attendance was provided by Roadsport Ariel, the only dealer in Canada to offer the UK-built machine for sale. Roadsport Ariel is located at a Honda dealer in Scarborough, Ontario, just an hour from the famous Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP). It’s a fitting dealer partnership, as the Atom is effectively a Honda Civic Si powertrain encased in a tube chassis, creating an open-wheel racer with cost-effective access to reliable performance, a power-to-weight ratio like a Dodge Viper, and handling on par with your average rail-mounted amusement park ride.

And aside from the Atom’s legendary performance that’s more mischievous than a box of kittens, a number of things make it worth serious consideration for one’s weekend racer and driving thrill needs, before one even climbs into its racing seat and straps into the five-point harness.

First, it’s a cheap racer to run. With a Honda K24 i-VTEC engine (tuned to 230 horsepower) and six-speed manual transmission, the Atom’s mechanical heart is one of the most proven, reliable and sought-after performance four-cylinder engines on the road today. Oil filters, plugs, fluids and parts are all readily available, at reasonable costs, at any Honda dealer or your local auto supply store.

Wheels and tires are of relatively common sizes, facilitating easy track-down and replacement. Ditto the consumable components within the Atom’s braking system – made by Wilwood, a go-to brand in performance brakes, with replacement pads and rotors easy to find.

Not that you’ll need to replace pads, rotors, or tires very often. The Atom is light – at just 1,500 lb and purpose-built for track work, it’s also not a torque-monster tire-slayer that’ll rip through a set of pads and rotors every weekend. The Atom’s whole setup is highly conducive to long parts life and a season of lapping, or more, without any need to replace parts is highly likely.

Plus, in the event of a mishap or crash, Atom’s steel tube-frame chassis can be cut apart and welded back together with new segments – and there’s virtually no bodywork to repair or replace. Muck it hard, and one could ditch the chassis altogether, and simply swap the driveline and other hardware into a new one. Cheap to run, maintain and repair? Very yes.

But driving the Atom, whether you’re a top Parkinson Canada fundraiser, or an experienced track-day novice like your writer, is where the Atom shines at maximum intensity.

You experience, hear, and even see everything the Atom is doing, at all times. Heck, from outside, you can even watch the gears shift, the linkage to the rear transaxle easily visible behind the rear driver-side wheel. From the cockpit, you can see the brakes, the suspension, the tires, and the track itself, complete with apexes, right from where you’re sitting.

And you feel everything, too.

Make a mistake, perhaps powering on too soon and too aggressively out of a corner, or jumping off of the throttle too quickly, and you feel it, straight away. Instantly. Without any numbing down of the sensation by a softer road-car suspension, and with nothing lost, perhaps absorbed somewhere within the thousand or more extra pounds carried around by even the fastest street cars.

Do something the Atom likes, like setting up your steering early and powering back on smoothly from a hot corner, and through your seat, spine and fingertips on the steering wheel, you’re rewarded with stable squirms of the car beneath you, heaps of feedback, and a sense of predictability. This is all the stuff of salivation for the driving veteran, but, more importantly, for novices it all makes the Atom an excellent, communicative and highly readable learning tool for track-day driving.

That really comes to light where weight transfer is concerned. The rear-engine layout calls the Porsche 911 to mind, with a car that’s easy to push and pitch through corners via the throttle, and one with tremendous on-throttle rear-end grip and a light and easy-to-place front end. It feels, literally, like a much bigger, faster and smoother version of the machines they use at your favorite two-bucks-a-lap go-kart track. Or like a training formula car, but smoother, easier to get in and out of, and way more comfortable.

And you never feel like you’re fighting the Atom, or like you’re boring it. Novice driver or advanced, here’s a machine that’s flattering, rewarding, and built to make you feel like an absolute rockstar at every turn. Or, after every corner exit, when the reedy bark of the VTEC engine blasts out of the intake duct, mounted just behind your head, with brain-stabbing ferocity. Don’t miss the rocket-thruster acceleration, or the precise, light and tight ‘snick-snick’ of the Civic Si shifter, one of the best in the business, or the light but grabby action of the clutch.

So, Atom is a surprisingly easy, even relaxed, car to drive on a circuit – all while being more precise a tool than any of the dozens of fast road cars your writer has ever driven around the DDT track surface at CTMP. A novice track-day driver with car control basics down pat can access plenty of the Atom’s capability from the get go, and there’s plenty of room to grow into as skill levels increase. A racing veteran will feel right at home, too.

Other notes? Brake fade? Forget it. Atom’s conventional steel rotors and pads perform more consistently and offer better feel and more durability than the high-buck ceramic setups some road cars deliver in this setting. Less weight means less heat, and less heat means less fade – and the Atom is all about being light and slim.

The steering is absolutely gorgeous – no power assist means massive feel of what’s happening, giving drivers a high-resolution image of the current goings-on between rubber and pavement, right at the pads of their fingers.

And the acceleration, though lightning fast, is further enhanced by the wicked snarl of the VTEC engine, with a sound that’s nearly intimidating in volume and ferocity as the steering-wheel-mounted shift light blinks ever more frantically towards max revs.

The Life Lists fundraisers almost unanimously voted the wicked VTEC changeover snarl the best part of the Atom experience on the track. I place it a close second – behind the massive capability of the Atom, but also the versatility and flattering performance that invites drivers of all skill levels to its show. And make no mistake: even the fastest, most precise road cars I’ve ever driven here all feel just a bit softer, squishier and less instant.

End of the day, the Ariel Atom is a tremendous and financially sensible experience for a weekend racer, aspiring or otherwise, and a serious once-in-a-lifetime thrill-ride for supporters of a good cause.

For more information on Roadsport Ariel, visit

For more information on the Life Lists Challenge, visit