Ariel Atom 3 | PH Used Buying Guide

Dreaming of spring? It's time to buy a convertible... of sorts.

1/23/2022 1:00:00 PM

Dreaming of spring? It's time to buy a convertible... of sorts.

A decade and a half since the Atom 3's introduction, it's still hard to beat for visceral fun on four wheels

ENGINE & GEARBOXThe gearboxes on Atom 2s had a bit of a rep for weak synchros between third and fourth and between fifth and sixth, but the box on the 3 has no known issues in that area. The 3's gearshift lever was more upright and user-friendly too, with a tighter action than before. The clutch will last well under hard use. Replacement clutches are cheap at under £250, but that only represents a quarter of the overall bill as the engine has to come out to fit it.

CHASSISIn terms of both ride comfort and extreme handling ability the 3's adjustable damper units were a big improvement on the old ones. The suspension is rose-jointed and will wear over time, as do track-rod ends, but you can literally keep a stress-free eye on it because it's all so easily visible. Before Ariel switched to higher-quality German wheel bearings in 2011 the rear ones in particular were known for dying. Now, not so much. Steering column bushes also wear but they're not wallet-bustingly expensive at a hundred quid or so fitted.

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Price now: from £37,000 Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive. ENGINE & GEARBOX Ariel's use of top-name componentry in the build and the wise choice of Honda for the power parts has given the Atom an excellent reliability record. Very little goes wrong with either the engine or (on supercharged cars) the blower, unless you run the oil level right down and then experience surge-related problems on a track - but the level would have to be pretty low for that to happen. The Type R oil pan was baffled. Some owners have noted erratic acceleration on part throttle. That could be down to the throttle positioning sensor (checkable via a standard OBD), maybe a grubby throttle body, or even some water in a plug cap if you've been a bit liberal with the power washer. The gearboxes on Atom 2s had a bit of a rep for weak synchros between third and fourth and between fifth and sixth, but the box on the 3 has no known issues in that area. The 3's gearshift lever was more upright and user-friendly too, with a tighter action than before. The clutch will last well under hard use. Replacement clutches are cheap at under £250, but that only represents a quarter of the overall bill as the engine has to come out to fit it. Even supercharged 300hp Atoms will hit 30mpg, which is just as well as the petrol tank holds less than nine gallons - we think. We couldn't find any hard and fast data on that. The extra ethanol in today's petrol does make the fuel lines vulnerable to disintegration. Replacement pipes in PTFE have been tried but it's tough to get good seals with them owing to their stiffness. You can get ethanol-safe rubber pipes now. If you're not having your car serviced by Ariel, specialists like Backdraft Motorsport in Milton Keynes have plenty of experience in the model. They will do you an annual oil and inspection service for a flat fee of £395 (including VAT). The seller of one car we found said that they had paid £688 for a non-Ariel service, but that price did include four new Toyo Proxes tyres. CHASSIS As mentioned in the overview, the 3's chassis was stiffer than the 2's. All the hand-brazed tubework was newly specced to boost torsional rigidity. The tubework was well rustproofed and powder-coated but it's important to check for stone chips and other nicks that can open the door to corrosion. Silvery patches or crazed lacquer could indicate crash damage. You probably wouldn't be driving it much on salted winter roads and the car will thank you for that. It goes without saying that more than one Atom has been smashed in the course of going about its duties. Repairs by Ariel will be costly. Even back in the early 2010s a new chassis cost £18,000 plus VAT. In terms of both ride comfort and extreme handling ability the 3's adjustable damper units were a big improvement on the old ones. The suspension is rose-jointed and will wear over time, as do track-rod ends, but you can literally keep a stress-free eye on it because it's all so easily visible. Before Ariel switched to higher-quality German wheel bearings in 2011 the rear ones in particular were known for dying. Now, not so much. Steering column bushes also wear but they're not wallet-bustingly expensive at a hundred quid or so fitted. Alcon doesn't make the one-piece brake discs anymore. If you want direct Alcon replacements you must go via Ariel, and again they won't be cheap. Floating two-piece items (which work well according to those who have used them) can be sourced from outfits like Skunkwurx or Reyland Motorsport. Brake squeal at low speeds is common. If you want different wheels there's very little choice as the stud pattern is unusual, but Skunkwurx can supply lightweight (6.3kg front, 7.5kg rear) Rota wheels in black powdercoat for around £600 a set. The Atom's light weight helps normal road tyres to last for up to 20,000 miles, but track rubber could wear out after just a fifth of that mileage. BODYWORK Well, there isn't a body in the conventional sense, but you could turn the collection of tubes into a sort of body by fitting Perspex infill panels, remembering of course to use some kind of damping medium between the plastic and the chassis lugs (assuming it has them, not all Atoms did) to minimise annoying rattling. Unsurprisingly, filling in the gaps significantly reduces the draughtiness to the extent that it can make the Atom almost too warm 'inside'. The beauty of an Atom is that you can change the colour for a fraction of the price it would cost for a full respray on a normal car. A new bonnet panel and air intake cover (around £650 the pair) will fool others into thinking that you own a stable of Atoms. Or you could go for a wrap. Hydro-dipping and then clear-coating the result is another option for some panels. Believe it or not there is actually a boot. It's under the trailing edge of what you could call the bonnet, which is the car's main bit of vaguely recognisable bodywork. Owners that needed to increase the luggage capacity for touring discovered a neat solution: waterproof kayaking bags strapped or shoved into cargo nets in the space between the main chassis side members. With reusable cable ties for fast access it works a treat apparently, even at three-figure speeds. 'INTERIOR' The 3's extra 100mm of shoulder space made possible by the tweaking of the chassis tubing wasn't exactly glaringly obvious to the average Joe, but it certainly was to larger-boned owners of earlier Atoms. That extra four inches also paved the way for new seats, of which there were two varieties. Whichever ones you chose, you'd be sitting lower than you had been if you had a 2 before. Most owners keep their Atoms in a garage, but the 'interior' fixtures and fittings do withstand English weather well. If the speedometer and/or rev counter readings seem a touch random it will most likely be an issue with the distance between the sensors and the magnets they worked with rather than the display hardware. The plastic bucket seats are handy from a weather perspective and the driving position is fine even for tall people, but if you've gone past the carefree age it is possible to make them more sympathetic to your body. The options are a bespoke moulded resin insert, which firms like Indi Seat will make for around £500 (kit plus fitting), or for somewhat less cash, sets of pads for the seat base, shoulder, back and head from someone like like JK Composites. Unless you enjoy the feeling of sharp stone fragments entering your eyeballs at armour-piercing speeds you will probably want to buy a crash helmet as the Atom 3's Perspex wind deflectors didn't make a lot of difference, and even the optional full windscreen was more decorative than functional. Alternatively, a very well clamped on hat, a pair of wraparound sunnies and a decent noise-reducing intercom headphone set by someone such as Stilo will make long trips considerably less tiring. If you would like to add modern touches like phone chargers to your Atom there should be capped 12v aux feed connectors either between the seats or under the dash, or both. To run a mobile phone or a sat-nav via USB you'll need a converter to reduce the 12v DC to 5v. The digital display below the dials is known for fritzing out, and replacing the pack is a stinger at getting on for £1,000. A reversing camera option might seem over the top for such a skeletal vehicle but the engine and intake gubbins right behind your bonce did rather restrict your view in that direction. PH VERDICT The first thing to say about the Atom 3 is that you shouldn't run off with the idea that nothing short of a supercharged one will do. The normally aspirated 245 is massively fast - 0-60 in 3.2 seconds is only part of the story - and you might well find yourself preferring its induction snort to the ever-present (if you're giving it plenty) whine of the blower. Not everyone rated the response of the 3's new fly-by-wire throttle over the old cable affair, but that's a tiny niggle. The most obvious main rival to a regular Atom 3 was a Caterham. Not the one that might be popping into your head right now, but the exotic Toyota 2ZZ-engined Lotus 2-Eleven should also be considered; like the Atom 3, it came out in 2007. Finding a 2-Eleven won't be any easier than finding an Atom, as they only made a hundred or so and owners appear to be hanging on to them. If you do find one you may be shocked at the asking price, as some PHers were when Matt dug this one up from the PH Classifieds last month. The first 2-Eleven was sold for over $80,000 in the US in November. As an aside, Caterham had another rival to the Atom V8 in the traditional Caterham shape of the Levante. Coming out in 2008, two years before the Atom, it weighed 520kg and was reputed to be putting out 550hp from its RS Performance Rotrex-supercharged 2.4 V8. That was 27hp more than the Porsche GT2, a great car in its own right but a bit lardy looking next to the 920kg lighter Levante. At £115,000 the Caterham was a good chunk cheaper than the £147,000 Atom V8, but they only made eight Levantes, so one of them would be even harder to find than an Ariel. How much is an Atom 3 on the used market? It's hard to come up with a definitive answer on that because there are so few on sale at any one time. Ariel has a 7,900-mile 2008 245 on its website with a 'sold' sticker on it and a price of £31,950, but in researching this story we found nothing anywhere near that. We did find a privately-owned 2008 310hp car at £37,000, so we've quoted that as our start price. You might find one cheaper, or there again you may never find one so cheap. It all depends on when you're looking and how lucky you are. The fact that Atom 3 245s were £29,750 new tells you all you need to know about their value retention.