MAGINE being strapped into a sinking dinghy with a 175kW VTEC outboard motor thrusting you to your doom.
Water pours into the cockpit like youíve just taken a U-boat hit and then struck an iceberg for good measure. Litres of the stuff fills the moulded floor like a bath. And then your shoes. And then your pants.
Your brain is telling you to climb out, but the four-point harness has other ideas.
Iíve driven cars through massive water hazards before but theyíve mostly been shiny Jeeps and Range Rovers, and the water stays firmly on the outside, even when itís up to bonnet level. But the familiar tube chassis and the shockingly open sides are telling me Iím in an Ariel Atom. This canít end well.
But I havenít spun into the lake at Lakeside in the middle of a track day, and this is no Atom. This is the Ariel Nomad, and thereís almost nothing it canít do.
Weíve become used to absurd cars such as the Range Rover Sport SVR, a machine built to drive through rivers, trained to lap tracks. Now meet a car designed for the circuit thatís reimagined for the swamp.
Todayís swamp is the remnants of an old coalmine near Glynneath in South Wales called Walters Arena.
The playground is earthy, woody and muddy, and 3000 acres of bloody brilliant terrain used by everyone from Land Roverís development team to rally teams looking to find that last tenth on next weekís stage.
In fact, itís all rather overawing. The place is so vast and the car such an oddball, I donít really know where to start. Can the Nomad really climb that near- I
vertical-looking slope? Traverse that terrifying wall of rocks? Be so uncomfortable on my bony back that I feel like Iíve just donated a dogís dinnerís worth of bone marrow? Tick, tick, tick!
Before we get muddy, however, itís worth taking a look under the Nomadís skin, or it would be if it had any. The Nomad looks at a glance like nothing more than an Atom with a chassis structure extended to provide an enclosed passenger cell, but the two have little in common. You still get a mid-rear-mounted four-cylinder engine, but itís an entirely different motor. And you still get an aluminium-tube chassis, but itís completely reconfigured to incorporate two half-moon spans that make up an upper cage structure, and cut lower at the flanks to make it possible to climb in. Some things never change, though. A windscreen is optional and thereís nothing so unseemly as doors or side glass, although you can specify a kind of burqa that drapes over the roof and sides to keep the cold and rain out.
Even with the detachable steering wheel removed, itís not easy to thread yourself through the gap between the roof bars and sill. Iím advised to go feet first and not worry about getting the wipe-clean seats dirty for reasons that soon become clear. Once inside, itís broadly familiar Atom territory. Thereís a vestigial dash featuring an LCD display, a smattering of small, unmarked switchesÖ and thatís pretty much your lot. A dainty gear lever like an unopened tulip sprouts from the floor, just like in an Atom, but this time thereís something new towering above: a giant rallystyle vertically-mounted hydraulic handbrake lever.
When the engine fires it sends a familiar barrage of Atom-like fizzes through the structure to every contact area. But a short shift to second and prod of right pedal reveals a massively different character.
Instead of the 2.0-litre Honda VTEC engine fitted to UK Atoms, the Nomad uses the 2.4-litre four fitted to Atoms sold in the US. You swap the screaming top-end drama of the old K20Z for a more sedate sub- 8000rpm limit, but torque shoots up by nearly 70Nm to 300Nm, almost the same as the old supercharged Atom. And thatís a sensible trade if you want to cut it off-road, particularly given that at 670kg (nearer 720kg with our carís extras), the Nomadís chunkier wheels, new chassis and revised suspension bring an extra 150kg of ballast.
The other big shock if youíve never driven an Ariel, or like me, not recently, is the sight of the road and the suspension through the body of the car. Itís like driving a Westfield while wearing X-ray specs and being absolutely mesmerised seeing the oily bits in action. And the muddy bits. Iíve brought along a motocross helmet and goggles primarily because I thought theyíd look good in the pictures and am certain I wonít need them with our carís optional screen. Err, wrong. Every time I crank the wheel right, the road wheels fire a barrage of brown slop at my face through the lattice of the chassis. Never mind getting close to the action, I can quite literally taste it.
Powering through the network of connecting roads, the sheer amount of grip on offer is staggering. Weíre wearing balloon-like BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tyres, the kind of thing you get on a Defender, and they are physics-bendingly brilliant in the rough, delivering incredible drive out of bends and huge mechanical grip when braking into them. On tighter corners a tug on that giant one-armed-bandit limb of a handbrake tucks the nose in, but to really string the faster bits together you need to get the weight moving and set the car up for each curve. So you tread on and off the accelerator like a 19th-century seamstress going fullchat on her sewing machine, getting the front tyres to tuck in and sending the back free as you come off the gas and jerk the wheel simultaneously.
Rally stuff done, we look for something more challenging, tick off the terrifying mud bath we opened with, and then try a jump. I donít know much about jumping cars off-road, but there are loads of
For Nomad, Ariel has quite the goodie bag of options
Optional bumpers will minimise damage.
Other options include a locking filler cap, spare wheel and carrier, and a roof-mounted light set-up. You can also choose colours for the front and rear plastic panels, or swap them for carbon alternatives.
Comes with 240mm ventilated discs, a Tilton aluminium pedal box and twin master cylinders with an adjustable brake bias.
You can add 290mm discs and four-pot calipers, a remote brake bias controller and that brilliant hydraulic handbrake.
Comes with no screen, but you can add a pair of aero screens, a fullsize single, or even a heated screen. Ariel also offers a canvas smock. Standard seats made from woven composite cloth can be upgraded to carbon buckets. FIA-spec harnesses available.
On-road or off-road duties? Ariel offers everything from proper 15in off-road tyres to 18in road boots and even genuine rallyspec rubber. Stock suspension can be boosted with Bilstein or Ohlins dampers and negative camber wishbones.
An off-the-showroomfloor Nomad isnít road legal. To cover the black bits between the brown youíll need the Road Pack, which comprises a full front and rear light set-up, number plates and lights, catalytic converter, and mudguards all around.
ďWEíRE always thinking about what we can do next,Ē says Arielís manager Henry Siebert-Saunders, explaining the Atomís transformation into the Nomad. ďQuite a few of us here are into off-roading, and there seemed to be a gap in the market. We stuck some knobbly tyres on an Atom at the start of the project, took it down a local green lane and it turned out better than we expected.
ďThe question Iím asked most is Ďwhatís it for?íĒ he says. ďI tell people you can do anything in it. There are other buggies out there, like the Polaris and Rage, but theyíre not dual-purpose machines like ours.Ē
Last year Ariel made 65 Atoms; it expects to make a similar number of Atoms and another 60-70 Nomads.
Little wonder the payroll has swollen recently with the addition of new engineers and technicians.
Whatís next? ďWeíre busy working on a supercharged Nomad thatíll join the range later this year.Ē
ready-made jumps so I pick one, unwittingly take off from the wrong side, and soar through the air, landing with a thump that would send the struts through the bonnet if this were a regular car. But the Nomad soaks it up, as well as the other dozen airgrabs we make throughout the rest of the day. This is one tough buggy.
Itís not that there arenít vehicles that can do this stuff; itís just that it feels so wrong doing it from behind the wheel of what still feels like an Atom.
Wading through water almost half a metre deep, crawling over boulders that youíre sure will be gouging their way through the floorpan any minute, and scrambling up gigantic earth mounds thatíd make a soft-roader wince. Itís a total find-muck.
And itís absolutely exhausting. Shattered and shat-on, I kill the engine, remove my mud-soaked waterproofs, helmet and goggles, and get ready to venture out onto the road. I twist the wheel to the right, pull away, and immediately take a clod of earth to the forehead. This is a car that throws up lots of surprises, and other stuff, too. But has it got any surprises in store in the nearby Brecon Beacons, on the kind of roads the Atom could have been made for?
We switch keys so often in this job, jumping from super-mini to supercar, that you get used to the open-mouthed stares and camera-phone barrage.
But tooling through a sleepy town like Upper Brynamman in a mud-splattered freak of a car that looks like it just took an 8000km wrong turn in the Baja 500 is a recipe for attention like no other.
That torquey engine makes itself useful again, letting you trickle in higher gears, and squeezing you back into the moulded seat when the road opens out heading due north. But that squeeze isnít as acute as it is in an Atom. Ariel says the 0-100km/h time is 3.4sec, up from 3.1sec, while the 0-160km/h sprint now takes 8.7sec, not 7.8sec, and the (academic in one of these) top speed is slashed by 33km/h to 200km/h.
Letís get some perspective on this, though. The Nomad is still a match for almost anything else on the road, and even if youíve lost some of that top-end bite, the roar as air gets hoovered into those combustion chambers is more than fierce enough.
The scenery feels vast up here, but the road to Llangadog is deceptively narrow in places; narrow enough to force you to think far more about your position when facing an oncoming car mid-bend than you would in an almost 300mm narrower Caterham. The Nomadís taller scuttle compared with an Atom, as well as those new A-pillars, also makes it harder to see the carís corners, and consequently place it on the road.
Itís still laugh-out-loud hilarious to drive, though.
Not as sharp on its off-road rubber and more conventional strut suspension (rather than a fancy rose-jointed in-board set-up), but still massively entertaining. And though other more road-biased tyres are available, those Mud Terrain boots only add to the mischief, the rears gently letting go as you brake heavily into corners and spinning up freely with a whine if you give it the beans on exit.
Even with that screen in place your head takes a bit
of a pounding. Itís cold up here on the Black Mountain and while Iím toing and froing for photography I quickly graduate from sunglasses to goggles, and then to goggles and helmet, to keep my face warm as much as anything else. But properly equipped with lid, gloves and a decent outdoor coat, Iím ready for anything. And so is the car.
Every so often Iíll spot something off in the moorland and suddenly remember thereís nothing but a respect for Walesís National Park preventing me from veering right off the tarmac and into the scenery to investigate. That notion might not seem strange if your daily steer is a Range Rover, but it probably hasnít crossed many Atom ownersí minds.
Now, it can. The Nomad is a fascinating, ludicrous machine. How good it is is not in doubt, but perhaps youíre wondering: why? Whatís it for, exactly? As a specialist track-day toy the Atom makes perfect sense, but the Nomad is a little more confused. With the right tyres it can do the circuit stuff, too, but with that extra weight and less track-focused suspension design, almost certainly not as well. And impressive as it proved off-road, itís never going to be as adept as something like a Defender, with its four-wheel drive and vastly more generous ground clearance.
Genuinely new ideas confuse people. Back in 1987 before track day supercars were all the rage, we called the stripped-bare but competition-ineligible Ferrari F40 insincere. Now itís revered as one of the greatest supercars ever. Thatís not going to happen to the Nomad, and maybe you canít see Arielís misfit slotting into your life, but imagine living in the wiles of Central Australia with kilometres of desert at your disposal, or, if things go Arielís way, flicking on the TV to see a one-make series where a gaggle of the things are belting round a rallycross track switching effortlessly from soil to circuit.
Suddenly this incredible creation, an all-star decathlete to the Atomís dedicated sprinter, starts to make sense. Or as much sense as anything that comes from the brilliantly unhinged minds at Ariel ever does. M
Grey Nomads steer clear
BODY 2-seat buggy DRIVE rear-wheel ENGINE 2354cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v BORE/STROKE 87.0 x 99.0mm COMPRESSION N/A POWER 175kW @ 7200rpm TORQUE 300Nm @ 4300rpm POWER/WEIGHT 261kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual WEIGHT 670kg SUSPENSION (F) double wishbones, coil springs, outboard dampers SUSPENSION(R) double wishbones, coil springs, outboard dampers L/W/H 3215/1850/1425mm WHEELBASE 2348mm TRACKS 1585mm (f/r) STEERING unassisted rack-and-pinion BRAKES (F) 240mm ventilated discs; 2-piston calipers BRAKES (R) 240mm ventilated discs; 2-piston calipers WHEELS 15.0 x 7.0-inch (f/r) TYRE SIZES 235/75 R15 (f/r) TYRES BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A PROS The ultimate all-surface driving machine CONS Youíll struggle to get one in Oz; nothing else PRICE $67,000 (approx) PRICE AS TESTED $100,000 (approx) RATING 11112