Image: Atom
Brammo Motorsports
Hey, where's the rest of it? Despite it's go-kart similarities, the Atom is street legal. Like a go-kart, it's fun.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/23/2007 8:06:44 PM ET 2007-10-24T00:06:44

Ever seen the grins on the faces of kids driving at the go-kart track at the beach. Or better yet, worn the go-kart grin yourself? Seems Madison Avenue is trying to tell us the latest turbo SUV can give adults the same rush.

Mr. SUV, I knew Mr. Go-Kart. Mr. Go-Kart was a friend of mine. You sir are no Mr. Go-Kart.

It is the impossible dream, right? You can’t have fun like that with a car you can drive on public roads, can you? Maybe with a motorcycle, but cars just get too tamed by windshields and doors and roofs and the like. So how about a car that foregoes all of those as just so much unnecessary gingerbread?

Leave out the windshield, the doors, the roof, and shoot, all of the bodywork altogether, and suddenly you find yourself looking at an Ariel Atom, a spider-web framed kart of a car that you actually can drive on public roads.

The Atom originated in England and gained notoriety among enthusiasts in the U.S. courtesy of an uncharacteristically ebullient review by British television car reviewer Jeremy Clarkson. On his Top Gear TV show, Clarkson is notorious for his application of acerbic, cynical wit to the hapless victims of his reviews. He makes U.K. ex-pat commentator Simon Cowell look like the TODAY show’s kid-gloves movie reviewer Gene Shalit by comparison.

Anyway, Clarkson positively cackled with unreserved, unironic, uncool joy at the sheer thrill of shredding a racecourse with the Atom. And that might have been the end of the story for American drivers, until engineer Craig Bramscher decided that we needed an Atom here.

Bramscher’s company, Brammo Motorsports, LLC, licensed the production right for the Atom from Ariel and reengineered it to accept a Chevrolet engine in place of the original car’s Honda. But fear not for the change because the 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine is the supercharged 205 horsepower version from the Cobalt SS.

With that engine and its five-speed manual transmission transplanted into the Atom, the 1,400 lb. car accelerates, turns and stops like a million dollar Ferrari Enzo supercar. You remember, the one last seen crashing in the inept hands of an actor in that YouTube video.

Climbing behind the Atom’s steering wheel is just like tucking into those concession karts at the beach, but without the knees-in-the-face seating position once you get settled. It is a snug fit, and the steering wheel is removable to aid the chores of ingress and egress.

Once in place, click the four-point racing-style harness into place, snap the visor on your helmet closed (wearing a helmet is not mandatory, but it is a darn good idea if you don’t like the idea of catching a rock with your face), check with your passenger for a thumbs-up (there is only space for one other person in the cramped two-abreast cockpit), crack the throttle open, ease out on the clutch and take off.

The engine’s air intake is located just aft of the driver’s right ear, and it sounds like there is a direct connection between the gas pedal and the ear. It turns out that there is a bit of a delay in the exhaust sounds we’ve heard all these years, but the intake sound is instantaneous, and can be a little startling. The whooshing intake is followed a split-second later by more familiar burbling exhaust, and as the revs climb, so does the whine from the belt-driven supercharger that packs more air into the small engine to help it make more power.

Rolling along, the wheels are all in view, though they are shrouded with minimalist cycle-style fenders that prevent the tires from throwing up road debris or spray when it rains. You can see them turn in response to the steering wheel and feel the air rushing past, as on a motorcycle.

The Atom is startlingly quick, and it is so light that it can be difficult to drive smoothly. Regular cars slow the engine’s response to the gas pedal with their mass, but giving the Atom some gas can be tricky to do without causing a lurch. That is, until you get used to it, at least.

The small-diameter, thick-rimmed steering wheel conveys every ripple and seam in the pavement right to the driver’s hands and the snug bucket seat fills in any blanks with information directed to the driver’s rear end. However, unlike many sports cars, which have punishingly hard springs that cause bumps to pound the driver, the Atom is so light that its springs need not be excessively stiff, so the ride isn’t bad considering the car’s sporting capabilities.

The combination is an experience so go-kart like it will have you itching to ram your cousin into the nearest spring-cushioned wall. While plowing into real cars isn’t as consequence-free as doing it at the kart track, the Atom’s latticework of strong steel tubes, the racing seat belts and the helmet we suggested earlier combine to make the car as safe as real race cars. You know, the ones you see drivers climb from, often unscathed, on TV after horrifying crashes.

For those who are contemplating motorcycle ownership, but who are inexperienced or unconfident in their riding skills (especially when they contemplate the increase in motorcycle fatalities that has occurred as middle-aged riders flock to their local Harley dealers), the Atom could be the answer.

“Maybe they have always dreamed of having a superbike but the wife doesn’t let them, or they realize they should have been riding years ago,” suggests Bramscher. If that is the case, he proposes to give you similar thrills in a more stable package.

Brammo constructs the American Atoms at its Ashland, Ore., shop, where a short assembly line of cars is under construction to fill the backlog of orders for the $52,000 vehicles. Shelves are stacked with components awaiting installation, and complete drivetrains fresh from General Motors lay in waiting. As with most hand-built cars, pretty much anything you can imagine can be installed optionally. For a price.

Most customers use their cars only to drive at local racetracks, said Bramscher. They don’t race, they just enjoy driving fast in an environment with no cops or dumptrucks to interfere. Others really do drive them on the streets, licensing the Atoms, which come with the full complement of turn signals and other necessary equipment, as kit cars even though they are delivered complete and ready to drive.

While we guarantee that the Atom will deliver fun just like those rental karts at the beach, just don’t plan on actually driving one somewhere on vacation, because the luggage space consists of whatever you can carry in your pockets. But there is plenty of room for your grin.

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