Jay Leno Drives Street-Legal Go-Kart, Lightweight Sports Cars - Article
March 1, 2008 4:24 PM
Do you really have to spend $200,000 to $300,000 or more for the privilege of owning an exotic supercar? The short answer is no. It's not exactly easy to make a car go fast, handle well or stop on a dime. But it's much harder to get the windshield to seal properly, the doors to close correctly and the a/c to blow cool air; you know, the little things. Fact is, some automakers don't care much about that stuff. They focus on what they know best: power, handling and brakes—the basics. And that is what you get with Brammo Motorsports' Ariel Atom 2, a basic supercar stripped of all the little things.
Luxurious, the Atom ain't. It's more like a high-performance motorcycle than an automobile. It has no doors, no roof and not much in the way of fenders. It's sort of like a fancy watch with a see-through dial. The insides are exposed for all to see. When you depress the brake pedal, you can watch the brake caliper grip the disc, then see the rotor heat up and glow. It's wild.
Though not exactly cheap (the Atom costs a cool 88 grand), it is somewhat of a bargain among speedy exotics. It can accelerate faster than cars costing 10 times as much (like the Ferrari Enzo), has catlike reflexes and goes from 60 to 0 in the blink of an eye. What more do you want?
When I first approached Brammo about purchasing an Atom, the vehicle was only available in the United Kingdom and the company was using a Honda Civic Type R powerplant, which is not available here in the United States. I asked, "What would it take to get an American engine in this thing?" So they replaced the Type R with GM's 2.0-liter Ecotec Stage 3. It's basically the same DOHC engine found in the Chevy Cobalt SS but has been modified to produce around 300 hp and 250 lb.-ft. of torque. It's a beautiful little four-cylinder and emission certified for use in the States. I call it a 327 Chevy for the next generation.
Though 300 horses might not sound very "super," don't let the spec fool you. The real genius of this vehicle isn't the size of the engine but rather the vehicle's high power-to-weight ratio—i.e., the maximum power output of the vehicle per unit mass. In many ways, a power-to-weight comparison is a better way than horsepower or torque to measure a car's get-up-and-go, because it considers the variable of weight. In other words, a car that seems to have a powerful engine but is also heavy may be slower off the line than a vehicle that has a similar or less powerful engine but weighs less. The Atom might only produce 300 horses, but it weighs only 1350 pounds. That's a 4.5-to-1 power-to-weight ratio. My 1000-hp, 4400-pound Bugatti Veyron has a 4.4-to-1 power-to-weight ratio. Is it possible that the Atom is as zippy as the 200-plus-mph Veyron? Yes, it is.
If you were born after 1980, you're probably blissfully unaware of the benefits of a lightweight vehicle. I have a couple of late '60s Lotus Elan roadsters, and they're remarkably light, nimble and fun to drive. The 1966 Elan weighs a mere 1520 pounds. Today, 3000 pounds is considered extremely lightweight for a car. Satellite navigation, door-beam guards, six airbags and all-wheel drive are just some of the amenities that have fattened up the automotive landscape: A Porsche 911 GT3 RS is 3031 pounds and a Corvette Z06 is 3162 pounds. Heck, even Mazda's featherweight Miata is 2500 pounds. The Ariel Atom is more than 1000 pounds lighter.
It's a whole different animal when a car is in that weight class. Your tires and brakes last longer because you're not moving and stopping a huge mass. The vehicle consumes less fuel (the Atom gets 33 mpg—dare we say it's economical?), so you spend less time at the pump and more on the road. And it's more agile.
But the real appeal of this little roadster is that it says you're serious about driving. At the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, Lamborghini showed me its new Reventon. The guy giving the demo said, "Oh, sit in it, Mr. Leno. Picture yourself cruising on Rodeo Drive in this baby." And I responded, "Why would I want to take this on Rodeo Drive? Can you go 212 mph on Rodeo? Why would I just want to go up and down the street looking at that video-game dashboard?"
Here's the thing: I love the experience of driving, and the Atom is a hoot to drive. It's like an extremely mature go-kart for the road. Everything is completely linear. The more you press on the brake pedal, the more you feel it in your foot. To get that in an automobile now, you have to go to a McLaren F1, the last real driver's car built without driver aids of any kind: no power-assisted steering, brake booster, nothing. The Atom is a pure driving sensation. You're not in a cocoon. You're not sheltered. Taking off from a standstill, it feels like a gazelle running, the wind is buffeting my head and the supercharger is screaming right next to my ear. It's wonderful!
By Jay Leno
Published in the March 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics.