The off-road Ariel Atom. Although there’s more to the Nomad than taking an Atom, raising the suspension, and bolting on a set of knobblies. That said, that is exactly where Ariel started. They tested it, they liked it, so they decided to do it.
In terms of design philosophy and execution, the lineage is clear, although the Nomad takes the lessons learned from the Atom and heads in an entirely different direction. The chassis is unique to the Nomad—not merely an Atom with an extra top section, but redesigned from the ground up. The ‘bodywork,’ is made from virtually indestructible traffic cone plastic.
The engine is an all-aluminum 2.4-liter K24 Honda powerplant, a nat-asp four cylinder that’s also available supercharged, rather than the newer turbocharged 2.0-liter fitted to the latest Atom. It drives the rear wheels only through a six-speed manual gearbox. You can choose from a wide range of tires and suspension, with remote-reservoired Öhlins dampers the topmost of a four-tier range. Oh, and you can add a light bar and a winch and aerials and flags and a whole lot more.
The idea is that the Nomad is a platform which, with the right spec, can turn its hand to everything from off-road racing to green laning to beach buggying to, well, circuit use. Why not? 300mm of ground clearance would look hilarious at a track day. In basic trim, it weighs about 650kg, but once you’ve added a few tasty options, most come in at about 725kg. Still, that’s not much for a car pushed along by 235hp—or 290hp in the supercharged one. Even the slow one does 0-60mph (0-97kph) in 3.4sec and 0-100mph (0-161kph) in 8.7sec.
The front wheels carry 1.5 degrees of camber to help turn-in, while the rears are bolt upright for maximum traction. The Nomad also has a twin-spring setup: Each coilover damper has a chunky long spring and a shorter, softer secondary spring. Think of them as the off-road and road springs, respectively. The soft one helps the Nomad deal with potholes, speed bumps, the usual detritus of blacktop driving, while the long one is there for the, er, bigger impacts. Total wheel travel is roughly the same as a full-house World Rally Championship car.
What we have here is a car that’s part-special forces all-terrain fast-attack vehicle, part-latter-day beach buggy, with a light dusting of quad bike and the spirit of Baja oozing from every pore. It’s Tamiya made real. Prices start from £36,538 (around P2.41 million).
The Nomad is different: It moves differently, behaves differently, drives differently. You knew this just by looking at it and will now be convinced it’s utterly daft, and if you’re in the market for a lightweight, you should immediately go back to looking at the Atom. Or a Caterham.
But if you’re driving mostly on roads—or off-road—the Nomad makes much more sense. You feel more secure in it. The long travel dampers are barely ever stressed, and the vehicle sits happily and calmly at speed. It has (provided you tick the right options boxes) a windshield, high-profile tires, and footwell panels. I’m not saying no mental adjustment is needed, but the Nomad is more usable, comfortable, and adaptable than you think. Just wrap up warm. And probably waterproof, too.
A lot is dependent on setup. You can choose from different suspension kits to have your Nomad either more road or off-road orientated. For full amusement, spec the Fox shocks and slacken them off so that the thing heaves and leans like a galleon in a gale. It will do remarkable things in the rough. It’s light and nimble, so treads lightly in heavy terrain. Approach and departure angles are stunning, and with 65% of weight on the rear axle, traction is only a problem if you choose to make it one.
It’s lovely to just crawl slowly about in, to let the car feel its way over obstacles, to be so in touch with your surroundings. The places the Nomad can get to will astonish you, as will the manner in which it does it. It’s wonderfully supple and confidence-inspiring. Just watch for mud arcing up and over the windscreen to splatter you from above.
But it’s how well it works on road that’s so refreshing. Now, if you’ve spec’d it with big, heavy tires, there is a drawback: They compromise wheel control, exacerbate steering kickback, and give off significant tire roar above 80kph.
Go intermediate is our advice—the 15-inch wheels with Geolander tires that work everywhere. Not much grip, but an approach to corners and roundabouts that’s amusement personified—quite frankly the Nomad is among the most enjoyable, exciting cars any of us has ever driven. Although it rolls, it scampers through corners at a rate that has to be experienced to be believed. Both in a straight line and around bends, it’s way quicker than people expect when they clock a dune buggy in their mirrors.
Up to a point. Aerodynamics become very significant at highway speeds. It’s a heck of a sprinter up to about 100kph, but beyond that, things are harder won. The engine—a high-revving Honda, don’t forget—is best kept on the boil, torque isn’t its strong point, so pressing go in sixth on the highway will have you dusted by diesels. The gearing is long (110kph is around 2,400rpm) which helps economy, but the 2.4-liter mill doesn’t get into its stride until torque peaks at 4,300rpm.
So you’ll be wanting the supercharged one, won’t you? Not that simple actually. It depends how you’ve got your Nomad set up. If, broadly speaking, you’re more biased toward track days, humbling ‘proper’ sports cars, and fast road driving, have the supercharger. Team it with low-profile rubber and harder suspension. If you’d have your Nomad loose and languid, for off-road larks and roll-y road driving, have the nat asp one. You may have to row the gear lever about more, but—like the rest of the drivetrain—that’s from Honda as well. The shift is an absolute belter.
The combination of soft suspension and supercharged torque is something you get the feeling could become a handful very quickly. Bucking broncos spring to mind. The supercharged car is faster and has that helpful extra torque—340Nm, delivered lower down, but it’s also a lot thirstier. You’ll be looking for fuel after around 260km, whereas that point in the nat-asp car comes after 385km.
There are familiar Atom traits of course: gales up your right trouser leg, delicious induction noise by your left ear, a view out over tubing. It’s not quite such a whipcrack on the road of course, but it trades that for a feeling of almost total point-and-shoot invulnerability and a happy, gamboling character. It’s just massive amounts of fun.
Hard to say where outside ends and the inside begins. So, let’s start with the getting in. Two hands on the top bar of the roll cage, step inside, both feet on the seat, then twist and slither down. Don’t make the mistake of trying to drag the trailing leg in at the end.
Once in, you’ll be surprisingly comfortable. The two molded one-piece plastic seats are well-shaped, but don’t forget that the only padding comes from your clothing. The pedals, the gearshift, and the steering are beautiful to operate, and you barely ever need to take your hands from the wheel as lights, indicators, wipers, and so on are just a finger-move away. The only exception is the handbrake. Hopefully, you’ll have spec’d the rally-style hydraulic handbrake. Go and find a wet field and have a play.
You can get a full car cover for the Nomad. It’s nicknamed the NomDom. It’s not pretty and takes ages to fit. You’re better off weather-proofing yourself rather than the car. Moving on to storage: Traveling solo you can get a lot in the passenger footwell. There is a small compartment under the nose, about the right size for a pair of gloves and a hat. You can carry more, but straps and bungees will be involved.
By the standards of most cars, it’s extreme, but if you’ve driven other lightweights, you’ll find this way more comfortable and more protected.
Sure the Ariel Nomad is a toy, a plaything, but it’s so simply and logically thought through, so well-executed, you wonder why no one has done it before. Thinking of buying a track-day machine, but worried you’ll feel too vulnerable on the road? Try one of these. You’ll be hooked. Then take it on a track day, just to show them. And then go and batter about off-road with a Defender and see which gets further. It’d be a close-run thing.
What we love about it is that it’s so different, yet feels so usable and, well, relevant. And, in a weird way, suited to daily driving—let’s face it, nothing handles a speed bump better. More than that, the Nomad does something more powerful and attractive than merely handling well or going fast. It gives every trip a sense of adventure.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.