Supercars -- once exclusively the stuff of high-speed racing circuits and billionaires -- are going mainstream. From Ford to Ferrari, major auto makers are introducing ultra-high-end vehicles that rewrite the rules on cost, speed and sexy design.
And for good reason. Analysts expect the worldwide market, today estimated at $3 billion, to double in the next five years.
A six-figure price tag can nab you a wonder car capable of traveling at speeds well over 200 miles per hour. Most are finely appointed -- true to brand names like Porsche, Maserati and Aston Martin. But the essence of any supercar lies under the hood.
Blazing along with the pack is the Ariel Atom 2, the stripped-down soul of a supercar. Unlike its classmates, the Atom doesn't come with an intimidating sticker price or luxury trim.
Heck, it doesn't even come with doors, a windshield, or windows. It's a lean engineering marvel that has stunned speed freaks, racing fans and the automotive press.
Despite its futuristic look, the Atom isn't a technology demo or design-shop concept. It's the product of one of Britain's smallest auto manufacturers, Ariel Motors, whose eight employees produce fewer than 100 cars a year.
Ariel and its Atom car are the brainchild of Simon Saunders, an industrial designer. At 52, Saunders has worked for the likes of General Motors, designing cars and trucks, as well as for Aston Martin and Porsche.
Saunders isn't shy about the Atom's capabilities. "In fact," he says, "it'll walk all over most supercars. It delivers the performance of vehicles over five times its price. And unlike those cars, you can get in an Atom, crash the pants off it, and pack it up nicely in the garage at the end of the day."
The Atom 2 features a Honda Civic Type-R engine at its core. Honda Civic may ring pedestrian to the casual car fan, but the Type-R is seen by many experts as the world's best four-cylinder engine in terms of untuned performance and overall reliability.
In the Atom, its 220 horses will propel you from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. What's more, it's capable of cruising comfortably at 160 miles per hour.
Most supercars bear an impressive list of technical specifications and stats, but experts look first to one figure and one figure only: power-to-weight ratio. This number is the chief determinant of real-world racing performance.
And Ariel delivers. The Atom's ratio is roughly equivalent to a Dodge Viper, bests Porsche's top-of-the-line model, and goes toe-to-toe with the fastest Ferraris.
But the car's most notable aspect, which may best convey its racing capabilities, is its design. Unlike any other widely available car, its chassis and body are one and the same. This not only saves on weight but gives the Atom an inside-out look that's bound to amp anybody's inner 10-year-old boy.
If the Atom is capable of staying with the pack on performance, handling and even looks, its price tag sets it far apart. Prices range enormously, owing to the Atom's custom-design manufacture.
But the vehicle starts at a mere $35,000 and fully decked out only fetches $75,000. It's a steal compared with other supercars that start in the low six figures and quickly climb into the millions.
In England, the Atom had a public coming out of sorts on the popular BBC TV show Top Gear. The show's host, Jeremy Clarkson, who is fond of pushing test vehicles beyond their limits and never holds back criticism, raved uncharacteristically about the Atom.
"For sheer excitement," he said, "this thing is off the scale." In the program's Formula One-level testing, the vehicle bested the performance of many supercars, including Porsche's offering, the Carrera GT. Since that image-boosting performance, the Atom has been driven and adulated by many in the motoring press.
The first U.S. Atom shipped last month to late-night host and noted car collector Jay Leno. In America, which accounts for about half of the worldwide supercar market, the Atom design has been licensed by Brammo Motorsports, based in Ashland, Ore. The carmaker expects to sell just shy of a hundred models stateside this year.
The U.S. Atom is nearly identical to its British counterpart, although Brammo founder and CEO Craig Bramscher has made minor tweaks to the design to slightly increase production volume. While the Type-R engine is an option on the Atom in the U.S., the base model comes with a GM engine that powers the performance-oriented Chevy Cobalt SS and Saturn's RedLine series.
Bramscher is enthusiastic about the car's potential in the U.S. market. He says: "Ninety percent of the people who test-drive the Atom buy one. And, the remaining 10% want one, but just can't afford it."
"It's great to see that 9-year-old, sugar-high grin on people's faces when they come off the track," he adds.
Although not street legal, the Atom is available as a kit. That makes it eligible for registration and street driving in some states. Reports have suggested that several (including the model Leno ordered) have already been registered with the notoriously thorny California DMV.
But whether it's registered or not, specialty auto analysts are optimistic about vehicles like the Atom. Philipp Rosengarten, an analyst with Global Insight in Frankfurt, Germany, likes companies such as Ariel and Brammo.
"As long as these shops keep the fixed costs down and don't overextend," he notes, "they can do very well. They've got two big trends going for them. The first is the trend towards cars that focus on driving for pleasure. And the second is the wide availability of high-quality performance parts."
Big transatlantic plans are brewing between Saunders and Bramscher to raise the Atom's profile even higher. The two are working on SCCA racing certification and hope to make the car race-worthy by 2007.
Several prominent American F1 racing schools have already purchased evaluation units. They're considering them as alternatives to vastly more expensive formula cars to train drivers. Additionally, a U.S. cross-country promotional tour is in the works.
As Bramscher jokes: "Soon the Atom will be coming to a theater near you."