There's an automatic temptation, when writing about cars like this, to invoke the "zombie apocalypse" cliche. It's natural: The Ariel Nomad, with its armadillo profile, looks like the creation of a madcap engineer on the fringe of humanity's last outpost.
It's my goal, then, to explain the Nomad to you without ever mentioning the z-word again.
You're no doubt familiar with the Ariel Atom 3S, a 360-horsepower turbocharged go-kart with just enough structure to carry its engine, two passengers, and, astonishingly, a license plate. It's a raw, amazing thing, the perfect antidote to the typical 2016 automobile.
Imagine another alternative. It's like an Atom, but slightly heavier, a touch softer; suited to the kinds of terrain that would leave the pavement-oriented Ariel sitting in its own crankcase puddle.
On paper, this sounds like a compromise. In reality, it's the Ariel Nomad. And I'm here to tell you that, as great as the Atom is, the Nomad is even better.
Like the Atom, the Nomad sports a Honda K24Z7 engine, the 2.4-liter inline-four from the current Civic Si, along with that car's excellent six-speed manual transmission and limited-slip differential, all snugged up behind the seats and driving the rear wheels. In naturally-aspirated trim, this engine puts out 230 horses at 7200 rpm and 220 lb-ft at 4300 rpm, zingy enough to move the Nomad from 0-60 in 3.4 seconds on to a top speed around 125 mph. An optional supercharger nets 300 horses and acceleration to rival a sportbike.
Virginia-based , Ariel's licensed North American manufacturer, brought two Nomads to Monterey, California, for us to test. The Tactical model, painted desert sand, sports knobby 30-inch Yokohama Geolander M/Ts, adjustable coilovers, a nose-mounted winch and a full-size spare. The red Sport model rides on milder 225-width Yokohama Geolander A/Ts and 18-inch wheels, sitting on street-spec coilovers; ours included the $7000 supercharger, an option on either model that brings with it an upgraded clutch and proprietary engine tuning.
"It's a sports car you can take on fire roads," one Ariel representative remarked as the cars were unloaded. He described the frustration of finding a tantalizing road in an Atom, then having to turn around when the pavement switched to dirt. "This is like a dual-sport motorcycle," he grinned. "You can tackle anything."
In ritzy Monterey, the two Nomads looked delightfully out of place, jagged and bristly. But a short blast north of the coastal city sits a far more appropriate venue for these all-terrain sprinters: A sprawling US Army post established in 1940 and left largely abandoned since 1994. Today, it could serve as the perfect backdrop for a movie set in the zom... I mean, the post-society decline of humanity. Photographer DW Burnett and I decided to make a beeline for the decaying landmark.
Getting in the Nomad requires awkward choreography: Foot here, grab this, brace yourself on that, lean through this opening, perform a balasana, then plummet into the one-piece racing seat bolted to the floor. You're greeted by a cockpit with all the luxuries of a ten-year-old KTM. There's a removable MOMO steering wheel, a digital gauge display, a stick shift, a parking brake, and a passenger seat. A hanging duffel bag serves as your glovebox. The only other interior features are meteorological.
Driving the Nomad on city streets feels like getting away with something, like you're 13 years old and finally indulging the temptation to take your go kart out on the boulevard. Ariel's fanatical minimalism lets you hear, feel, and even smell everything going on around you. You see things, too—like the action of the steering rack just ahead of your feet—though with four-point harnesses and no middle mirror, you merge and pass mostly based on your ability to out-accelerate everything.
And barring a traffic encounter with a Veyron, you'll absolutely be able to make that pass. Nailing the throttle in the Nomad Tactical is an incongruous epiphany. None of it makes sense: Knobby mud tires and long-travel suspension aren't supposed to pair with acceleration like this, and the familiar Honda small-bore growl has never come with such shove. And yet there you are, clicking off short-throw upshifts at 8500 rpm and watching the front suspension unload as the nose rears up in every gear.
Our supercharged Sport, on its lighter wheels and tires, was even more raucous. The belt-driven blower yawps directly into your right ear at anything more than 30 percent throttle. It boosts the Nomad's power-to-weight ratio past the point of sanity, though with the engine hovering over the drive wheels, it takes real dedication to break traction on the pavement. Out on Highway 1, a Challenger Hellcat driver found himself puzzled, then enraged, then awed at the little rocket buggy's howling advancement. At least, that's how he looked, shrinking fast in the Nomad's tiny motorcycle mirrors.
Off-roaders aren't supposed to handle like this, either. Breathe the Nomad Sport into a sweeper, and the suspension shifts just enough to tickle your inner ear before taking a set. You can't call it "body roll"—neither of those words really applies—but the motion is engaging, and the corner-exit acceleration makes your lungs quiver. It's like driving a brand-new Miata, if that Miata had a nitrous tank the size of a St. Bernard and both you and the car were completely naked.
The slightly heavier Tactical, with its taller sidewalls and long-travel coilovers, leans a little further, but it still has more grip and poise than anything on mud tires has a right to. Both Nomad models have incredibly quick manual steering (1.7 turns lock-to-lock), firm and communicative enough to invoke muscles and nerves you haven't used since the rise of electric power assist.
Imagine taking this thing, on its Jeep-like rubber, to a track day, and embarrassing the sport compact guys in a constant, lurid state of grinning oversteer. They'd either love you for repping Honda so radly, or try to run you out of town. If the latter, hang a louie on a gravel road and drop 'em.
Romping around the desolate grid of the barracks ghost town, the Nomad's dichotomous capabilities begin to make perfect sense. The roads we found weren't barricaded, but entropy and decay made most stretches impassable for a typical sports car. Overgrowth, downed tree limbs, and piles of rubble made a decrepit slalom of once-straight roads. Blatting along, listening to the engine echo off blighted stick buildings with no other humans in sight, I almost wanted to rip around a corner and encounter a zom... a menacing creature, just so I could evade it, a wail of VTEC and the clatter of gravel against the floors heralding my retreat.
In the dirt, it's even more of a hoot. On hilly trails, the Nomad Tactical's suspension eats up culverts and whoops better than a Raptor hauling three times the Nomad's weight. The knobby tires dig in to climb anything with aplomb; when all that traction becomes boring, hit the drift stick to turn this mid-engine flivver into a rooster tail machine.
That's the beauty of the Nomad: You can go exploring, anywhere. Twisty two-lane highway? Dusty mountain trail? Abandoned casualty of the military-industrial complex? Forget the compromises of the traditional sports car, this thing can tackle them all. Dual-sport motorcycle riders have known this pleasure for years, but it's completely novel in the sports car world—exactly zero vehicles come to mind that match both the Nomad's off-road capability and its high-speed pavement prowess.
Of course, with that any-road ability comes monumental sacrifice in nearly every other measure by which you'd judge a car. This thing treats your body with a dirtbike's disdain. You emerge wearing smears of whatever terrain you just traversed, latent aches stewing in your torso. If you're not in Baja shape, a day cavorting in the Nomad will leave you walking like a zom... like someone slowed down by a lot of sore muscles.
Could you daily-drive it? Sure. That Honda-sourced drivetrain is as reliable as the moon; every other component that's likely to fail is visible from 10 paces. Just avail yourself of the notion of ever carrying cargo or unadventurous passengers, and maybe factor in the cost of some weatherproof motorcycle gear.
Which brings us to the cost. The Nomad Sport starts at $80,000; the Tactical, with its winch, light bar, hydraulic "drift stick" handbrake, rear-mounted full-size spare, and suspension and brake upgrades, starts at $92,250. Every Nomad assembled by TMI AutoTech comes standard with basic equipment that's optional on UK models—headlights, taillights, bumpers, fenders, and a windscreen, for example. The process for registering an Ariel is different in every US state, but many Atom owners have found ways to get a plate on their playthings, and the process for the Nomad shouldn't be any different.
That's steep money for a vehicle that challenges the definition of the word "car" like a teenager arguing against curfew. And while we'd all love to think of ourselves as the badasses who would daily drive this two-thirds-scale dune buggy, it's much more likely to serve as a weekend plaything, parked in garages next to sensible crossovers, patiently awaiting a sunny day.
Fine by me. Nothing I've ever driven has shattered my expectations quite like the Nomad. No matter what you anticipate from this rig—whether it regards pavement performance or dirt track capability—this thing will exceed them. It tips the scales in both directions. Your compromised, overweight sports car pales in comparison.
Of course, you'll stay warm and dry in your softie sports car. But all that comfort won't help you when the zombies chase you off the highway and down some unimproved dirt path.