A tale of dust and glory (but mostly dust)
Our biggest complaint about the Ariel Nomad super-dune-buggy rally-race-desert-stomper thing? It’s not offered with an optional machine gun. How could they omit this simple yet very useful item? There was one on the Rat Patrol Jeep, as we’re sure you’ll recall, and, apart from certain prohibitive zoning restrictions and maybe a few “laws,” there’s no reason they couldn’t put one on a Nomad, too. It’d be so cool.
What is a Nomad, you ask? You know the Ariel Atom, that open-air cage of fury straight out of your shop teacher’s worst nightmare? It’s a sports car reduced to its absolute bare minimum, a schematic of a performance vehicle without so much as a windshield (at least in the early years) to skew the power-to-weight ratio. The roll-cage body holds an engine in back, and there are two scant seats added as an afterthought — aside from that, there’s nothing to adorn it or get in the way of its performance potential. You feel every miniscule pavement urp. You balance the rear-biased car’s attitude with a combination of right foot and religion. Bugs smash into your flapping pie hole as you drive. Its only limitation is pavement, and now you don’t need the pavement. Now there’s an Ariel Atom for the dirt: the Ariel Nomad.
The Nomad has its own unique exoskeleton that, unlike the Atom, incorporates some overhead protection (there’s probably some legal prohibition against calling it a roll cage). The Nomad has more wheel travel, beefier tires and even a Formula Drift-style grab handle brake to lock up the rears. It is powered by the same 230-hp, 220-lb-ft 2.4-liter Honda four as the Ariel Atom, with the same six-speed manual and limited-slip diff.
Ariel Nomad, dirt flyin’.
The Nomad comes in two basic trim levels: Sport and Tactical. The Tactical gets larger disc brakes squeezed by Alcon four-piston calipers, that cool rally hand brake and “competition-spec wishbone suspension” with adjustable dampers. So get the Tactical. Yes, it costs more, but what are you going to do, invest that money wisely or get out there and have fun? … That’s what we thought you’d say.
We first crawled into our Tactical Nomad in the hoity-toity confines of the Monterey Peninsula during Car Week. While most of the denizens of that tony town were out sipping double-froth lattes with their pinkies extended, we slathered into a dripping-wet Nomad.
“Why’s it wet?” we asked.
“I had to hose it out,” said the Ariel engineer. “Last night I got rear-ended by a Mazda going about 65; you can see a little ding in the bumper.”
Yes, he said 65. And yes, he said “little ding.” This is a tough truck. And a tough engineer. Most of us would be in the hospital simultaneously dialing lawyers and neurologists. This guy got a garden hose and cleaned out the inside, then showed up for the test drive on time, the Nomad none the worse for the wear.
All-conquering Nomad strikes a pose.
Off we drove about 45 minutes east of town to Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, one of several such wheeled wonderlands zoned exclusively for fun in the dirt.
On pavement, the Nomad Tactical is more refined in a couple ways than that first Atom. It has a windshield, for instance, and ours had a Bimini top that our engineer friend kept calling a “bikini top.” Must have been the skull-whacking roll bar he’d hit last night. Maybe we’re getting old and flatulent, but we like both the windshield and the bikini top. If you were out in the desert all day, or a couple days, you’d like them, too.
On pavement, the Nomad is loud, windy and a little ungainly. Those Yokohama Geolanders fold over and collapse under even moderate cornering loads, wailing loudly as they flop. They’re not made for pavement, but then this isn’t a crossover SUV designed for soccer parents to argue with hapless school administrators about their kid’s pre-algebra F. Yes, the whole rig is windy, but it doesn’t blow harshly in your grille or anything — you are actually fairly comfortable by dune buggy standards. The seats, however, are about as comfortable as those fiberglass buckets you ride in bowling alleys. Hey, even SCORE desert racers sit on foam padding. But we don’t want to seem wimpy here.
When we got to Hollister and paid our six bucks (thank you State of California!), we found the proper element for the Nomad Tactical. In the dirt, the Geolanders grip like crazy, until you overpower the tires, which is ridiculously easy to do. And you will do it, almost immediately. Why? Because it’s fun! We always try to gauge our passengers’ reactions to our driving to see how far we can push things –- do they reach for an imaginary grab bar? Are they clutching their chests? Our engineer was doing nothing of the sort, so we yanked that rear brake bar good. Yee haw!
This car reacts best when pushed hard, but you have to balance your pushing with the proper amount of throttle. Do it right and you are powersliding through corners like Ari Vatenan. Do it wrong and you’re backing off the edge of the cliff, your passenger screaming, you apologizing as you both plummet. We, thankfully, were more of the former. Many of Hollister’s trails are tree-lined and narrow, meaning you don’t know for certain that there is another truck coming at you. Given a more open-air test track, we could be rally drifting with the best of them in no time. It’s so much easier to do in this than in anything we’ve ever driven. With the Ariel Nomad, you just hit the gas and steer into the slide.
Ariel Nomad seats could be just a little more comfy.
Things we’d change include making the steering wheel larger. It’s obviously a holdover from the streetable Atom. It’s too small and your inputs become more herky-jerky as it is. A larger diameter would give smoother inputs. Also, like all British sporty things, the pedals are pretty close together. Don’t wear fat shoes. We’d also change the seat. Close to six figures and you’re riding on a hose-outable plasticky seat? For lateral grip alone, even some cloth would be nice. And certainly they should add at least something like roll-bar padding to the point where your head will whack back into the seat and roll bar if you’re rear-ended, as our engineer was, or if you whoop over a big bump out in the dirt. We’d have liked to try out the bike racks to see how much actual bikes would whack back and forth up there. Likewise, a cargo rack above the Bimini would make this the total weekend survivalist wunderwagon.
You have to understand, too, that this is more of a rally-type vehicle than an off-roader. It doesn’t have the ground clearance or breakover angle to rock-crawl.
Then there’s cost: A Nomad Sport starts at $80,000; a Tactical at $92,250. Consult www.race-dezert.com/classifieds and you’ll find any number of used four-seater dirt buggies starting at $16,000 or less. Sure you could spend more, but you can also spend a lot less than the Ariel Nomad’s high sticker and still be having a lot of fun in the burning sun. Ariel will say they offer a fully engineered vehicle that offers reliability and safety, more so than most home-built buggies. Plus it’s turnkey — you don’t have to do any work on it yourself; just get in and drive.
So you decide, based on your own budget and handiness with a wrench and a welder. All we can say is we had a heck of a lot of fun in that Nomad.