Exclusive first drive: 1180bhp Ariel Hipercar

1 month ago - 31 August 2022, autocar
Exclusive first drive: 1180bhp Ariel Hipercar
British maker of Atom and Nomad creates searingly fast EV coupé

Currently rolling out from under the domed roof of a Race Shuttle trailer is an advanced taste of things to come from Ariel Motor Company Ltd.

A fairly compact, unconventional, insectoid-looking supercar with a closed cockpit, dihedral doors, some huge aero fins, and hindquarters that could have been donated by a jet aircraft, it gently drops off the trailer ramp, and then just sits there – so bold as to be almost indecent in places – ready for closer inspection. 

It’s a long way from an Atom, in more ways than one. This is the jawdropping electrified Ariel Hipercar – and today, we will be among the very first in the world to drive it.

It’s early on a foggy Tuesday and we’re on a disused airfield, only about 20 miles from Ariel’s Somerset base. The old runways here look dishevelled to say the least (the last time they had fresh bitumen, the landowner says, was when they needed to be concealed from the airborne gaze of the Luftwaffe). 

If we were about to get a look at the first electric model from a more typical sports car brand – Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, you name it – we’d be in an air-conditioned auditorium instead, in front of a tennis court-sized projection screen, bombarded with lasers and atmospheric music; and you can bet that we wouldn’t be going anywhere near a driver’s seat. Thankfully, Ariel does things a little differently – and today there is nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.

Wow, this thing is an eyeful – a bit like some remodelled McLaren SLR with a Napoleon complex. Ariel boss Simon Saunders says they worked through plenty of other more conventional-looking, conventionally aerodynamic low-drag designs but rejected them all because they weren’t daring enough.

“Not us,” he says.

What they’ve ended up with is a car of a similar skeletal character as an Atom, one whose tyre contact patches and beautifully machined front wishbones are visible through the partly open frontal structure but whose size and proportions are both much less toy-like and more imposing than those of an Atom. This car has looming, predatory presence – just as a 1180bhp hypercar should.

The Hipercar we’re looking at is Ariel’s first full-bodied running prototype. It has 3D-printed body panels for ease of manufacture, whereas finished versions will have all-carbon panels for a more upmarket material appeal. But I must admit, as graphic as it may sound, I do want more of the car’s innards on display. I want to see it working, the way you do an Atom – especially around the drive motors and that gas turbine at the rear. I want the whole car to be like looking at a Lego Technic model kit – because that feels like an Ariel thing now. Trouble is, the Hipercar will be a fully type-approved vehicle – crash tested, wind tunnel tested, emissions tested, the works. And where the Atom can get away with its scaffolding-like frame via the individual vehicle approval process, the rules on bodywork gaps in type-approved cars are much, much stricter.

There’s a slightly beetlish quality about the Hipercar’s cabin-rear silhouette. The cockpit could almost be sitting behind a compact, front-mid-mounted V8 engine if you didn’t know better. Instead, however, there’s a 295bhp electric motor for each of its individual drive wheels; a 62kWh drive battery under the cabin floor; a tremendously complicated multi-circuit cooling system for the car’s various heat sources; and what looks to all the world like a tiny rocket booster sticking naughtily out of that perky rear end. 


“That’s the gas turbine range extender,” says Saunders, “and I’m afraid we can’t demonstrate it for you today. Our supplier isn’t quite happy with its refinement yet, so they’ve asked us not to run it. When it’s working, though, it does sound a bit like a jet engine, which justifies all the styling references, we hope!” For now, we’ll just have to take the man’s word for it.

It feels odd to be opening a door on an Ariel at all, and stranger still finding comfortable leather seats, three-point belts and, err, a windscreen once you have. This is more of a fully fledged sports car than an Atom might ever be, of course, and Saunders is clear about the added usability and convenience that will be expected of it. 

The sills are wide but easy to vault over. Visibility is great forwards, although that turbine range extender forbids any potential for a rearview mirror corridor. Otherwise, this is the interior of an unfinished prototype quite lovely in its spartan specification, although the finished product will look and feel much more inviting. (Note to the Ariel design department: if it doesn’t have a missile-trigger-style activation button for that range extender, a trick has been missed.)

Finished versions should be quieter, too. I reach up onto the flight panel-like roof console, select drive, squeeze the accelerator and trundle my first few feet. The absence of chassis insulation is very apparent, but the unadulterated, unfiltered noise of an electric motor at each corner is actually really interesting on the ear. Here’s hoping they keep plenty of that in the car’s audible mix.

Surely it’s much too early for Ariel to have done any artificial sound tuning with these motors? Either way, as you move off, the car issues to the world outside a low, bassy hum that’s somehow enticing and menacing in equal measure. 

From within, that low pulsing throb is less apparent. You just hear the whining of rotors, and the distant, high-frequency scream of high-voltage current, as you accelerate – and the flicking and pinging of rubber and stones picked up by the car’s Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres and thrown at the underside of the aluminium tub.

The Hipercar feels unexpectedly laid-back to begin with. The accelerator calibration and motor response isn’t at all savage from rest; the ride is only medium firm; and the steering is weighty, assured and connected of feel but quite gently paced, at three turns between locks. There’s a reason for that, though. “These are just our baseline settings,” says project engineer Tom McLaren. “We’ve had almost no time for tuning yet, but we want a really dynamic character, and we’ll perfect things like spring and damper calibration, and steering gear, as we go.”

Four drive modes will be on offer in the Hipercar: Eco, Sport, Serious and Fun. (Read drift mode for the last of those.) None has been fully finished in our prototype, with the Ariel’s asymmetrical torque-vectoring motor control software in particular still to be written by key systems partner Delta-Cosworth. Sport mode gives the car access to about 80% of its total reserves, I’m told (1324lb ft as well as that 1180bhp). Thus configured, the car is certainly not wanting for potency.

Whether by calibration or not, the Hipercar’s drive motors seem to need a second to hit full stride when you launch it from rest, so there’s a second wave of thrust that seems to overtake the car as you pass 40mph in addition to the one that initially propels it off the line. At least, there is today. Then I realise that this is likely to be the impact of the car’s traction control limiting torque at lower speeds on that patchy, slippery old runway; because once the car finds grip and settles down, it simply soars up to 100mph and beyond, with a force that pins you back in your seat. Zero to 100mph in less than five seconds? That would be Bugatti Veyron beating, but on this evidence, on a good surface, I can believe it.

Some flat corners and manoeuvres areas elsewhere on the airfield, meanwhile, reveal only a little about the dynamic fundamentals of the Hipercar’s chassis. But enough to be really impressed with its dry grip level, lateral body control and steady-state handling balance. And to be heartened by its readiness to transfer its weight longitudinally when cornering (with the help of some battery regeneration at those front wheels on a trailing throttle), and to move around underneath you with a little bit of liveliness and charisma.

On this evidence, driving the Ariel Hipercar never ought to be boring, irrespective of which driving mode you’ve chosen. It will be 18 months to two years before they are ready to show us a finished car, within which time they should also have a new ‘carbon-positive’ factory to build it in. 

Landmark times are ahead, then, for little Ariel, as it continues to set the standard for its niche manufacturer rivals to follow. I reckon its next 20 years might be even more impressive than its first. And won’t that be going some? 

Ariel Hipercar: price and specs
Price "Under a million at current prices"

Power 1180bhp (4WD), 590bhp (2WD)

Torque 1342lb ft (4WD), 662lb ft (2WD)

Engine Four electric motors (4WD), two electric motors (2WD), plus optional 47bhp petrol gas turbine range extender

Gearbox 1-spd reduction per wheel

Kerb weight 1556kg (4WD), 1445kg (2WD)

Length 4298mm

Width 2152mm (with mirrors)

Height 1354mm

Wheelbase 2685mm

0-60mph 2.09sec (4WD, simulated)

0-100mph 4.42sec (4WD, simulated)

60-120mph 3.51sec (4WD, simulated)

Top speed 155mph (4WD and 2WD)

Battery 62.2/56.0kWh (total/usable)

Range 150 miles (WLTP) without range extender

Fuel tank 35 litres

Ariel's past, present and future

The Ariel brand has had two starkly different historical phases. It was established in 1870 by ‘pennyfarthing’ bicycle pioneers James Starley and William Hillman (Starley’s nephew John went on to invent the diamond-frame bicycle still used today), but by 1902 it was making motorcycles. These thrived at first but, like many British brands, their fortunes faded in the 1950s and 1960s in the face of Japanese competition.

When in 1999 designer turned lecturer Simon Saunders sought a production brand for the skeletal Atom mid-engined sports car he and a student colleague, Niki Smart, had devised at Coventry University in the mid-1990s, he was able to acquire rights to the Ariel brand and start making cars at new premises near Crewkerne, Somerset. The car was immediately successful. Today’s company, Ariel Motor Co, has expanded its range to include the Ace motorcycle and the Nomad off-roader. The Atom has reached its fourth iteration and remains one of the world’s fastest cars, especially when assessed on performance against cost.

The Hipercar, which will eventually have a production name in keeping with its siblings, will be available either as a pure EV or with an optional gas turbine-powered range extender. Powered by either two electric motors or four (to drive either the rear wheels or all of them), this new model is tipped to start production at the end of 2024 and be the first of Ariel’s cars to embrace full electrification, an automotive trend Saunders actively welcomes and supports.

“Preserving the environment is something we should all care about,” he says. “It’s only right that Ariel should do its bit.

How the Hipercar came about and how it works

Simon Saunders and Ariel first started thinking about an EV nearly 20 years ago, when a customer – a founder of Tesla, as it turned out – set out to electrify an Atom.

The car was good, but compared with the regular petrol-powered Atom 2, it was heavy and very expensive. And slower. “We learned a lot,” says Saunders, “but mainly that this wasn’t the way to go. Telling people your car is slower but greener isn’t much of a marketing pitch.

However, we knew we had to find an EV future for Ariel so in 2014 we commissioned a feasibility study backed by the Niche Vehicle Network to investigate what kind of EV sports car the company should build – something we could go on producing into the future, much as we do now.”

The result was the Hipercar, an experimental name coined to stand for High-Performance Carbon Reduction. In production, this name will probably be replaced with one more in keeping with Ariel’s other models, the Atom, Nomad and Ace. 

The new car’s required properties soon became clear. It was going to be more expensive, so it needed to be faster than an Atom. It needed to push existing EV technology to the limit – even though there were few ready-made components or suppliers for such cars, and very little existing infrastructure. The Hipercar would need stellar circuit performance (because owners and road testers tend to judge cars by lap times) but it would also need respectable endurance, difficult to provide for a car with so much performance. That – and the need for impeccable handling – made lightness imperative.

Ariel did dozens of simulations, discovering that delivering the circuit performance was the killer: for a car like this with a 0-60mph time of around 2.0sec and a 0-100mph time well under 5.0sec – standards Saunders believed he needed to reach with the ultimate version – the difference in power demand and heat management between “driving like an idiot on the road” and driving flat out on a circuit was about 10 times greater.

It caused a great deal of head scratching among the three major participants at the concept phase – Ariel, Cosworth-Delta and Equipmake – but they eventually reached today’s look and mechanical layout, which has changed surprisingly little over the four years of the car’s gestation. 

The basis would need to be a folded-bonded-riveted aluminium monocoque tub, Ariel decided. A carbon structure might have seemed appropriate, but Saunders calculated that this would greatly reduce the scope for necessary changes along the production path.

Besides, calculations of his own and by suspension consultant Richard Hurdwell (late of Bentley, Lotus Formula 1, Rover’s Metro 6R4 and Ariel’s Atom 4) indicated that the aluminium-versus-carbon weight saving would be small. The suspension is double wishbones with outboard coilover units and anti-roll at either end, and the brakes are large AP Racing discs, although, as with most EVs, retardation is greatly assisted by regenerative braking. 

The Hipercar is small and light, around 10cm shorter than a BMW Z4 and about the same weight – between 1450kg and 1550kg in production, depending whether it’s the two-motor 2WD or the four-motor 4WD version. 

This is a prodigious achievement, given that in its most powerful 4WD form the Hipercar packs an 800V propulsion system that includes four 295bhp, 10,000rpm Equipmake electric motors (each driving its own wheel through a single-speed reduction gearbox) plus a bespoke inverter, a 62.2kWh traction battery (5760 cells, 32 modules) and – perhaps the star of the show – an optional, petrol-powered gas turbine range extender motor rated at 47bhp. When running – and emitting a sound like a jet fighter – this can maintain the car’s performance on the road until the 35-litre fuel tank and the battery run out. Without the range extender, the predicted WLTP battery range for the 590bhp twin-motor model is 150 miles.

The Hipercar’s low weight seems all the more remarkable when you survey the complexities of its engine bay. It has eight different cooling circuits for what Saunders calls its various “Goldilocks” components (not too hot, not too cold) and all are set to deliver different optimum temperatures.

As our main story shows, the acceleration is extraordinary, limited mostly by wheelspin in the test phase even though the car already has an electronic traction control mechanism while a more advanced torque vectoring system is developed.

For its launch editions, the Hipercar will be the compact gullwing coupé seen here. Saunders says the flexible chassis design would allow both different dimensions and opencockpit versions at some time in the future, although no specific plans exist. There has been a good deal of careful aerodynamic development (CFD specialist TotalSim is a partner in the project) and the interior styling is currently being developed along lines Saunders calls “plush Le Mans”, which seems to mean lightweight, minimal, businesslike and stylish.

As Ariel’s fourth model moves into its production phase, Saunders acknowledges there’s much work still to do, and a whole new funding round to contemplate. But he believes Ariel and its partners have successfully proved the concept, and created a car that can be now put into production.

Some people think that engineering an EV is easy,” he says, “but we’ve learned that it can be extremely complex. But we’re proud of what we’ve achieved, and we reckon it can have a big future. Hipercar is go!

Steve Cropley

How the Hipercar boosts UK PLC

After two development stages, concept and prototype, the Ariel Hipercar is poised to begin its vital third phase: production. All signs for the future look positive: although the new Ariel is still at least two years from reaching its first customer – and company bosses haven’t even devised a system for collecting deposits – there have been dozens of “expressions of interest”.

Potential customers are both current Ariel owners, who have an inkling of what to expect based on their existing machinery, and others who just love the Hipercar’s unique purpose and persona.

Whatever, the new Ariel is much more than a new, extremely fast, British-built EV with an optional gas turbine range extender. It is rolling proof of the success of various government-backed financial assistance schemes devised by successive administrations. The Hipercar’s concept phase was part-funded to the tune of £2 million by Innovate UK. The three principal partners in that project were Ariel (which has expanded and thrived), electric motor manufacturer Equipmake (now a public company with five times as many employees as when the project started) and Delta Engineering, supplier of the Hipercar’s battery and range extender, whose expanding business has proved so attractive that it recently become a division of Cosworth Engineering.

The Hipercar’s prototype phase, just completed, was part-funded by a £6m grant from the Warwick-based, government-backed Advanced Propulsion Centre. For this, Ariel has taken in more partners, including blue-chip firms such as engineering group GKN and chemicals giant Johnson Matthey, which have expertise to contribute but also need to track the fast-developing knowhow projects like Ariel’s can generate.

Given the tangible achievements to date, and the can-do reputation of Ariel and its partners, no sensible person would bet against the Hipercar achieving production at the planned rate of 50 to 100 cars a year, costing “under a million” in today’s money. But here’s the biggest point: when it comes to stimulating the technical advancement of UK plc in a series of highly competitive fields, the Hipercar project is already a roaring success.

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