In chemistry, the atom is the most fundamental building block of matter. Now the automotive world has its atom -- a car so pure and simple that some people are calling it minimalist art. But the Atom, designed by Ariel Motor Company of Great Britain, is not something you enjoy from a distance. To truly experience it, you must climb into the two-seat cockpit, start the engine and punch the accelerator.
Those that have describe the Atom as one of the most amazing automobiles in recent history. Sunday Times columnist (and host of BBC's "Top Gear") Jeremy Clarkson gave the Atom five stars and said, "In terms of sheer thrills, the Atom is easily a match for the Porsche Carrera GT...This car is motoring nirvana."
But if the Atom looks like a racecar and runs like a racecar, is it really legal to drive one on U.S. highways? First, let's define "street-legal." Street-legal simply means that a car meets certain government standards for motor vehicle safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) establishes and enforces these standards at the federal level. States may impose additional laws or regulations that further govern what vehicles are allowed on the road.
To be street-legal, an Atom must be built as a kit car. That means everything, including the engine, is shipped to the owner in pieces. An optional road pack, which includes turn signals, a horn, rear tail lights and headlamps, is also available. The owner assembles the car in his own garage, being sure to follow all appropriate, state-mandated vehicle safety guidelines. Otherwise, the Atom is sold as an off-the-road-only vehicle -- not legal on the highway, but perfectly comfortable at the local track.
Thanks to Jeff Beckman for his assistance with this article.
In this article, we'll look at how the Atom works and why car enthusiasts, including celebrity thrill-seeker Jay Leno, are chomping at the bit to have one in their garage.