Rarely have I got as giddy and excited by the announcement of a car as I did at Christmas two years ago. I think a mince pie actually halted somewhere on its journey from foil to mouth as I saw the initial renderings and read the first few lines about the forthcoming Ariel Nomad. Obviously I subsequently drove the Tamiya buggy writ large and for once the reality actually lived up to the expectation. On road, on gravel, on mud it was not only fun but mind expanding. It opened my eyes to all sorts of new possibilities about where motoring laughs could be had. Even when I drove it in the elevated company of a full-on Fiesta WRC car (yes, you’re right, that was a jolly good day) it didn’t disappoint.
The intriguing thing is that it retains so many facets of its sports car cousin, the Atom. A gearshift that is tight and snickety. Pedals that are perfectly placed and require pleasing pressure. A bum low, legs straight seating position. A weighty directness to the steering that engages from the first degree of lock that you apply. All these things seem slightly unusual in something capable of tackling the rough and tumble terrain of extremely extra-urban byways.
On tarmac, the long-limbed motions of pitch, squat and roll (which sounds like a tall man undergoing SAS-style escape and evasion training), combined with the inevitable squirm of off-road tyres can feel imprecise. But once you learn to dance with the weight transfers and go with the slides you appreciate the directness of the controls as they allow you to delicately tease and meticulously manage the mega movements. It’s a captivating feeling.
All of which has got me thinking; perhaps other car companies should do something similar? The obvious candidate is Porsche. Yes, I know that they already do the Cayenne and Macan, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. I’m thinking 911, with 300mm of travel in the arches. The temptation might be to go all 959 Dakar, but I would stick to rear-wheel drive. The traction afforded by having the weight over the back axle makes it ideal for loose surfaces. Richard Tuthill obviously does his wonderful historic 911 Safari spec cars, and Leh Keen has been doing great things with SCs, but it would be amazing to see a 991 with sump guards and snorkel.
Audi puts a toe in the right sort of mud with its rather appealing Allroad cars, but needs to go further still if it’s to make the leap into Nomad territory. More aggressively off-road (I’m thinking more Peugeot 505 Dangel) and more RS under the bonnet. Meanwhile, Richard Hammond looked as though he was having rather a lot of fun in the MX-5 on the gravel in Morocco (Grand Tour episode 6, I think) and we know that it’s already got a decent amount of travel those preposterously high arches, so why not adapt it with some Fox Racing suspension, some sturdy wheels and a set of Yokohama Geolanders?
The 15 year Subaru/Mitsubishi war has petered out with both sides calling a sort of declining sales truce, but I would love to see that battle reignited with these sorts of cars. Inevitably the STIs and Evos always used to be road cars, but their gravel rally brethren weren’t so different. A tweak here, a lift there, shallower bumpers all round, some monster fogs for effect and bingo! I always thought that Colin McRae’s Impreza looked cool doing donuts at the end of the ’95 RAC Rally, nose up in the air as the gravel suspension squatted on the tarmac. Perhaps Ford could do a limited run of Focus RSs in a similar vein too?
Finally, how about approaching the target from a different angle. Land Rover could make a sporting version of a Discovery Sport or make an Evoque that you wanted to be seen in. I’m not talking about a Range Rover SVR type of vehicle, because the curious aim of that is to make an off-roader work on the (King’s) road. No, I’m thinking something more like the Bowler EXR S. A supremely talented sporting off-roader that could have a good stab at a Dakar stage, but with some everyday usability chucked in.
Why do all this? Well, apart from looking cool and allowing you to reach the places others can’t, on the road you get to enjoy so much of what the quest for increased grip has slowly teased out of performance cars. At vaguely normal speeds you can feel the Nomad moving underneath you. You can enjoy the weight balance, feel how throttle and brakes are impacting on the chassis’s attitude, even indulge in small slides without feeling guilty. There’s also the nice bonus of not having to worry about damaging ever larger wheels on ever more poorly surfaced roads (at least here in the UK). I know it wouldn’t be for everyone, but surely I’m not alone in thinking that the Nomad can’t be a one car trend?