Though a popular layout for race cars, MEV’s new Atomic looks unusual for a potential road car with the engine beside the driver as it eliminates any pretence to practicality the car might otherwise have had. However, if it’s ultimate handling you’re after, this is the car to show you what it can feel like as Ian Hyne reports.
Every mechanical layout for a car that you can imagine has been tried and even in the case of the worst arrangements including rear engine front-wheel drive, more than once. Today, luxury, utility, saloon and sports cars adhere to three basic layouts being front engine rear-wheel drive, front engine front-wheel drive and mid-engine rear-wheel drive in all of which cases, the engine either goes in front of or behind the driver. Such layouts offer space for two, four or more passengers plus any accompanying baggage. They also offer the best blends of performance, handling and roadholding ability.
As ever in car design, everything is a compromise, improvements in one aspect of the equation having an effect, usually detrimental, on another. But if you don’t want to carry luggage, passengers or even one passenger, the options list becomes longer. In effect, what you end up with is a single-seater race car in which case the design becomes far more focused on dynamic ability which includes performance, handling and roadholding to which the key is balance and that’s what the MEV Atomic has in spades.
The chassis is an extremely stiff round-tube structure on which the three 1 ¼” side rails are triangulated in two directions resulting in a spaceframe chassis with a torsional stiffness figure in excess of 2,000 ft lbs / ° It’s not the highest figure it’s possible to record but the chassis’ super light 52 kg weight as well as its almost perfect balance, reduces the forces being fed into it.
At the front it’s all conventional stuff with urethane bushed MEV round-tube wishbones, Rally Design alloy uprights and Pro-Tech aluminium coilspring damper units. The steering is a rack and pinion with 2.4 turns lock to lock and the pedals comprise an MEV-fabricated, floor-mounted brake and clutch with a pendulum throttle.
At the back, the arrangement is conventional with double wishbones and Pro-Tech alloy coilspring damper units but the source of the other components deserts the Sierra in favour of the Mk2 Mazda MX5 for the LSD differential, driveshafts, hubs, bearings and uprights. The MX5 also supplies the rear discs and callipers while the fronts are Wilwood, the system operated by twin master-cylinders and a balance bar.
So far it’s pretty straightforward and familiar stuff save for the wheelbase being reduced to just 80”. Then comes the engine. Although other engines could be fitted, MEV’s Stuart Mills and Julie Wilson have designed the car around the Yamaha R1 unit. It’s far from the most powerful of available units developing 150 bhp @ 10,000 rpm and 79 lbs ft @ 8,500 (1999 model on carburettors) but it’s very smooth both in its power delivery and its gearchange and, with the Atomic tipping the scales at just 354 kgs dry, the power to weight ratio is a staggering 430 bhp per ton! Even with the additional weight of a driver at anything between 80 – 100 kgs, and the 5-gallon tank full, it still amounts to a heck of a lot of thump.
In respect of where to put it, the location beside the driver has been chosen to deliver perfect balance in the car which it does with precisely 25% of the weight on each wheel. Actually, the engine is a little forward and the driver a little to the rear in an effort to offset the effect of the fluctuating weight of individual drivers but basically, you get all the well publicised benefits of a mid-engined design only enhanced by the weight being concentrated into a smaller area as well as being placed more centrally between the axles.
With the chassis rolling, the bodywork is simply there to keep the majority of the rain off but in a classic example of less being more, aside from the uncompromising box that is the engine cover, there is charm and attraction in the car’s visual appeal, backed up by engineering as styling in many of the visible mechanical assemblies. In a nutshell, I like it and it’s a view that is heavily endorsed when I climb behind the wheel.
In respect of so much of the car being open, it hasn’t stopped sales of the company’s Rocket model which have now passed 60 kits while there is good news on the IVA testing front for these and similar cars generally referred to as exoskeleton designs. Previously the SVA examiner could insert his sphere through the open chassis tubes as far as it would go and move it in every direction, demanding edge radius compliance from anything with which it came into contact even jubilee clips under the dashboard. However, in the slack testing period between the demise of SVA and the advent of IVA, MEV’s Stuart Mills was asked to take his car along to his local testing station for the inspectors to firm up their interpretations of the new regulations. From that exercise it emerged that in future, testers will only insert the testing sphere through open chassis tubes to a distance of 200 mm and will only move it in one direction thus dramatically reducing the number of components with which it can come into contact.
But all that is far from my mind as I swing a leg over the chassis side and climb aboard. The GRP bucket seat is very comfortable and of course, suitably light weight but it’s one of the few components not included in the kit as MEV reckon some builders will opt for the additional padding of an alternative seat. As well as comfortable, it also feels secure, especially in respect of the three side-rail design that looks and is, significantly stronger than the traditional spaceframe that puts the driver hard up against the side of the car. Though it’s a small car, the engine beside the driver layout leaves bags of length for tall drivers and I have no space problems at over 6 feet tall.
The control layout is fine too. The pedals are well set, the wheel well positioned and the dashboard very simple carrying just the R1 instrument cluster, all switchgear being on the Ford Focus column stalk controls. The only thing that feels a little odd is the gear lever. It’s well positioned but rather than the conventional fore and aft action, this one operates directly on the bike’s gearchange output and consequently operates from side to side with first being to the right towards you and second to sixth, left away from you. It’s just unfamiliar but doubtless something that will become second nature as experience of the car grows.
Once again, I have the convenience of MEV’s own test track which is about ¾ of a mile long. It’s basically a figure of eight but the two circles are connected by a short straight that is taken once in each direction on every lap. The bottom loop is a short, very tight ring while the top one is much bigger allowing much greater cornering speed. However, there’s little run-off room on the outside of the track and consequently little room for error.
Twist the key and the R1 spins like a drill and barks into life before settling to a base rumble. As it warms I test the control reaction and set off on a slow lap to get the feel of it. The clutch is fine and there’s good travel in the throttle that allows you to regulate it and keep the revs under control. The gearchange works perfectly as one would expect of a change coming directly from the box and I soon get used to moving the lever across the car rather than fore and aft although for some reason, it seems to make it harder to know what gear I’m in. Steering too is fine, the 2.4 turns allowing me to take the tight loop in one armful of lock even when I really speed up while the all-wheel disc brakes on a 354 kg car offer good balance and phenomenal stopping power as well as being surprisingly hard to lock up despite quite a bit of sand and gravel on the track.
When I decide to do a standing start, I’m hugely impressed with the car’s acceleration, the 3.9:1 ratio of the MX5 differential being well suited to the R1’s power delivery and the 15” wheels fitted with 195/50 tyres although gearchanges are done by ear as the rev-counter is having an off-day. But it’s incredibly quick off the line and with remarkably little wheelspin. It just blitzes the straight and flies into the tight loop at the bottom where the benefits of the design emerge in the short wheelbase and equal corner weights as the grip is phenomenal, especially as the Fulda tyres, although competent, are nothing special.
The twisting nature of the track requires total concentration as there’s a constant need for control inputs: acceleration, braking, changing gear or steering as well as being alert to the dangers of overcooking it and ready to take remedial action but the short wheelbase and perfect balance have created a car perfectly suited to a tight twisting track and you can really push it, the car’s limits being far greater than my own.
Circulating for a rapidly increasing number of laps, I find the Atomic really smooth, partly due to the Yamaha engine which I have always found to be the most drivable of bike engines, closely followed by Kawasaki units, and partly due to the excellent adjustment of the controls and consequent control response. The 3.9 differential slightly favours acceleration over top speed but it’s perfect for this car, the power coming in smoothly, cleanly and in an unending surge that has me constantly short shifting or backing off the throttle on the short track. Speed aside, the shorter wheelbase makes the Atomic a nimble performer, being particularly good and tenacious in the tighter turns but not feeling at all unstable or nervous in the longer, wider much higher speed sweeping turns of the big loop. The ride is also impressive, the softer springs allowing for better traction as well as comfort over the bumps.
After a period of just messing about, there inevitably comes a time when the back end does step out and I’m a little slow to catch it the first time and end up with the back wheels on the grass. However, the next time I’m quicker to react and it’s all nicely recovered in one armful of lock, the car proving easy to steer on the throttle again due to its perfect balance. This car has the 2.4 turns rack and pinion but for those who really want to attack, there’s the option of a 1.9 which will undoubtedly speed up the car’s reactions but might prove a little twitchy on a long, high-speed sweeper.
Actually, given the Atomic’s prodigious and supercar dwarfing power to weight ratio, the one thing it was unable to demonstrate on MEV’s track was its sheer pace as there just isn’t room and as it’s not currently through its IVA test and registered, it’s something we’ll have to wait for but on the evidence to date, it’s going to be an experience to savour.
So is the MEV Atomic a potential hit or a miss? I reckon it’s another hit that people are really going to warm to, especially for trackday use where its dynamic talents seem set to ruffle a few performance car feathers as well as create intrigue for those who admire sound and well directed engineering. And as ever with MEV, the price is right too.
The kit comes for £4,500 + VAT and while that doesn’t sound especially affordable, you need to look at what comes with it. In return for your cheque, you get the chassis, wishbones, bushes and inserts, aluminium front uprights and hubs, MX5 rears uprights and hubs, a full set of ball joints, four coilspring damper units, the 2.4 turns steering rack, the propshaft, propshaft adapter, driveshafts and differential, the alloy floors and bulkheads, centre tunnel, the wing-mounting stays, the 7-piece GRP body panel set in a choice of colours and the Perspex wind deflector. I reckon that’s a heck of a lot and represents excellent value that makes the on road cost very attractive especially as all you need on top is the R1 engine and gearbox, wiring loom, wheels, tyres, seat and lights.
MEV has made a real splash in the kit car world since its arrival in 2006 with a string of very quickly designed and produced models. Some like the 4x4, the three-seater, central driving position R3 and the electrically powered R2 didn’t meet with much public response but they have all found new homes with companies that can see future potential for them. Those aside, the company’s E Trike designs have generated steady sales at £50 for the full engineering drawings and component source lists while the Ford Focus based Rocket and Sonic 7 have been instant hits and I fully expect the Atomic to join them.
KIT CAR MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 2009