This year marks the entrance of two new trikes to the market -- one motorcycle, one scooter -- each with twin wheels out front. Yes, similarly configured three-wheelers have been roaming Europe for years, but it's a foreign concept for the U.S. -- so foreign that both new bikes are from other countries. Bombardier Recreational Products' 998cc Can-Am Spyder is Canadian. Piaggio's 250cc MP3 is from Italy.
Both are attempting what seems impossible: to simultaneously lure riders with years of saddle time and newbies who've never thrown a leg over. Already, that makes the new three-wheelers doubly radical. But what's even more radical is how differently each bike is going about achieving the same goal.
2008 BRP Can-Am Spyder
The math of 1 picture = 1,000 words doesn't add up with the Spyder. It's so different from anything else on the road that words don't really suffice. You have to ride it to believe it can do what it's doing because it doesn't just defy logic, it challenges Einstein. As a two-wheel traditionalist, I didn't think it was possible to take a high-speed turn on three wheels while sitting straight up, but after a day with the cutting-edge technology of BRP's Canuck creepy crawler, I'm a believer.
Motorcycle review: A review of Bombardier Recreational Products' Can-Am Spyder in last week's Highway 1 section incorrectly stated it was the company's first motorcycle. The Spyder is BRP's first on-road motorcycle. In the 1970s and '80s, it also manufactured dirt bikes.
Unlike a traditional motorcycle, the $14,999 Spyder does not lean in turns. Any leaning a rider may do is a matter of style and discretion because it isn't necessary with a trio of stability systems keeping it glued to the ground. Anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control make up the bike's Vehicle Stability System or, as BRP likes to call it, VSS.
I call it HAL.
For the anti-lock brakes, there are sensors on each wheel that monitor their rotation and reduce brake pressure if there's any variation that may lock up a wheel. The traction control system takes care of the rear wheel, checking to see that its rotation speed is in sync with the front and reducing torque if it isn't. Then there's the stability control system, which analyzes motion forces and, if the outermost front wheel is in danger of lifting off the ground during aggressive maneuvers, reduces torque and applies the brakes independently to each wheel.
The entire stability package was engineered in conjunction with Bosch -- the same company that designs traction control systems for cars. That makes sense since the Spyder is designed to cover the middle ground between a convertible sports car and a motorcycle. In California, that means only a regular Class C driver's license is required to operate the Spyder, although the DMV will register it as a bike.
BRP has never made a motorcycle before. Its biggest claims to fame: ATVs, Sea-Doos and their snowbound compatriot, the Ski-Doo, which explains why the Spyder rides like a quad and looks like a snowmobile. With its Spyder, BRP is hoping to open an entirely new market segment with a fun-to-ride product that lets a rider get some wind in his face without bringing his knees anywhere near the pavement.
It's really a hop-on-and-go sort of thing. I found it extremely easy to operate. The steering is dynamically powered. The hydraulic brakes are fully integrated but use only one, foot-actuated pedal, like a car. Because there are three wheels, there's no need to put a boot down when stopped. Riders who don't want to futz with a clutch even have the option of a finger-operated, sequential electronic transmission to move through the bike's broadly powered five gears. And when it's time to roll this 697-pounder backward, think Gold Wing: There's reverse.
Going backward under power felt a bit "Mission: Impossible II" to me. Good thing it maxed out at 8 mph in reverse, because I was having a little too much fun. Not as much fun as I was having going forward, but still. It was such a cheap thrill. Powered with a Rotax 990 engine, the V-twin Spyder is capable of 110 miles per hour. Rolling on the throttle? Pure tarantula. It's got some venom, with 77 pound-feet of torque and 106 horsepower.
That could have translated into cruddy gas mileage, but the BRP claims 30 miles per gallon, thanks to fuel injection and a catalytic converter. Pack your favorite socks into the Spyder's 11.6-gallon front-loading trunk and you're off.
Just don't expect to split lanes. At 59.3 inches, that's out of the question. So is owning one of these babies -- until fall, when they start showing up at dealers. The Can-Am Spyder is a 2008 model that won't be out until October, though the company will be touring the country all spring and summer offering test rides (and taking deposits). If you're among the few to get your hands on one of the 1,000 units that will be out this year, just be happy for the screwdriver-proof, computer-chip key 'cuz this Spyder's going to be a hot ticket.
2007 Piaggio MP3
Like the Spyder, Piaggio's MP3 also puts its twin wheels in the front 40 rather than the back pasture, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike on the Can-Am three-wheeler, riders can't see the front wheels because they aren't as far forward or as spread out. They're also tucked under the bodywork, keeping it a slim and lane-splittable 29.3 inches wide. Most significantly, the two wheels lean -- up to 40 degrees and in tandem -- which is why this scooter may actually hold more appeal for hard-riding two-wheelers than the Spyder, which stays upright.