Any rider who's cracked the binding of a motorcycle magazine in recent years knows we're living in the golden age, but if the faithless are looking for more proof, the new three-wheelers would be it.
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 RecreationalProducts' Can-Am Spyder in last week's Highway 1 section incorrectlystated it was the company's first motorcycle. The Spyder is BRP'sfirst on-road motorcycle. In the 1970s and '80s, it also manufactureddirt 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.
So how is the $6,999 MP3 also able to snag an entirely different audience at the same time -- the mileage-conscious rider wannabes who've dreamed of two wheels but shied away for safety reasons? Stability. Having two wheels out front provides additional control in hard-braking and other situations where traction is compromised.
It may not have the triptych of high-end, Bosch-designed stability systems of the Spyder, but its front suspension is patented. It's a parallelogram design, made up of four aluminum arms that are cantilevered off the frame to support two steering tubes.
That gives the scooter the ability to lean the two front wheels together but travel up and down independently as road conditions warrant. I have to say I was surprised at how well it handled. And having that extra wheel gave me the confidence to push it a bit, dropping down lower than I would normally on a scooter because I felt like I had a safety net. Taking turns, it was like being locked out of your house and realizing there's an extra key outside.
At its maximum speed of 80 mph, the MP3 was stable, even on scooter-averse freeways. Slowing down, it also had the goods. The MP3 doesn't have anti-lock brakes, but it has twice the stopping power of a regular scooter: Double the wheels and, basically, you double the brakes.
Slowing and stopping, the suspension is equally trick. To park the scooter, there's a parking brake on the steering column that's operated with a lever. Flip it up, and the front wheels are locked upright so there's no need to kick out a stand. Travel to San Francisco, and you can even park it on a hill. Pull the lever down, and the suspension is unlocked.
You can tell if the suspension is locked based on whether the scooter wants to tip over, but there's also a dummy light.
A couple of neat features: The front suspension lock automatically turns off when you roll on the throttle. It can also be turned back on as you coast into a stop so you can put your feet up on the floorboard, provided you're going 3 mph or less.
A less neat feature: Each time the lock button is pressed, it beeps. What started as a good tutorial quickly grated on my nerves because I could tell if the suspension was locked or unlocked based on whether the scooter tipped. I asked Piaggio if the beeping could be disabled, and it can't.
So it beeps like a microwave. Storage wise, at least, it holds more than a Stouffer's. It's got 15 gallons of space, which is accessible through the rear trunk or by flipping up the seat. So pack a set of golf clubs or an overnight bag and fill the 3.2-gallon tank: You're good to go for about 180 miles. Piaggio claims an average 60-plus mpg for this fuel-injected and catalyzed, single-cylinder 250. The company just isn't playing up the usual scooter benefits. It's the extra wheel Piaggio wants us to look at.
In the U.S., Piaggio doesn't have the same name recognition as Vespa, which has become the Kleenex of scooters in the 61 years it's been on the market. But it was Piaggio that invented the Vespa scooter. With its MP3 (short for Moto Piaggio 3), Piaggio is hoping to find its own audience and create a separate identity.
In the competitive and growing scooter market, what better way to differentiate itself than to do something a little, well, strange? For scooter riders who like a little look-at-me action along with their fuel savings and lane-splitting, the MP3 delivers. And with its extra wheel, it out-cools most other scooters, maybe even the Vespa.
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2008 BRP Can-Am Spyder
Base price: $14,999
Powertrain: Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, V-twin, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, five speed
Displacement: 998 cc
Horsepower: 106 at 8,500 rpm
Bore and stroke: 3.82 inches by 2.68 inches
Torque: 77 pound-feet at 6,250 rpm
Seat height: 29 inches
Dry weight: 697 pounds
2007 Piaggio MP3
Base price: $6,999
Powertrain: Single-cylinder, four-stroke, four valves per cylinder, automatic transmission
Displacement: 244 cc
Seat height: 30.7 inches
Dry weight: 450 poundsCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times