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Three-wheelers have designs on sportiness, safety

Used to be that a three-wheeled motorcycle, or trike, meant one wheel in front, two in back. Then Can-Am sped onto the market with its snowmobile-esque Spyder, a three-wheeler that gave the segment a sporty makeover by putting the two wheels out front. In the year since the Spyder's unveiling, the three-wheeled segment is growing faster than a center fielder on steroids, with a number of new models coming to market throughout 2008. We take a sneak peek at the year's three-wheeled future.

Aptera Typ-1

Available: late 2008

The Aptera Typ-1 isn't easy to classify. It has three wheels, so it's registered as a motorcycle, but it has a steering wheel and seats two, so it feels more like a car. It's also electric. And did we mention it looks something like a dolphin?

The goal for this Carlsbad start-up was to make a passenger vehicle that has the same drivability, stability and safety characteristics as an automobile, only with higher energy efficiency, lower weight and fewer governmental hurdles than a company would encounter as a small-scale manufacturer of four-wheel vehicles.

The result is a future-is-now vehicle that's spacious, stylish, comfortable, eco-conscious, high-tech and so unusual looking that at one point during my time with the Typ-1, all the cars and pedestrians within a one-block radius were staring and/or snapping pictures.

Because the Typ-1 is a prototype, I wasn't able to drive it myself, but I did take a ride in the passenger seat. I just opened the DeLorean-type door, slid into the mod, green-and-white interior, closed the door behind me and strapped on my seat belt. Aptera Chief Executive and co-founder Steve Fambro turned the key to fire up the electric motor, pressed the pedal with the plus sign on the floor to accelerate, and we were off.

According to Fambro, the Typ-1 is capable of 80 mph and could travel up to 70 miles on a single charge while sustaining that speed, but he never took it up that fast and we didn't travel anywhere near that far as we cruised SoCal suburbia. The fastest we went was probably 45 mph, at which it felt stable. Taking corners, we went even slower, so I couldn't tell how it handled, but Fambro says the Typ-1 has been "designed for natural stability" and incorporates a traction control system that, in theory, can handle a 1G circle on par with a Honda Civic.

Riding in the Typ-1 is sort of like being in a high-tech fishbowl. There's incredible visibility from all sides except the back, which is equipped with a rear-view camera that displays whatever's happening behind the vehicle on a trio of computer screens.

The center of each of those three screens also displays the vehicle's speed, voltage and power, while a touch screen at the center of the dash controls the navigation system, stereo and other gauges, such as the odometer and temperature reading.

The Typ-1 is unusual for any number of reasons, the most notable being the body. Its water-worthy shape is formed from high-tech fiberglass that isn't just lighter than steel but 10 times stronger, according to Fambro. The Typ-1 has yet to be crash tested, but Fambro says the crumple zone on the Typ-1 is longer than that of a typical car, and the crush strength of the roof and side doors is stronger than what's been mandated for a regular passenger vehicle.

Can-Am Spyder

Available: July

If the manual-transmission Can-Am Spyder is a reentry bike for aging motorcyclists, the Canadian company's semiautomatic version may be more of a bridge vehicle for drivers of cars. The no-lean suspension on this groundbreaking three-wheeler already removed one barrier to entry for a vehicle you throw a leg over. Taking away the clutch and foot shifter removes another.

I was riding the first prototype of the Spyder with the SE5, or sequential electronic five-speed, transmission. With the exception of the thumb-operated shifter under the left grip, this version of the Spyder is otherwise exactly the same as the original SM5, or sequential manual five-speed, version that came out last year.

Considering the prototype was the first of three iterations before the SE5 Spyder goes into production, it was already highly evolved and well-functioning. In place of the foot shifter and clutch, there's a little black button that I pushed forward to upshift. I didn't need to roll off the throttle as I shifted. I just pushed the button and the transmission smoothly kicked it up a notch without bucking me like a bronco as it attempted to mesh gears; the sensation was similar to the seamless, continuously variable transmission of a car.

Downshifting, I had two options. I could push the button toward me, which required an act of finger contortion, or simply let the SE5 adjust to my slowing speed and downshift for me, which was my preference.

That made me wonder: Why didn't Can-Am just make the thing fully automatic on the upshift also? Mostly it was a matter of cost and efficiency. To make a fully automatic, CVT-type transmission would have required Can-Am to develop an entirely new transmission, instead of just modifying the one it was already using. That in turn would have upped the cost on the SE5 version, which already comes at a $1,500 premium.

Piaggio MP3 500

Available: February

Piaggio's groundbreaking MP3 250 hasn't even been on the market for a year, and already it's the bestselling scooter in the Piaggio brand lineup. So what's a manufacturer to do? Capitalize on that success with a one-two punch: a pair of 400-cc and 500-cc maxi-scooters that use the same twinned wheels and articulated front end to increase the bike's stability and riders' sense of calm.

While the profiles of the new maxis are bigger and more brutish, their dynamics are the same as the 250. The two front wheels, set 16.5 inches apart, lean in tandem, allowing riders to tilt the bike by as much as 40 degrees. Riders who are afraid to put a foot down can even lock the front suspension as they slow to 3 mph, allowing them to rest their feet on the textured metal floorboards instead of planet Earth. The bike also comes with a center stand, but it's redundant. The suspension lock and parking brake make the trike stable as a tripod when stopped.

The idea is that two wheels out front are better than just one because:

1) they provide a greater contact patch through turns and 2) they provide more stability on takeoffs, landings and at high speeds.

If the 12-inch front wheels hadn't been twinned, I wouldn't have been tempted to risk my life in pursuit of the bike's 89 mph max or to take it for 100-mile stints on the freeway, but I did. I even felt comfortable as I zipped along in the carpool lane, returning the many smiles and stares I was getting with a wave.

It's safe to say it was the three wheels that caused drivers to take their eyes off the road, but it could have been the style that prompted more than a few to accidentally veer into my lane. With its 500-cc version, Piaggio's showing its Italian heritage with a cutting-edge style designed to squelch any ideas that scooters can't be cool. Its matte black bodywork, tubular grill and fenced-in front lights are pure Mafia don. With its MP3 500, Piaggio is likely to have another hit on its hands.

TriRod F3 Adrenaline

Available: July

Unlike the rest of the three-wheeled field, which looks at the third wheel as a safety feature, TriRod Motorcycles sees it as a performance enhancement. The San Diego shop hasn't just added an extra wheel to the front of its F3 Adrenaline. It's upgraded the tires to automotive Pirellis and widened the spread of its twin wheels, so the F3 can carry more speed more aggressively through corners without running the risk of tipping over.

In the process, TriRod seems to have developed a new three-wheeling stunt: the side-sliding doughnut.

Like the Spyder, the F3 doesn't lean in turns. It's designed to ride like a three-wheeled Formula 1 race car with a sit-on versus sit-in design. The center of gravity is low for less body roll when cornering and the seat height is an exceptionally squat 17 inches. The front suspension is a pull-rod and crank-bell design that lessens unsprung weight for more responsive handling, while the double A-arms are unequal and not parallel for better grip on the ground.

Add a 120-cubic-inch, JIMS V-twin motor, and you've got yourself a three-wheeled missile.

I didn't get to ride the F3 Adrenaline because it's a prototype, but I did see it in action, so I will say this: TriRod isn't false billing.

It is, however, making itself into the Confederate Motor Co. of three-wheelers with a triumvirate of characteristics to match: high design, high performance and a high price: $55,000.

Vectrix V3

Available: late 2008

For its follow-up to the electric scooter it debuted last year, the Rhode Island manufacturer has gone the way of Piaggio. Literally. In order to make an electric version of a three-wheeled scooter, Vectrix had to license the right from the Italian manufacturer, which holds the patent.

While the V3 uses the same sort of independent, wheel-action suspension as the Piaggio MP3, allowing each front wheel to move independently but also lean in tandem and lock when stopped, Vectrix's front suspension is its own proprietary design.

I was able to ride a barely ridden prototype of the bike for the duration of a single charge, which, according to the digital dash, was about 45 miles. That is, if I'd ridden it the way I'd been asked -- on streets. But the Vectrix is capable of 62 mph and I wanted to see how it fared on the freeway, so that's where I took it.

Like all electrics, torque is constant on the V3, so it had amazing pickup as I got on the ramp and joined traffic. The production model should be even better because Vectrix will be upgrading its batteries. Instead of the Nickel Metal Hydride variety it used on its debut product, the Maxi, the V3's 125-volt battery pack will be lithium, which is quicker off the line. Vectrix anticipates the lithium-powered V3 will accelerate from 0 to 50 in a scant 5.2 seconds

On the freeway, the Vectrix did as well as I expected. It got up to its anticipated speed, but keeping it there reduced its range by about one-third. Anyone hoping to use the V3 as a freeway commuter would need to live fairly close to work or risk being stranded for a recharge.

Returning to city streets, I put the front end through its paces. At slow speeds and in turns, it didn't do as well as I'd wanted. It felt a little clunky and tin can-ish as I intentionally ran it over potholes and lumpy pavement. It's a good first effort for a fledgling manufacturer attempting a tricky front-end design, but it wasn't as fluid as its alpha-numerical competitor from across the pond.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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