Bombardier builds a new “trike” – is it the next Segway?
by Paul A. Eisenstein (2007-02-12)
I have a confession to make. As much as I enjoy motorcycles, I just can't bring myself to buy one. I've dumped a few too many times; watched too many friends get run off the road - or worse. And living in the traffic-dense suburbs of Detroit , I just can't see getting back on a bike any time soon.
I'm certainly not unique. Though there's been a resurgence of demand among us aging Boomers, millions more of my cohorts aren't ready to relive those Easy Rider days, at least not on a conventional, two-wheeler. Yet that sense of open-air freedom continues to beckon. What if there were something just a little easier to ride, and maybe a little safer?
That's what Bombardier, the massive Canadian transportation company asked itself, back in 1996, when it began a top-secret project aimed at developing an alternative to the motorcycle. Few companies had a better track record for coming up with powered sports craft. The Quebec conglomerate invented the snowmobile, as well as the personal watercraft. It was already a major player in off-road ATVs and dominated the outboard motor business. But there was one thing missing from Bombardier's portfolio: an on-road vehicle.
Company officials were smart enough to realize they didn't want to go up against the well-established players in the motorcycle business, like Harley-Davidson, Honda, and BMW. Indeed, what they realized they needed was something distinctly different from the traditional motorcycle.
This past weekend, I got my first chance to drive - or, more accurately, to ride - the result of that eleven-year effort: the three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder Grand Sport Roadster. That's a long name for such a small bit of machinery we'll hereafter call the Spyder. The result of that US$180 million effort looks a bit like the letter "Y" on wheels. Unlike some other tricycle-shaped automobiles and motorcycles, Spyder puts two wheels up front and a third, driven wheel in back, an arrangement BRP engineers were convinced is more stable than putting a single tire on the nose end.
As I arrived at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, a few miles from downtown San Diego , I got my first glimpse of Spyder. From the side, one might initially mistake it for a conventional motorcycle, but visually, the vehicle has even more in common with one of BRP's Ski-doo snowmobiles or a Sea-doo watercraft. And as you straddle the curious vehicle, it feels a lot like an ATV, albeit minus one wheel.
One straddles Spyder just like a motorcycle and, indeed, most of the controls are quite similar. There's the familiar left-hand clutch and you wrap your right hand around the throttle. But the traditional right-hand brake is missing, replaced by a single right-foot brake pedal. That's one of several significant differences.
Where you simply walk a motorcycle backwards out of a parking spot, you couldn't do that easily with the bulky Spyder. As a result, the manual gearbox was converted to a five-speed, with the sixth gear converted to reverse.Like a motorcycle, one shifts Spyder by holding in the clutch and using the left foot to flick a pedal up or down. BRP also promises to introduce a Formula One-style, electronically-shifted manual transmission. The gearbox is mated to a 998-cc V-Twin engine produced by BRP's Rotax division. It's a smooth, high-revving motor that's part of a family of small engines that have been well-tested by brands such as BMW. (The German maker uses a Rotax-derived 650-cc single-cylinder into in its F650 series and new G650X series models, and an 800-cc parallel-twin in its new F800.) The engine is mounted fairly conventionally within an unusual, three-beam steel frame. A fully-adjustable double-A-arm suspension completes the package.
After slipping on a helmet and riding gloves, adjusting the sideview mirrors and releasing the parking brake I fired up the Rotax engine, a satisfying burble emerging from the large exhaust can mounted on Spyder's right rear. Clutch in, I kicked into first gear, twisted the throttle and launched down a short course BRP had wisely set up in a fairground parking lot. With a squeal of tires, Spyder soared down the tarmac. But it took only mild pressure on the brake pedal to bring it to a halt. I repeated the process several more times before attacking a slalom course.
A colleague - a frequent motorcyclist who had also come along for the ride - looked even more perplexed than I felt. Straddling his own Spyder, he slammed into a couple cones before getting a feel for the three-wheeler. After a few laps around the course, we compared notes. Unlike a motorcycle, you steer into a corner with the Spyder. And while you lean into a turn, the maneuver is more like riding an All-Terrain Vehicle than a bike. That said, the general motions seemed intuitive and easy to master, so cautiously, I headed out on the open road. The first thing I noticed was the attention Spyder commanded. Passing motorists stared, some with their mouths wide open. Pedestrians pointed, several grabbing their camera-phones to snap some pics.
There's something about driving al fresco that provides a different sense of reality. Despite a couple nervous moments, early on, as I learned how to point Spyder into the corners, it was hard to do anything but smile. Even with a full-face helmet and heavy leather coat, the wind and sun felt delightful as I steadily increased my speed. And there's plenty of power to get Spyder going. The Rotax makes a solid 106 horsepower and 77 pound-feet of torque. While BRP didn't release 0-60 times, the three-wheeler seemed well-equipped to keep up with all but the fastest sports cars, though it would be no match for the fastest European or Japanese sports bikes. Rated top speed is 130 miles per hour.
The double-A-arm suspension proves surprising capable at soaking up even the harshest bumps without numbing out a clear feel for the road. The suspension, along with the Y-frame layout, was pleasantly stable, especially when assisted by an array of high-tech systems one doesn't normally expect on a bike. Spyder features three-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, traction control - to ensure all that power gets to the road - and vehicle stability control. The latter system makes sure that Spyder stays firmly under control during all but the absolute worst maneuvers. Steer too aggressively into the corners and the computer control system will back off on engine power while applying individual brakes, as necessary.
I often measure my reaction to a vehicle by the feeling I get when it's time to turn back the keys. And after about 90 minutes on the Spyder I was clearly sorry to let the three-wheeler go. But, I kept asking myself, would I pay $14,995 for the unusual machine? And are there enough other potential customers to justify the roughly US$180 million invested in the decade-long development program by BRP - the sports craft division spun off by Bombardier three years ago.
To his credit, BRP CEO Jose Boisjoli admits there's no clear answer. The company is taking a slow and "conservative" approach to rolling out Spyder. It will spend the next year aiming to build buzz for the product. Among other things, it will run a series of dealer events around the U.S. , inviting potential customers to take Spyder for a ride. It's also studying plans to set up a driving program, similar to ones Porsche and several other automakers operate. The target audience is made up of Boomers who might like the idea of open-air driving but just don't really like the idea of riding a motorcycle. Initial company studies suggest that sport bike riders won't switch to Spyder - but they also won't turn thumbs down - and that's critical because that "cool factor" is critical to the product's success.
So is functionality. With the large storage bin up front, there's enough space to pack a light weekend's necessities for two. On the other hand, the three-wheel configuration has at least one notable drawback. In places like California , motorcycles are popular with sport-minded commuters who can use them to weave in and out of traffic. You can't "split lanes" like that with the wider Spyder. And those who might see the new Can-Am Roadster as a high-mileage alternative to a four-wheeled roadster could be in for a disappointment. Spyder's mileage is estimated between 25 and 30 mpg, about what you'd get from a Mazda Miata. Who might drive the vehicle may also depend on individual state regulations. In some, you need only a standard driver's license to operate Spyder, in others, a motorcycle endorsement, even a special three-wheel permit, might be necessary.
If Spyder cultivates the niche market BRP believes is ready and waiting, the company could readily ramp up production to about 50,000 a year, Boisjoli revealed, while sitting astride one of the three-wheelers.
BRP may not have the market all to itself, though, at least not for long. There are persistent rumors that other manufacturers - Harley and Ducati are frequently cited - may be looking at a similar Y-frame design. And Piaggio, the Italian manufacturer best-known for its Vespa scooters, has a three-wheeler coming, as well. While I've yet to test one, the approach appears slightly different than BRP's, with the front pair of wheels tilting to allow a more motorcycle-like ride while still enhancing vehicle stability.
Has BRP come up with a hot new segment - or built another Segway? I'll reserve judgment on the potential, long-term success of Spyder, but I've also got a call in asking for another chance to drive the machine when things warm up back home in Detroit . If it's any measure, I'm still smiling.