Three wheels that will make them stare
TOMS RIVER, N.J. 'It's a bike! It's an ATV it's
a Can-Am Spyder Roadster?"
Okay, so the Canadian company most famous for bringing you the Ski-Doo and Sea-Doo is not going to be borrowing this superhero-worthy tagline any time soon for the three-wheeled curiosity that's part sport touring motorcycle, part all-terrain vehicle and part fender-sporting hot rod.
Still, there's something strangely seductive about this mishmash of various transportation modes meant for the road.
In a couple of hours of test riding around the coastline and back roads of New Jersey, fellow motorists pull up to it bearing big smiles up front, and camera phones from passengers in the rear.
The 2+1 wheel layout is blended with sport-bike power, automotive safety and the unparalleled view that comes from sitting outdoors.
The common refrain of 'What is it?' is asked at every stop for gas, at least once, and at many red lights in between.
It's a Canadian-designed motorcycle that may just usher in a new generation of technologically advanced open-air motoring across North America and Europe, or may just fizzle out as a brave but overly kooky Canadian business flop.
With two wheels in front, one in back, the Can-Am Spyder Roadster is a creation of Bombardier Recreational Products, or BRP. The firm used to be a division of Quebec-based industrial powerhouse Bombardier, but was spun off in 2004 so Bombardier could focus on its aviation and train businesses, getting away from the recreational power-sports industry that Joseph Armand Bombardier helped create when he invented the Ski-Doo in 1959.
Although Minnesota-based Polaris had come out with a motorized sled four years prior to that, the Ski-Doo is the design that popularized the snowmobile, and helped the company reach beyond the commercial and military snow vehicle markets to a new level of production and public recognition.
History is attempting to repeat itself now, as BRP is not the first company to come up with a three-wheel vehicle for the road (anyone remember motorcycle sidecars?), but it is the first to blend a 2+1 wheel layout, sport-bike styling and power, automotive safety and security electronic controls, and the unparalleled view of the world that comes from sitting outdoors.
"Paradigm shifting is how this firm started," said Chris Dawson, vice-president of strategic planning and the head of BRP's Spyder program. "We wanted to offer something with more security and practicality than a sport bike, but for less money than a convertible."
The security side of things is the key here: as a three-wheeler, the Roadster doesn't need two legs on the ground at a light to prevent it from tipping over, although various fellow motorcycle riders had to initially fight that "feet-down" urge. Park it on a hill, and you won't have to worry that the Roadster will end up shiny-side down on the pavement, or worse, on your legs.
There are ATVs with three wheels, although with less radical 1+2 tricycle layouts, but the Spyder Roadster is no simple road-going version of one of BRP's Can-Am all-terrain vehicles. What sets it apart from both ATVs and motorcycles are the Spyder Roadster's electronic brains, designed to keep its rider in control, that are more similar to rear-wheel-drive luxury sedans than anything now on two or three wheels.
This sophisticated system comes from Bosch, one of the largest suppliers of such "electronic guardian angels" in the automotive industry, and works just like it does on four wheels. It adds antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control systems. This system incorporates ABS sensors at each wheel to read for any discrepancy in wheel speed, then cuts power to the driven rear wheel whenever wheelspin is detected.
If that doesn't help enough to get the rider not driver back on the intended path, as determined by sensors measuring the handlebar's steering angle and the Roadster's wheel slip, the system can then brake each wheel individually, or all of them.
In Canada, the Can-Am Spyder is officially classified as a motorcycle, so any rider interested in one will need a motorcycle licence. But in some key markets, three-wheelers are not classified as bikes, so riders can operate them with a regular driver's license, such as in the states of California, South Carolina and Delaware. This also holds true for all of western Europe outside of Greece, say Can-Am officials, and it's in these areas that the company sees potential for mass market penetration.
"Hard-core sport-bike riders who want knee-scraping thrills are not as interested in the Spyder," said Dawson, noting that the target customers will most likely be married 35- to 55-year-olds who like their toys, and like to ride in groups.
Despite the well-regarded Rotax 990 engine that puts 106 hp to the rear wheel the engine used by BMW in different states of tune in some of its bikes the Spyder is pushing significantly more weight (316 kg) than any modern sport bike, and doesn't feel as responsive.
With a 0-100 km/h time of 4.5 seconds, according to BRP, and fuel economy that approximates that of a subcompact hatchback at 6.5 to 7.0 litres/100 km, there's both a performance and a practical edge to the Spyder Roadster. A large front-end storage bin will hold a helmet easily, and the Roadster will go approximately 300 km on a tank of fuel.
The Spyder goes on sale in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec this fall and BRP officials say they are already more than half way to their goal of getting 2,500 pre-orders for the machines, which start at $18,499 in Canada, ($14,999 U.S. for Americans, or Canadian bargain hunters).
The rollout will expand to the rest of the provinces and across the states by early next year, right around the same time the company is planning the Spyder Roadster's launch in Europe.