The Truth About Cars » three-wheelers The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 19:04:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » three-wheelers Elio Motors Update: Latest Prototype Shown, Lease & Contracts Signed, Factory Stores Announced Fri, 25 Apr 2014 11:00:53 +0000 img_5454-sam

Since we last looked at Elio Motors, the startup that plans on selling an 84 mpg, $6,800 tandem reverse trike to people looking to replace 15 year old beaters, there have been a number of developments involving the company. To begin with, the start of production has been pushed back until the beginning of 2015. Though Elio had originally announced that production would start in Q4 of this year, there were delays in finalizing the real estate deal for the former General Motors assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana where Elio plans to build their vehicles, including assembling their own engines (whose preliminary specifications have been announced). There have also be some changes to the car’s design as it gets closer to production, with a fourth prototype being introduced. Finally, Elio has announced how they will market and service the vehicle. Like Tesla, they will be setting up factory owned stores to sell directly to customers. Those stores, though, won’t be providing service.


At the beginning of 2013, Elio and Louisiana state officials announced that the startup automaker would be using about a third of the more than 4 million square feet of vacant manufacturing space at GM’s Shreveport factory. The announced plan was going to be that Elio investor Stuart Lichter’s Industrial Realty Group was going to buy the plant from RACER Trust, which is selling off properties formerly owned by pre-bankruptcy General Motors, and that Elio would in turn lease part of the plant from IRG. Sometime during the course of 2013 that plan changed to the Caddo Parish Commision’s Industrial Development Board buying the plant for approximately $7.5 milion, with IRG leasing the entire facility and then subleasing part of it to Elio. The factory is in Caddo Parish. After a lawsuit challenging the purchase was dismissed, earlier this year the county bought the plant and the deal was consummated. Subsequent to finalizing the real estate transaction Elio announced that they would start what they describe as “significant” hiring  in the fourth quarter of this year, with total employment of 1,500 reached after production starts in 2015.

IRG said that it hopes to attract at least some of Elio’s suppliers to locate operations in the remaining 2.6 million square feet that Elio is not using. In addition to announcing when hiring for the plant will begin, now that they have a lease, the company has contracted with Comau Inc. to provide automation services for the factory’s body and engine shops. Elio will be welding up their own space frames and attaching composite body panels to those frames. Comau will be supplying the robots and machinery to do so. Elio will also be assembling their own engines, designed exclusively for them by IAV. Comau will be providing the transfer machinery for Elio’s engine assembly.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The preliminary specs on that engine have been released. It’s a fairly conventional water cooled single overhead cam 0.9 liter 3 cylinder engine with two valves per cylinder and sequential port fuel injection. The crankcase, heads and oil sump will all be made of cast aluminum. The power ratings are 55 hp and 55 lb-ft of torque. Some of the people who have made reservations for an Elio trike have expressed disappointment that the engine will be smaller and have less power than the 1.0 liter 70 hp engine that Elio had previously mentioned. It doesn’t look like anyone’s cancelling their reservations yet, though.

Speaking of reservations, when I spoke to the company’s VP of retail operations, Jerome Vassallo, about a month ago, he told me that they’d gotten over 11,000 paid reservations for the as yet unnamed vehicle. At the time, based on previous announcements, my guess was that about 1,000 people a month were signing on. Elio now says they now have over 14,600 reservations so it looks like the rate is accelerating.  How many of those reservations are at the impulse purchase level of $100 and how many represent a serious financial commitment to the Elio concept haven’t been publicly revealed.


There have also been some changes now that the P4 prototype has been revealed. The company is chasing after that 84 mpg figure because they want to be able to get triple the average fuel economy of the American fleet of cars. Towards that end the body has had some aero refinement since I saw it last summer. Headlights are now mounted flush with the body on the hood of the vehicle instead of in Plymouth Prowler style pods sticking out from the sides. The roofline has been extended all the way to to the rear, eliminating the notchback, except for a small ducktail spoiler. The changes are to smooth the airflow, and there’s also now a more pronounced Kamm back. The new roofline has an added benefit of slightly increasing cargo space. The front wheels’ cycle style fenders are now fully skirted, and the company says that it will offer different style fenders as accessories.


Apparently, aerodynamic concerns have also resulted in a new front suspension design. The previous prototype used a classic double wishbone setup with a coilover shock absorber/spring running diagonally from the outboard end of the lower control arm to an upper mount on the frame. They’re still using unequal length control arms but they’ve taken the coilover unit out of the airflow and mounted it inside the body fairing using a trick setup. The upper shock mount is still on the frame, but the lower end of the shock absorber is located by a pivoting link attached to the lower frame. A narrow pull rod runs from the lower shock mount to the outboard end of the upper control arm.


In addition to the mechanical and exterior changes, the Elio trike will be getting a nicer interior than used in the previous prototype, with color matched panels. Also, regarding interior features, Elio announced what I think is a rather clever way of keeping up with consumers who expect modern infotainment. The Engineering Services unit of Continental tire is going to be providing electrical engineering and architecture support for the production Elio vehicles. In other words, they’re designing the wiring harness and engine control unit. If you think that a tire company is an unusual choice for an E/E supplier, particularly since Elio has already announced that Cooper will be supplying their OEM tires, Continental owns electronics and instrument supplier VDO.

That connection with VDO will produce Elio’s version of infotainment, a clever application of something VDO developed for the over the road trucking industry. Today’s consumers expect some form of infotainment electronics on their cars. A small company like Elio doesn’t have the resources to develop something like Ford’s Sync/My Ford Touch or Chrysler’s UConnect. Last year, Continental Commercial Vehicles & Aftermarket and VDO introduced the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station (FSDS). FSDS was designed to integrate over-the-road truck drivers’ smartphones with their vehicles and by offering it in their three wheeler, Elio takes care of the “how do you offer Nav on a cheap car?” problem.


The FSDS has a clamp that will hold most smartphones and comes with a phone app, developed by Continental, that enables the availability of phone features including online services while driving. The unit, which hooks up to your phone via Bluetooth, has an onboard audio amplifier with four channels rated at 20 Watts per channel, an integrated station seeking FM tuner, and a 5 volt USB tap for charging your phone. In terms of functionality, VDO says that the FSDS app includes the functions drivers require most while driving, such as phone calls, maps, online points of interest, and music selection. All features use text to speech to reduce distracted driving, and the app bundles related services such as  Community (communication & social networking), Vehicle (audio entertainment) and Proximity (individual add-ons) so they can be accessed with a single click.


As the Elio vehicle nears production, the company has finally announced how it will distribute and sell it. Sixty major markets in the United States have been identified and they will each get at least one factory owned Elio store that will sell directly to customers. With Tesla running up against car dealer franchise laws in Texas, Ohio, Arizona and most recently in New Jersey, I asked Vassallo how Elio plans to deal with the same problem. Here’s where three wheels again come in handy. Though Elio plans to have their vehicle meet automotive level safety and crash standards, as a three wheeler, it’s legally considered a motorcycle and thus has an easier and cheaper certification process. According to Vassallo, their status as a motorcycle, as opposed to an automobile, manufacturer will make a difference when it comes to operating factory stores in some states. He specifically mentioned that Harley-Davidson has factory owned stores, though he didn’t say whether those stores were in Texas or the other states that are problematic for Tesla. I checked with Harley-Davidson about factory owned stores and at the time of this publication, I’m still waiting for their PR contact to get back to me about whether H-D has factory owned stores in Texas, New Jersey, Ohio or Arizona. For the record, the Texas dealer franchise laws, which are considered to be the strongest in the country, cover any motorized road vehicle with at least two wheels.


Interestingly, while the factory stores will sell the Elio vehicles and accessories, if you buy an Elio, you won’t get it serviced directly by the company. Contracts have been signed and an announcement will be forthcoming that an existing nationwide chain of automotive service centers will be responsible for maintenance, service and warranty work on the Elio trikes. Parts and service are major profit generators for traditional car dealers, so it’s surprising that the manufacturer would pass up that revenue, but there are costs associated with setting up parts supply and logistics and many companies today do outsource that kind of stuff.

Finally, Vassallo told me that sometime soon, Elio Motors will make a major announcement concerning investors. Since the company is privately held, my guess is that they’re either going to announce an initial public offering of stock, a major investor, or some kind of program where potential buyers of the Elio trike can also invest in the company. Again, those are guesses.

When the Elio project started getting attention, just about everyone who commented on it assumed it was at best vaporware and at worst a scam. As I said last summer, three wheeled high gas mileage vehicles with composite bodies don’t have a great track record of actually getting to market (cf. Dale et al). Some have questioned Elio’s financials, resulting in comment flame wars between Elio skeptics and the Elio faithful, presumably folks with deposits down. I don’t know much about financials, but being the contrarian that I am, I said last summer that there wasn’t any reason why Elio shouldn’t be able to make a three wheeler with those performance, safety and fuel economy specifications at that price point and nothing has happened since then to change my mind. Think of the Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris and subtract 25% of the cost.

I do question whether it will be cheaper for Elio to build their own motor than buy one of the 1 liter or smaller engines, mostly three cylinders, that are proliferating like mushrooms in the auto industry. When Morgan reintroduced the 3 Wheeler, they chose to buy engines from aftermarket V-Twin maker S&S, not build their own. Last year Caterham introduced an entry level Seven with a 660cc turbocharged triple made by Suzuki. There’s no shame in buying engines. Back in the day, Continental Motors supplied many independent automakers, with both stock and custom designed engines.

elio3rgb2-723x382 (1)

On the other hand, Elio is planning on production levels far beyond those of specialist makers like Morgan and Caterham. At large enough production numbers, it’s likely to be cheaper to build your own motors.

Perhaps Elio Motors’ sums don’t add up. Certainly their backer IRG’s reliance on Caddo Parish’s purchase of the Shreveport assembly plant after publicly announcing only months earlier that IRG would be buying it themselves doesn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence in their stated plans. If the project ends up stillborn, or worse, a scam, I’ll be the first to say that I was wrong, but in the meantime I’m trying to keep an open mind about Elio.

There are genuine reasons to be skeptical, but from a manufacturing engineering standpoint, they can get the thing built and meet their stated performance specs. At the recent SAE World Congress I spoke to people from Comau and IAV about Elio Motors. Obviously, they aren’t going to say anything negative about a business partner, but when I brought up the fact that skeptics think Elio might be smoke and mirrors, the engineers from those firms said it wasn’t likely that their employers would sign contracts for vaporware.

Speaking of contracts and “vaporware”, as this post was being finished, Elio Motors and Flame-Spray Industries announced that FSI will be providing Elio with Plasma Transferred Wire Arc (PTWA) equipment. PTWA is a process that sprays a vapor of molten steel, depositing a thin, 150 micron layer of steel alloys on aluminum engine cylinder walls, eliminating the need for heavier inserted cast iron liners for the piston rings to ride on. PTWA was originally invented by Ford materials science and nanotech engineer Matthew Zaluzec, who started working on it in the early 1990s. FoMoCo then brought in Flame-Spray and Honsel to develop and market the process.

PTWA was first introduced on high performance engines, the supercharged 662 hp V8 in the Mustang Shelby GT500 and the 545 hp twin turbo V6 in Nissan’s GT-R. Flame-Spray markets PTWA as a weight-saving technique and my guess is that weight savings has a lot more significant impact on fuel economy when the vehicle has 1/10th the power and about a quarter of the weight of the GT-R, as is the case with the Elio tadpole.

By this time next year, we’ll know if Elio is for real or not. Actually, we’ll know by the end of this year, when Paul Elio says that his company will finally start hiring people to work at the Shreveport factory. The real estate is secured, they’ve contracted for production equipment, now let’s see if they start hiring some folks to man that equipment.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Elio Motors – It Just Might Be For Real, So to Check it Out, TTAC Rolls Consumer Reports Style and Puts Skin in the Game Sat, 24 Aug 2013 12:53:04 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

Elio Motors is one of those automotive startups that raises all sorts of flags that makes some people think that it’s a scam, or at least on shaky financial ground. Almost every bit of news from Elio has been greeted with some skepticism, understandably (here, here, and here). They’re planning on selling a three wheel vehicle with a composite body that gets amazing gas mileage. Those facts alone remind people of the Dale scam, and the failed Aptera venture. Also, they’re taking deposits on a vehicle whose design has not been finalized, a year away from production, and that evokes memories of Preston Tucker, who had his own problems. Then there’s the financing plan that Elio says will allow people currently driving beaters, the working poor if you will, to get a new car with a warranty just for what they’re currently paying for gasoline. When you buy the $6,800 tandem two seater reverse trike, whatever balance there is after your trade-in and/or deposit is applied will go on a credit card. Monthly payments will be required to pay down the balance but the way Elio is pitching it, when you use that credit card to buy gasoline (and some other purchases) instead of being billed for the actual cost of the gas, you’ll be billed 3 times that amount and the difference between the actual price and the billed price will be used to pay off the car.

Why 3X the price of gas?


Elio Motors is aiming for a city rating of 49 mpg and a highway rating of 84 mpg. The average fuel economy of all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States in 2012, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, was 23.8 mpg. Assuming that their customers are lower on the socio-economic scale, that means they probably are driving older cars that get even poorer gas mileage than 23.8. If you’re getting three times the gas mileage you used to, paying three times the price of gas means you’re still paying the same amount of money every month for gasoline. Now no promotional materials from Elio will ever use the word “free”, but that’s pretty much how the car will be marketed: for what you used to pay just for gasoline, driving an old, unreliable beater getting poor gas mileage, you get a new car with a warranty, and once it’s paid off the savings over that old beater will be significant.


Unusual car financing aside and scarlet flags aside, I’m not convinced that Elio is a scam. Unlike just about everyone else that raised an eyebrow about Elio, I decided to see for myself. Elio says they will start building their car in the former GM assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, but the company will be headquartered in Troy, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Elio Motors is promoting the car in an interesting way, sort of a grassroots PR campaign, taking the car on a road tour, to things like sporting events, outlet malls, the Woodward Dream Cruise and putting it on local & national news shows. I contacted the company to see if I could check it out when it was in the Detroit area in between public appearances.


The company graciously arranged for me to meet Jerry Vassallo, Elio VP of Retail Operations, at the logistics company that’s managing the road tour. Though I didn’t get to drive it, I did get to spend about 30 minutes up close and personal with it, and I did get to see it start up and drive around one of those “nondescript industrial parks in suburban Detroit” that are the location of so many Motor City stories.


Red flags aside, from an automotive standpoint, they just might be able to do it. They’re promising 49 mpg in the city and 84 on the highway for a two passenger front wheel drive vehicle with standard air conditioning, radio, power windows, a five-star crash rating, and a warranty, all for about half the price of the cheapest car currently on sale in the U.S., and not much more than scooter powered Chinese reverse trikes of dubious build quality.


It’s really not a moon shot, though, there’s no rocket science needed. It’s a 1,000 lb vehicle with a 70 horsepower 3 cylinder engine, so 49 mpg in the city is achievable. That whopping 84 mpg isn’t unrealistic either. When I asked Vassallo how close the current prototype is to the production car (other than the Elio built, IVL designed, engine that will replace the Suzuki Swift engine used in the car I saw), he said that it’s close but they are fine tuning the aerodynamics to get that 84 mpg. Aero is going to be critical in reaching that figure. With tandem seating and what is essentially an open wheel setup in the front of the car (there are rather sporting cycle fenders that turn with the wheels) the actual body is very narrow, to get that good aero. It’s so narrow that they left out the back window. Vassallo told me that there’s no point in having one. It would be directly behind year head rest. There’s no interior rear view mirror, either. An interior rear view mirror would only give you a nice view of the rear seat’s headrest. Actually, vision to the rear is fine for driving in real traffic. There are two tiny side back windows by the passenger seat that give you adequate vision in what would be your blind spot and when Vassallo stood directly behind the car, while I couldn’t see his head, I could see both his shoulders in the side mirrors. You should easily see anything behind you that you need to see, including pedestrians, motorcycles and cyclists. The production version will have a hatch that opens to access the small cargo compartment. With the rear seat folded down there’s enough room, I’m told, for a set of golf clubs. Vassallo said they were considering selling something like a sedan delivery version with no back seat for service businesses like computer support that don’t need a lot of cargo room but still have to get people to customers’ locations.


As for that $6,800 price. Building their own engine might be a sticky point in terms of cost, but the rest of the car should be cheap to build. Other than the engine, Vassallo told me that 90% of the mechanical components, down to the suspension parts, are off-the-shelf items used by other automakers. They are also using a lot less metal and plastic than a conventional car needs. Eliminating the fourth wheel means eliminating a lot of cost.


In the production car, HVAC controls will be on the left and a radio on the right. It’s a little bit cozy, but most folks should fit just fine. You have as much room as in a conventional car with bucket seats and a console.

So they might be able to see their mileage benchmarks, and even build the car cheap enough. What about that five-star crash rating? Ever seen video of sprint car dirt track racers when they wreck? A properly designed roll cage can protect passengers in very serious collisions. The Elio three wheeler passenger compartment is essentially a roll cage with a plastic skin. There are also crush structures designed into the front and rear of the car.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Elio has only one door, on the driver’s left. That helps with chassis stiffness and cost. While the prototype had a fixed window on the right, both windows will retract in the production Elio, and power windows will be standard. Interior trim and panels were fairly cheap plastic, but this was a prototype. However, don’t expect the production car to have leather and burled walnut on the dash. The seats are going to be supplied by Lear and they were actually nicer than I expected. Controls are normal automotive controls. The shifter is on the right. The as yet unnamed Elio car will be offered with either a five speed manual transmission or an automatic. No word on how many speeds the autobox will have or if it will be an extra charge option.


Once inside, it’s fairly comfortable. You do feel like you are sitting in the cockpit of a small plane, but it’s not claustrophobic, at least in the front seat. Elio has photos and video of a wide variety of body types fitting in the car – they say it’s designed around the 95th percentile of adult men. The back seat is a different story. Getting back there was surprisingly not too difficult. I deliberately left the front seat in the rearmost position to make access to the back harder. I’m not a particularly large person at 5’6″, but I’m not exactly skinny either. I didn’t really have to contort myself to get into the back seat. Once there, though, even with the small side back windows, unlike the front seat it feels rather claustrophobic. I was told that there will be ventilation for the rear passenger. Still, I wouldn’t want to have to sit back there for a long ride. On the other hand, it couldn’t be any worse than riding back to Ann Arbor after a Frank Zappa concert in Chicago having to ride sidesaddle in the back of my buddy’s 1971 Firebird (gold, just like Jim Rockford’s).

Exterior dimensions:
Overall Length: 160.5″
Front Wheel Track: 66.8″
Wheelbase: 110″
Overall Height: 54.2″

Interior dimensions are:
Headroom: Driver 39.8 Passenger 36.4 in
Seat width: Driver 20.6 Passenger 25.3 in
Interior Shoulder Width: 26.8 in
Front seat Legroom: 42.7 in
Rear seat Legroom: 33.1 in

Cargo space:
27″ x 14″ x 10″ (extends to 47″+ with rear seat down)


What’s the point of a back window? The small side back windows don’t do much for your passenger’s claustrophobia but they do eliminate blind spots.

In terms of styling and design, I think most folks will think that it’s cute. The exposed control arms of the front suspension and the cycle fenders that turn with steering give it sort of a track-car Lotus Seven look. The coilovers look sporty as well. As a matter of fact, the stubby front end does  sort of remind me of the Seven. With three wheels it’s bound to look a little strange and the rear does have a bit of a futuristic feel to it, but overall it’s rather pleasant to look at.


As mentioned, this is going to be pitched at working folks who need to get to work and possibly also as a small commercial vehicle. I think that if the Elio car does go into production, they may find that it’s embraced by another group, enthusiasts. With only 70 HP and a top speed of “over 100″, it’s not going to be a speed demon, but then neither is the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Brit reverse trike costs 6 or 7 times as much as the Elio is supposed to cost. Besides, Elio and IVL are tuning their engine for gas mileage. Seventy horsepower out of a liter engine most likely leaves some headroom for more performance. With the engine up front, it’s got the forward weight bias needed for reverse trikes to handle and keep both front wheels on the ground. One of the off the shelf components will be the transaxle from a front wheel drive vehicle. Unlike the Morgan, the Elio will be driven by its front wheels. While this means that you won’t be able to do Morgan style rear wheel burnouts and drifts, the Elio trike should stick to the ground.IMG_0033

Elio announced earlier this year that a real estate speculator is going to be buying GM’s shuttered Shreveport, LA assembly plant for their use. They haven’t yet, though, made any kind of announcement about how the cars will be sold. No dealer franchises have been awarded yet.


You can, however, put a deposit down on an Elio and reserve one for as little as $100. Other reservation levels are $250, $500 and $1,000. If you make that deposit non-refundable, you’ll get a discount on the car and some swag, like tshirts and bumper stickers. The more money you put down, the higher priority your build will have.


So, bottom line, is Elio Motors a scam? I don’t know. I don’t think so, the vehicle makes sense to me and they might just be able to build it at their target price point,  but until we see a production vehicle in the hands of a retail customer, we’ll never know for sure. Towards that end we’re trying something new. Whenever the topic of  how to improve TTAC car reviews comes up, one or more of the Best & Brightest will suggest that we do it the Consumer Reports way, only report on cars that we’ve bought, so we’ll have an authentic consumer experience. That’s just not financially possible in most cases. However, I’ve discussed the matter with our Editor In Chief pro tem and it looks like we’ll be reserving our own Elio car with a $100 non-refundable deposit. That way, even if the Elio never makes it to production we can have a t-shirt giveaway to our readers. We’ll use our reservation as a hook for following Elio’s story and keeping you informed about the startup car company. If the little three wheeler comes to fruition, who knows? We might even test out their put it on a credit card and pay 3X for gas financing scheme.


If you’d like to check out the Elio three wheeler for yourself, it will be in Colorado next week, the start of a swing through the western United States.  Wednesday August 28th, Park Meadows Mall, 1-7pm Lone Tree, CO; Thursday August 29th – Flat Irons Crossing Mall, from 1-6 (plus the concert!),Bloomfield CO; Friday August 30th, Cherry Creek Mall, Denver, 10am-9pm and Monday at The Taste of Colorado, 1600 Broadway, #610 in Denver 11am-8pm. It will be in Seattle, WA on Sept. 5-8, and in Portland, OR on Sept. 12-15, with dates in California to follow.

Stereo pics here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Do I Really Want One of These? Kandi Viper 250cc Reverse Trike Sun, 30 Jun 2013 13:00:57 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

I’ve been fascinated by reverse trikes for a long time. As young teens, my older brother and I made a reverse trike go-kart (he designed the frame and the drivetrain, I did the brakes and steering) because we didn’t have the money for a proper live axle setup in the back. The first hard turn taught us something about the inherent instability of three wheel vehicles. The inside front wheel lifted about 18″ off of the pavement (maybe that’s why I like the photo of Jim Clark’s Lotus Cortina cornering on three wheels so much). It took a bit more than a “dab of oppo” to settle it back down. I don’t remember if either one of us ever completely rolled it, but it was exciting to drive. Now comes word that Morgan’s revived 3 Wheeler, a car that seems to be able to drift and donut effortlessly while still keeping both front wheels planted firmly on terra firma, has become their best selling vehicle, prompting word of expanding the 3 Wheeler line. With that success my attention has once again been drawn to reverse trikes. I’m not the only one. Based on design patent drawings, it looks like Polaris will be soon introducing the Slingshot, a side by side reverse trike powered by a GM Ecotec 2.4 L four cylinder. From the styling the Slingshot looks to be aimed more at Ariel Atom fans than the traditional stringback driving glove set, so I don’t think the Morgan will lose any sales to Polaris, but either way, I think the Polaris will increase the popularity of three wheelers in general.

Polaris Slingshot design patent

Polaris Slingshot design patent

Everyone who drives the Morgan reverse trike says that it’s the most fun you can possibly have with a machine until they perfect sexbots. That kind of fun comes at a price. For what the Mog 3W costs, $45K and up, you can buy a couple of new, nicely equipped small cars. With that Ecotec engine and other automotive sourced components, I’m sure that the Polaris Slingshot will not be cheap either. There are other reverse trikes, like Campagna’s T-Rex models, but Campagna’s least expensive vehicle, the T-Rex V13R, starts at $56,000.

250MD_redMSo what can you do if you want to explore the world of road going reverse trikes, but you don’t want to spend multiples of $10,000? You could build one yourself, just search Google, Bing or YouTube for reverse trike build. I particularly like this Gold Wing based leaner called TBX3, and this wild small block Chevy V8 powered FWD trike based on an Olds Toronado, a little nicer build than this old Subaru based trike. However, if you want something ready to drive off the rack (well, almost, see below) that is relatively cheap, you’ll just have to keep looking to the east, China, where that country’s huge scooter industry has noticed the same things that Morgan and Polaris have.

KD-250MD-3Zhejiang Kangdi Vehicles  (NASDAQ:KNDI) makes scooters, motorcycles, go-karts, golf carts, ATVs and neighborhood electric vehicles, 80% of which are exported to the U.S. and Europe. Maybe that’s why the parent company and American importer use the easier-to-pronounce-by-westerners Kandi. I believe that the first reverse trike that Kandi made was a 250cc knockoff of Bombardier’s Can-Am Spyder, though it doesn’t have the Can-Am’s stability control that keeps the Spyder from lifting a wheel without having to lean the trike. If you want a  trike that leans, Kandi offers them too. Now they’ve come up with something a bit more like the Morgan and Polaris trikes, something more like a car than a motorcycle or ATV, the Viper reverse trike. Powered by a single cylinder 250cc water-cooled 4 stroke engine that puts out 16.6 HP (some dealers advertise 20 HP), with an automatic CVT that has reverse, from the video posted on YouTube it looks like a real blast to drive. It’s also not terrible looking, kind of cute in a Bugeye Sprite or Lotus Seven way, at least up front. Maybe I just dig cycle style fenders that turn with the front wheels. With microcar level power you won’t get there quickly, but it looks like you’ll have fun getting there. Come to think of it, with a scooter engine in back it might be as much like a Messerschmitt as a Morgan. Depending on where you buy it, it will cost you somewhere between $5,700 and $7,000 delivered (with some assembly required usually), a fraction of the price of the Morgan or what I expect the Polaris Slingshot to cost, let alone what a restored Kabinenroller can run these days.

250MD_pic10Actually, for that price you get at least some some sophistication. The engine has electronic ignition. Some dealers say that it also has electronic fuel injection, but this video from SuperSportz says that it has a carburetor. The suspension for the front wheels uses a standard double wishbone setup, with coilover units for springing and damping. The rear end uses a swing arm, as expected, but surprisingly they didn’t just use a scooter drive train, which typically has the engine and transmission as part of the swingarm assembly, increasing unsprung weight. Instead the engine and transmission are mounted to the main frame and there’s a chain drive back to the rear wheel. Rather than a monoshock in back there are twin coilover units. All three wheels have hydraulic disc brakes with ABS, with twin discs on the back wheel, like many sportbikes’ front wheel brakes. An auxiliary hand activated parking brake is also included.

viper-8_smallDriver and passenger sit side by side in racing style seats with safety harnesses and there’s a rudimentary roll cage. Bodywork is made from plastic, ABS and fiberglass. The frame and suspension components are made of steel tubing.  Thirteen inch cast aluminum wheels are standard, mounted with 145X70 radial tires. The Viper is operated with a steering wheel and other automotive style controls. There is a small instrument panel in the middle of the dashboard and the shift lever for the CVT sites between the seats. It’s fairly spartan. Some dealers offer an optional windshield. From the looks of the yellow Viper pictured here, you can replace the stock muffler with sporty dual upswept exhausts. There is no radio or heater. SuperSportz says that future models will have a more enclosed interior, but for the time being you’re sitting right in front of the engine, so it’s noisy, and the radiator sits right behind the passenger seat so maybe a heater isn’t needed.

viper-1_smallCruising speed is said to be about 60 MPH (some dealers say 80, others say don’t believe them) so it should be suitable for urban use and maybe even hopping on the freeway for very short distances. Fuel economy is up to about 70 MPG (some dealers say 90). Both figures are of course dependent on load and road conditions. Maximum load is about 400# so you and your passenger might have to watch your weight. At least one dealer sells it under a different model name, Cyclone (see a pattern here? Caveat emptor and all that).

viper-45-5As you can see from the video at the top of this post, it can even drift a little. However, watching the Kandi Viper scamper around that parking lot gives me a little pause. At about 20 seconds into the video, the driver takes a hard left turn, and you can hear the back wheel’s tire skittering as it loses and gains traction. What you can see, though, is what concerns me. At peak cornering forces the rear wheel appears to have noticeable positive camber. While there is some body roll, the camber on the wheel seems to exceed the roll angle of the body. That means that there’s some flexing going on, possibly in the rear swingarm subframe or in its mountings, maybe in the main frame as well. If you pay attention to other times the Viper is cornering hard, you can see the rear end twisting.

viper-view-tail2Now camber changes happen all the time on regular cars if you pay attention, but combined with the video there’s also the question of Kandi’s quality control. If you spend some time looking at videos and comments posted by Kandi buyers a recurring theme appears – rather poor quality control, though many buyers seem perfectly satisfied. Though they are sold said to be 90-95% complete, many buyers report that the assembly that had already been done wasn’t done properly, with some bolts left untorqued and even components switched left to right.

With a 60″ wheelbase and a front track of 57.3″, it’s the size of a [very] small car. The carton it comes in ready to finish is 145x80x31.1 inches so either have access to a fork lift or a loading dock or expect to possibly pay for residential lift gate delivery. If you pay to have a dealer fully assemble it, you’ll have to pick it up at a shipping depot. You can get a rough idea of what assembly involves from this video of another Kandi trike. If you’re reading this site and you have a set of wrenches and sockets, you can most likely put it together. Some retailers advertise how they go over their scooters before shipping to make sure all the bolts are fastened etc. Some buyers report engines being DOA or failing soon after purchase. The fact that another frequently advertised feature is an optional warranty probably also says something about Kandi’s QC at the factory. Some dealers do a better job of prep and after sales service than others, from online comments.

250MD_pic9However, I don’t see anyone else offering a car-like two passenger reverse trike for anything near $6,000, and to be honest, I’d be more concerned about QC in terms of safety than reliability. It looks like the frame is made up of steel tubing that’s only about 1 inch in diameter. While both front wheels look like they’ll stay on the ground, I’m worried that if you stress the rear end enough, you won’t just get some positive camber. Images of the entire rear end twisting itself free come to mind. As mentioned, the roll cage looks rudimentary and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of side barrier protection. In most states you’d register it as a motorcycle. My guess is that in a collision you’d probably be about as well off as on an actual motorcycle. To really check quality, though, I’d have to see a Kandi Viper close up and hopefully drive one but the closest Kandi dealer is hundreds of miles away in the Upper Peninsula.

viper-left3Still, it looks like it’d be a ball to drive and cheap to operate, possibly even a cheaper commuter than either a battery EV or a smart car. Obviously, judging a vehicle’s safety based on one short YouTube video and comments on the internet is not a serious appraisal. If someone at Kandi USA, SuperSportz or another of their dealers reads this and would like to demonstrate the performance and safety of the Kandi Viper I have an open mind and I’d be happy to do a full review of the trike if you can arrange the loan of a test vehicle.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Which Trike Do You Like? Thu, 24 Jan 2013 14:00:22 +0000

The perennially shy Alex Roy took delivery of his Morgan Trike last year and has dutifully operated it under all conditions, including during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. There’s something awfully charming about the “Three Wheeler”, even if the price of it would also put you in a brand-new six-speed Corvette Grand Sport. As far as not-quite-motorcycles go, I much prefer it to the Can-Am Spyder, anyway.

Much of the appeal of the Morgan is its novelty value; we didn’t get very many Morgans of any type in this country, much less three-wheeled ones. The T-Rex is probably the only other non-bike-based trike on the market. In the UK, however, the “Moggie” is just one in a large field of competitors. Some are closer to the original Morgan design than the Morgan itself, while others are futuristic in the creepy Seventies sense of the word. The Telegraph recently put eleven of them together for a short test.

The Three Wheeler Group Test isn’t exactly long-winded but it provides a nice glimpse into a kind of motoring we just don’t get in the New World. About half of them are riffs on the Morgan concept, but some, like the Blackjack, are new ideas. A potential best-of-breed combination of the vintage-trike look and modern-superbike four-cylinder engine doesn’t yet appear to exist; if you want the Morgan look, you have to take somebody’s twin, whether it’s from a 2CV, a Moto Guzzi, or a fake Harley.

Clearly the thing to do would be for TTAC to track-test all these trikes until someone is killed, probably me, but in light of current airfare rates we might try to cover the domestically-available models first. If you build a trike and you’d like to see it disrespected reviewed in these pages, let us know!

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