WHEN a vehicle maker cannot decide exactly how to classify its product, consumers (and reviewers) are bound to struggle as well.
Such is the case with the Can-Am Spyder, a three-wheel something that is not quite a motorcycle, not quite a trike — and certainly not a car. Can-Am calls it a roadster, which does little to clarify matters; purists might point out that it does not meet the definition of a spyder, either.
Maybe this will help: a motorcycle license is required to operate the Spyder in most states, including New York. It has handlebars like a motorcycle (but no clutch or brake lever on the model I tested), and it has a motorcycle engine — a 100-horsepower V-twin from Rotax.
There’s little sense in trying to pigeonhole the Spyder, though. The real question is, what’s it like on the road?
I tested the Spyder with Can-Am’s semi-automatic transmission (a $1,500 option over the manual gearbox), which provides five forward gears and reverse. With the semi-automatic, the rider makes the upshifts, using a paddle on the left handlebar; the transmission is designed to automatically drop down to first gear when you stop.
The riding experience (and even the process of climbing aboard) reminded me of an all-terrain vehicle. But for a rider expecting familiar motorcycle handling and feedback, the Spyder’s steering could be unnerving. Motorcycles (and other single-track vehicles) negotiate turns by countersteering — the rider pulls back on the left handlebar to turn right, an action so natural that riders pay no attention to the apparent contradiction.
But the Spyder, which steers by turning the two front wheels and transfers engine power to the pavement through the single rear wheel, required me to turn the handlebars in the same direction I wished to go. I adjusted to that oddity after an hour or two, but the first 50 miles on the Spyder found me reminding myself how to turn the thing: to counter-countersteer.
That is not the only adjustment a Spyder pilot has to make. When I lean a motorcycle into a curve, I can feel the cornering forces pressing me securely into the seat. On the Spyder, I felt as if the forces were trying to separate me from the machine — hanging on for dear life became a priority.
But it’s not fair to criticize the Spyder for what it isn’t. After about 100 miles, I had a good feel for it, and my worries weren’t about staying aboard or remembering how to turn. Coming to terms with the transmission was less successful, with gear changes that were sometimes smooth and sometimes clunky.
The RT-S model, which I spent the most time on, provides a full complement of comfort features, including an adjustable windshield, cruise control, heated grips, passenger armrests and hard luggage (a navigation system is optional). The RT can also tow a factory-approved trailer, if you’re not satisfied with the standard 5.5 cubic feet of storage.
All the perks add up, though: the Spyder RT-S with the semi-automatic costs $26,499 (shipping is another $250 or so) and weighs 929 pounds without passengers or fuel. The sportier Spyder RS (starts at $16,499 without shipping), with a different chassis and less storage capacity, is 699 pounds. Both models include antilock brakes, traction control and stability control.
The Spyder’s weight and unusual design take a toll on its performance. The RT was sluggish until the engine hit 6,500 r.p.m., which made takeoffs and freeway passing a bit of a challenge. One last this-is-not-a-motorcycle complaint: even a top-heavy land yacht like the Honda Gold Wing allows for carving elegant lines through a corner. But not the Spyder. It shakes and rattles and, oh yeah, rolls.
Altogether, the Spyder remains a bit of a mystery: not quite this and not quite that. But it certainly commands attention. At stoplights on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, motorcyclists struck up conversations with obvious enthusiasm. Even a toll collector offered a compliment.
A Can-Am spokesman suggested that the Spyder could appeal to riders who are intimidated by two-wheeled motorcycles and to experienced riders who worry about their heavy touring machines tipping over. But more than anything, its appeal is that it’s unlikely to be confused with anything but another Can-Am Spyder. Or, perhaps, a prop from the next “Transformers” film.Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/automobiles/autoreviews/07SPYDER.html