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Can-Am Spyder Review – Three Wheel Revolutions

can-am Spyder launchAlong Came A Spyder : What is it? A trike? An ATV? Certainly not a motorcycle.  BRP calls its Spyder a roadster, but beyond that there’s little to define the three-wheeled Rotax-powered machine. Perhaps it doesn’t require definition; just being itself might have to be good enough

The fiirst question a purest may ask is, why the Can-Am Spyder? With two wheels in the front and one in the rear, it’s not a motorcycle, a traditional trike nor an ATV. 

Even the representatives of Spyder manufacturer Bombardier Recreational Products were reluctant to place the machine in a category during its October press introduction in Los Angeles. 

Bombardier says it’s a “roadster” that is “part motorcycle, part convertible sports car … offering the open air benefits of a motorcycle and many of the peace of mind benefits of a car.” And they say the machine is “paradigm shifting” which translated means that everything that came before is now obsolete. 

Theoretically this sound pretty good. We were certainly willing to look at that part of the Spyder that is motorcycle and if it comes equipped with air conditioning, who are we to complain?

Whatever transforming quality the Spyder may have, it exists in categorical limbo. This state of limbo is one of the reasons BRP decided to have the press event in California as it is one of the few jurisdictions that do not consider a three-wheel vehicle a motorcycle and therefore do not require the operator to have a motorcycle licence. In the great state of California, if you drive a car (with a licence) you can hop aboard a Spyder. It is a great break for BRP as California has the potential to be the largest market in North America for the Spyder and the regulations leave the (the what?) wide open. In Canada you are going to need a motorcycle licence, but if you do get your licence on a Spyder you will be restricted to three-wheeled vehicles. 

THE SPYDER HAS AN IMPRESSIVELY AGGRESSIVE APPEARANCE AS IT carries its bulk low to the ground and sweeps from the front to the back. The snowmobile history of the company is apparent in the long airdam-accented nose. The wide automotive-style tires look as though they could hold the road on a 45-degree slope. No matter what you may think of the concept, stylistically BRP hit a home run with a modern sophisticated design. Even though the Spyders we rode during the press event were preproduction prototypes, fit and finish were up to those of most major motorcycle manufacturers.

Before hitting the busy Los Angeles streets and freeways everyone on the launch had to be cleared for riding competency. This involved a couple of laps around a giant parking lot just outside the famed Santa Anita race track. While horses were lapping the fabled race track inside, we were outside showing that we could start, steer and stop a three-wheeled vehicle around a track of our own. Oddly enough, the stopping part was giving me second thoughts. There is no front brake caliper as the linked braking system is controlled entirely by the foot pedal. Would I be grabbing for an non-existent front brake should I need to stop in a hurry? Those of us with strong motorcycle backgrounds would have to be aware. I passed the test. Just as well considering several of the journalist invited had never been on a bike in their lives. I didn’t envy them their few laps around an empty parking lot followed by a foray into LA traffic.

The seating position is sport bike neutral—a slight forward cant with knees bent and feet behind. With the exception of the missing front brake, all controls are where you would expect to find them on a motorcycle. Start the Spyder and the Rotax built 998 Twin spins to life with a quiet burble, but with a claimed 106 hp and 77 ft/lbs. torque waiting on tap. This is the second recent high profile home for a Rotax motor, which also found its way into the new liquid cooled Buell. The five-speed sequential transmission is a traditional one down, four-up five-speed which shifts lightly. The non-motorcycle aspect of this transmission is a two-down reverse accessed by a hand control lever. I have to give a thumbs-up for the ability to ride around in reverse at quite a clip. Final drive is a low maintenance belt drive. The Spyders on hand for the launch had all traveled around the country for demo rides and had mileage readings ranging from 3,500 to almost 10,000 miles. They were all well broken in and showed no negative effects of the thousands of first-time riders.

The Can-AM Spyder feels quick but not motorcycle quick. Zero to 60 times are in the four and a half second range. The traction control system does not kick in until higher speeds so it is amusing to twist the throttle hard and lay a patch of rubber. Outside of a sportcar, nothing lays rubber quite so easily, but top speed is governed at 110 mph.

Straight line riding feels much like a motorcycle. There are three wheeled advantages here as the the wide tires are unaffected by road conditions that might deflect or untrack motorcycle tires. Braking is excellent and virtually idiot proof with the linked braking and ABS making stopping even in a hurry a simple matter of hitting the rear foot pedal hard. The ride is smooth with an automotive style double A-arm with an anti-roll bar up front and a motorcycle style swingarm with monoshock in the back.

can-am Spyder launchIt is in the curves that the Can-Am Spyder shows its inherent three wheeled challenges. On a motorcycle the rider and machine work fluidly with subtle body movements and pressure. By contrast, I was surprised at the effort it took to ride the Spyder aggressively even though the weight is a comparatively low 697 lbs. (316 kg) and is equipped with power steering. The last portion of the test was a spin up a classic LA canyon road. Tight, windy and demanding. There is no leaning or countersteering involved in riding the Spyder. All steering is accomplished as with a car, you turn the wheel or, in this case, the bars. There are also the immutable laws of physics  that try to push you off the bike as you round a corner. This is why sportcars have bolster seats—to keep you in place during aggressive cornering. The Spyder doesn’t enjoy this advantage and the lateral forces require that the rider hold on.  

The rider is also required to move his weight forward and over the outside wheel while diving into a corner if he wants to optimize cornering speed. Fortunately the Can-Am Spyder is equipped with several pieces of technical wizardry to help in these situations. The advanced technical aspects built into the VSS (vehicle stability system) are constantly active in keeping the vehicle planted on the road. Developed in conjunction with Bosch, VSS combines anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control. In emergency maneuvers the brakes and ignition system are utilized to prevent wheel lift or fishtailing.

WHAT IS THE TARGET MARKET FOR THE SPYDER? IT IS VERY DIFFICULT to say. Even BRP representatives are cautious in predicting how many units they expect to move. Response to the product has been good during the demo events but, as with any truly new product, the market has to be given an opportunity to respond. A devote and hardcore motorcyclist is going to have difficulty accepting the handling characteristics—in particular the inability to lean the machine into a corner. But a new rider or someone who always liked the idea of motorcycling but was intimidated by the two-wheel aspect will feel more secure especially with the list of safety features. A lot of it will also depend on how aggressively you ride. Although I saw a skilled rider barrel around a corner with all three wheels screaming, I just don’t think that Spyder is a high-speed vehicle. On LA freeways we were pushing 85 to 90 mph to keep up with traffic. The Spyder was stable and comfortable at speed but throw some curves into a road and the ride becomes far more challenging. To be fair, and as the Spyder is such a unique product, I would need more than a couple of hours on the machine to learn the limits and nuances of its handling. To an ATV rider the steering characteristics of the Spyder will be old news so this is also a promising potential market for the Spyder, especially as Bombardier already has a huge following among the BRP ATV and watercraft faithful.

can-am Spyder launch

The Can-Am Spyder would likely excel as a touring machine. With available accessories such as a tank bag, saddle bags and the secure front storage beneath the nosecone, with a 30-lb. capacity, there is plenty of room for luggage. Fuel capacity is 27 litres, allowing for some serious time in the saddle. Fuel economy was not addressed but likely wouldn’t match that of a motorcycle due to the nature of the machine. It would also be interesting to ride the Spyder is some really adverse weather. Snow would be too much, but rain would be interesting. The sequential electronic five-speed that will soon be available will even make shifting the sole responsibility of a finger and thumb.

While I wouldn’t call the Spyder a “paradigm shifting” product (I don’t think I have ever called something or someone paradigm shifting,  it has created a new niche that will appeal to a new group of riders. Will they be motorcyclists? Possibly not. But whoever chooses the Can-Am Spyder will get the open-air exhilaration of riding a powerful machine and ultimately that’s why we all do it.

by John Molony Canadian Biker


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