The stares we received while riding the 2008 BRP Can-Am Spyder Grand Sport Roadster fell into three categories: startled, curious and a little envious.
The Can-Am Spyder is a strange-looking vehicle, and when we had a test ride on the West Coast of Florida just south of the Kennedy Space Center, there were questions. Always questions.
We were parked at a red light when three young men in a pickup truck pulled alongside us. “What is that?” shouted the driver.
We’d heard that all day. “What is that?” “What is that?” “What is that?” The fact that the name of the vehicle, still months from going on sale, had been carefully masked over with black tape just added to the mystery. Certainly there was enough mystery anyway: A three-wheeled motorcycle isn’t that unusual, but one with two wheels in the front, one in the rear?
My guide, a BRP employee named Steve, played dumb. “We’re just the test riders, man. We don’t know much about it.”
“Well, who makes it?” asked the pickup driver.
Steve looked left, then right, then leaned over toward the pickup and said: “I can’t really say, dude, but you know, NASA is just up the road.”
The three young men nodded, and drove off thinking they had just seen some new vehicle designed to drive across the moon. What they had really seen was the new BRP Can-Am Spyder Grand Sport Roadster.
Something old, something new
BRP is Bombardier Recreational Products, and you know the Quebec company’s other stuff: Sea-doo watercraft, Ski-doo snowmobiles, Johnson and Evinrude boat motors, a line of ATVs and the Rotax engines used in products ranging from small aircraft to the BMW F800S motorcycle. Since 2003, BRP has technically been a separate subsidiary of its parent company Bombardier, which makes Learjets and trains, among other things.
If you’ve got a really good memory, you might remember that Bombardier produced a line of Can-Am motocross bikes with rotary-valve two-stroke engines from Rotax back in the 1970s. Bombardier recently brought the name back for its line of ATVs, and now is using it for the Spyder, which is — well, it’s hard to say.
To call the Spyder a three-wheeler is accurate, but it’s not a Harley-Davidson with a sidecar, and it’s not a Morgan cyclecar, and it’s not a silly Reliant Robin, and it’s not a TriHawk (remember that?) and it’s not a wacky Corbin Sparrow. The Spyder is not like anything you’ve ever seen.
BRP hasn’t been involved with building motorcycles since 1983 and has no road-going products, so when it decided to get back in the game the company looked at a variety of possibilities. They included a regular two-wheel motorcycle and a three-wheeled cycle with two wheels at the rear. But BRP kept coming back to the Spyder’s configuration, something like the modern snowmobile that Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented in 1958, only with wheels.
The Can-Am Spyder has two wheels up front for steering, and one powered wheel in the rear. In the heart of the machine is a liquid-cooled, 998cc, DOHC Rotax V-Twin, the same Austrian-built engine used in the road bikes developed by Aprilia, the Italian company famous for its road-racing motorcycles in MotoGP. The engine powers the rear wheel through a toothed, carbon-reinforced rubber belt, much like the one used in Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Not a motorcycle
The Spyder feels like the fastest ATV you’ve ever ridden. Just turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go and let the tires do the rest. The Can-Am Spyder has electrically boosted power steering, so the steering effort is far less than you’d expect.
Like a motorcycle, you twist the handlebar-mounted throttle and go. Shift the sequential five-speed gearbox (complete with reverse gear) with your left foot, or you can choose the optional gearbox with electronic actuation. You operate the brake pedal with your right foot.
There’s a surprising amount of cornering grip. The twin front tires are 165/65R14s, and they’re controlled by upper and lower wishbones that offer 5.7 inches of travel. The drive tire is a 225/50R15, and the swingarm and monoshock also deliver 5.7 inches of travel.
The Spyder is a big piece of metal. It has a 68-inch wheelbase and a front track of 51.5 inches, plus it weighs 697 pounds (dry). You’ve got 106 horsepower to play with, though, and the broad power band of a V-Twin engine makes the Spyder very tractable.
If you’re afraid that the Spyder might skate out from underneath you, don’t be. There’s a carlike safety net of electronics to keep you on the road. It starts with antilock brakes and electronic brakeforce distribution. The Spyder also has Bosch stability control that cuts the throttle and applies the brakes to stop a slide, and it’s calibrated for an antirollover function. There’s even traction control.
We tried sliding the Spyder around on the gravel and discovered that you can’t. And if you’re thinking about defeating the stability control, there is no off switch.
The Spyder is fun on a winding road, although it’s more like a touring bike than a sport bike. It has great stability at speed and will reach 110 mph before the electronics call a halt to the fun. It likes you to shift your body weight to help it find the right line in corners, yet it doesn’t have the razor-sharp responses of a sport bike.
Because it’s a three-wheeler, the Spyder will go around corners faster than you realize, and neither rain-swept pavement nor oily freeway ramps will ever hold the same terror they do when you’re riding a two-wheeler. You’re in the open air, yet there’s a generous amount of room for two-up riding and a lockable trunk to bring along your stuff.
The question of three wheels
It’s worth noting that for a three-wheeler, state laws differ considerably. Some let you use a conventional driver license for automobiles, while others require a motorcycle license, and still others ask for a three-wheeler license.
The Can-Am Spyder goes on sale this October, but it’ll be available in only a dozen states, including Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York, as well as several Canadian provinces. States will be added gradually, as well as some European countries.
A Can-Am Spyder with a manual transmission (which includes a real reverse gear, not the electrically powered reverse of the Honda Gold Wing) will cost $14,995, and the model with an electrically operated transmission will be $1,500 more.
Accessory packages will be offered, such as special wheels (the tires are made especially for the Spyder), a performance exhaust system and probably a touring package with a larger windshield and saddlebags. It will be offered in two colors at first, yellow and silver.
First bike, er…trike
BRP figures its Spyder customer base will be men in their 30s, who probably haven’t ridden a motorcycle before. We disagree. We think a lot of buyers will be older than that, probably guys who used to ride but have sort of moved on. The novelty and day-to-day utility of the Spyder might be just the thing to get them back on, um, three wheels.
Maybe NASA has nothing to do with it, but is that so far-fetched?