Three Wheels, No Shame: Test-Driving the Latest Thrill-Seeking Fad
(Bloomberg) -- No one needs a three-wheeled vehicle.
But if you want to really stand out from the crowd—that is, if you want a toy that will reflect your own quirky style, or you’re thinking of running away to join a circus act—a three-wheeler could do the trick.
Indeed, the machine considered to be the first purpose-built car had only three wheels. It was developed by Karl Benz (later of Mercedes-Benz) and made in 1885. Others, such as the Butler Petro Cycle, followed throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s. Some had two wheels in front (better for aerodynamics) and one in back; others had one wheel in front and two in back (less expensive and simpler engineering, but worse stability).
The first-production Morgans, for example, were made as early as 1910. They were simple, single-seat machines steered with a tiller and powered by either a single-cylinder, 4-horsepower engine or an 8-horsepower, V-twin engine. Known as Runabouts, they weren’t a commercial success because they didn’t have a practical second seat.
That hasn’t stopped companies from rolling out new models today.
The Venice Speedster from Vanderhall comes with a powerful turbocharged engine—but has only one seat. Polaris has started making one called the Slingshot that you may have seen in some sort of Las Vegas fever dream. And Morgan is back in the custom-built three-wheeled game, although this time, smartly, with two seats.
I must admit I was skeptical when first given an assignment to test-drive them all. I’d never driven a motorized three-wheeled anything before (unless you count those cool Soviet sidecars), and the three-wheelers’ zany looks did nothing to appeal to my personal style.
But I was surprised. After a full day of driving each one, I found they each have their own strengths.
The $27,000 Vanderhall excels while cruising at 90 miles per hour down California highways, nimbly rounding corners at any speed. Its six-speed automatic transmission and GM-built engine make it reliable and easy to drive. It comes with lovely seat heaters and Bluetooth. It even has gobs of storage inside the cockpit, though I don’t suggest leaving things loose in that space. They’re likely to get caught under the gas and brake pedals as you drive, which can be dangerous.
If you like a futuristic-yet-retro style and want something made in the good old USA, the Vanderhall is a great option.
The Slingshot gets you the closest to a four-wheel driving experience and boasts the most technology of the group, including backup cameras, traction control, cup holders, and a radio, among other things. Although the one I drove cost just under $29,000, with a starting price of $19,000, it’s the most affordable of the group.
It feels like a car when you get inside, too, with its high ride height and thick, plush seats that have bolsters on either side to hold you in. Its five-speed manual transmission is paired with a 173-horsepower, GM-made, four-cylinder engine and traction-control systems. It drives like a wild carnival ride: You can spin it and whip it around corners, and the turning radius and top speed are the best of the bunch.
To say it has polarizing looks would be an understatement. To me, cheesy isn’t too strong a way to describe its cartoonish flares, high seatbacks, and wicked rear end. But I will allow that for a certain type of buyer, those oddities are exactly what makes it compelling.
The $80,000 Morgan is as beautiful on the road as it is engaging to drive. With a five-speed, Mazda-built gearbox and about 80 horsepower, it takes you back to motoring’s halcyon days, making you feel like you’re touching driving history.
Each Morgan 3 Wheeler is built by hand over hundreds of hours in Worcestershire, England. They come in a dozen colors or one of your own design. The beautiful detailing of the dashboard instruments, the careful stitching on the leather seats, and the intricate craftsmanship of the V-Twin engine at the front of the car captivate from every angle. There are also lots of options on this one, such as seat heaters and a checkered hood.
I should note: The clutch is supertight and high, there’s no power steering, and the brakes are wooden and vague in the typical way you find on any vintage car. To the true driving enthusiast, though, all of that adds to its charm. The Morgan 3 Wheeler is a delight to drive.
These three-wheelers were much more fun to play with than I expected. If you need a break from the norm, each one merits a thorough review. See our head-to-head test-drive above.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.