We see concepts like this all the time, especially at auto shows. Carmakers are always looking to explore the boundaries of vehicle design and powertrain, and often show off where they think the industry is heading by putting their most creative ideas on display. The difference here is that Toyota actually has a couple of these i-Roads assembled and ready to go. And we were fortunate enough to get behind the wheel.
At Toyota's test track in Toyota City, Japan, we took an i-Road for a quick spin. It is by far the most bizarre--yet one of the most enjoyable--things we have ever had the opportunity to drive. Toyota isn't quite sure if it will ever sell these to the mass market, but if it were up to us, I'd be doing my best to get one in every single household.
Toyota describes the i-Road as "an ultra-compact mobility package that provides the convenience of a motorcycle and the comfort and stability of a car, offering an enjoyable riding experience unlike either a car or a motorcycle." That's an accurate way of putting it. Essentially, it takes the best parts of a car and motorcycle and combines them into one package. Even the odd number of wheels is a compromise between the two.
The i-Road is a way we can conquer "the last mile," which is the phrase used by transportation experts to describe the portion of one's commute between public transportation and home or any other final destination. At present, in most urban and suburban areas, efficient public transit can take you to central locations, but how you get to your final destination from there is often a question mark. The i-Road could be a way of closing this gap in efficient and sustainable transportation.
The exterior design of the i-Road is certainly weird. The single front headlight gives the fascia a cyborg-like look. The transparent panels, from the outside, give the car the feel of movement--from the side, the i-Road looks like a soaring bird's spread-out wing. The wheels appear to be cogs taken from a larger machine. On the whole, we dig it. If you have a vehicle that's supposed to represent the future of transportation, it should look futuristic, right?
The interior of the i-Road is bare and will need a few creature comforts if it's going to sell. The seat is pleasant enough and head and shoulder room are comfortable, but leg room is terrible, especially if you're a little taller than average. There are five or so buttons to control the vehicle's basic functions and there's a digital readout for speed, charge and mileage. The Toyota engineers said that the i-Road could eventually support a small sound system connected to a driver's Bluetooth device. But that's about it for comfort and convenience.
The i-Road technically seats two, but we don't envy the person stuck in the back seat. Fortunately, trips will generally be quite short, as the i-Road's range is only about 30 miles.
On the road in i-Road
Driving the i-Road is easy and fun. Really, really fun. It's almost like driving a jet ski or SeaDoo. As you turn, the the wheels seesaw up and down, making it feel like you're cutting down into the road beneath you, much like a watercraft dips below the surface. It's a unique feeling and it allows for precise handling like that of a motorcycle, despite there being two wheels up front. This technology, which Toyota calls "Active Lean," also keeps the i-Road completely level when traveling over uneven road surfaces.
The steering wheel will vibrate when the driver turns too sharply, but the i-Road's onboard gyroscope helps to keep it from ever tipping over.
The i-Road's two-kilowatt electric motor gives it some giddy-up. It's not a lot of power, but then, this vehicle doesn't weigh very much either. Sprinting to top speed, which is a blistering 28 miles per hour, is a short affair, even going uphill.
Operating the i-Road at lower speeds takes some getting used to, as the rear wheel kicks in to aid with parking. The vehicle glides along the surface of the road and doesn't respond to steering inputs the same way as when you're at speed. On the first try, it feels like sliding across a slick oil patch.
The ride is quiet due to the lack of engine noise, save a faint whine from the electric motor. You're never traveling at more than 28 miles per hour, so wind and road noise are negligible, too.
The i-Road is a hoot, no two ways about it. We certainly wanted to keep driving when the Toyota people waved us back in from the course. But its future is somewhat dubious. The vehicle is aimed at the big urban areas found in Asia, and it's unclear if it will ever come to America. Small cars have had a tough time finding traction here, even in areas where they make sense. It's difficult to see the i-Road changing that.
Regardless, the i-Road is a great solution to the problem of growing, centralized populations that require efficient and, importantly, small types of transportation. We applaud Toyota's effort.
It's easy to feel down about the auto industry, especially when you follow it closely. It's a huge, hulking, slow-moving, profit-based goliath that doesn't often seem to have our longterm interests at heart. But experiencing neat little vehicles like the i-Road that seek to curb serious problems with the convenience and cleanliness of transportation instills some hope that maybe the future isn't quite so bleak.