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Are 3 Wheels Better Than 4?

Why would grown men want to ride or drive a three-wheeled vehicle when sports cars and motorcycles have evolved to near engineering perfection? One explanation: Mattel's Big Wheel.

Mattel Big Wheel

The theory goes that Big Wheels were the source of such fun that some men will forever attempt to recapture the boyhood excitement of careening around driveways on three plastic wheels. With many new three-wheeled vehicles on the market, one has to wonder as to the instigation of the sellers, and whether they will find buyers ...

Next Slide: Benz Patent Motorwagen

Benz Patent Motorwagen

As appealing as the Big Wheel theory may be, it cannot account for what is considered the first three-wheeled gasoline-powered vehicle. Karl Benz of Mercedes-Benz fame built the Patent Motorwagen in 1886. He didn't get his idea from Mattel, but probably from steam engines invented in the 1700s. The German visionary switched to four-wheeled conveyances in the mid 1890s.

Next Slide: Morgan 3-Wheeler

Morgan 3-Wheeler

Models from Morgan also predated the Big Wheel by decades. These Brits produced various three-wheeled vehicles from 1913 through 1952. Many featured lightweight ash wood frames, minimalist bodywork and V-twin engines. The wide-set front wheels and low-slung frames helped enhance cornering stability.

Next Slide: BMW Isetta & Reliant Robin

BMW Isetta & Reliant Robin

Throughout the 1900s, dozens of manufacturers sold three-wheelers with varying degrees of success. The BMW Isetta was a huge post-World War II success due to its frugal nature. You may also recognize the trusty Reliant Robin from various BBC television shows or the British cinema. A list of hundreds of contraptions with three wheels can be found at www.3wheelers.com.

Next Slide: BRP Can Am Spyder

BRP Can Am Spyder

Fast-forward to the present day, and currently there are a number of fully modern three-wheeled vehicles available. Some bear a resemblance to motorcycles, while others are more car-like. Some just defy description. Each is presented for your motoring pleasure. Or peril.

BRP Can Am Spyder

Bombardier Recreational Products is currently the most serious contender in the three-wheeled segment. You may know BRP as the manufacturer of Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Sea-Doo personal watercraft and Can Am ATV off-road vehicles.

BRP Can Am Spyder

Reasonably priced at $14,999, the Spyder's wide three-wheeled stance won't tip over at rest, and sophisticated Bosch stability control systems keep the wheels planted when you're rolling. A 106-horsepower V-twin motorcycle engine provides exciting acceleration. Braking performance with ABS is powerful and reassuring.

BRP Can Am Spyder

We've put some miles on the Can Am Spyder, and it is a serious machine. It encourages people who would never ride a motorcycle to swing a leg over the saddle and experience open-air cycle-type motoring. In some states, only a valid driver's license is required -- no special motorcycle endorsement needed. Check with your state's licensing bureau for details.

Next Slide: Cirbin V13R

Cirbin V13R

Another take on the three-wheeler is the Cirbin V13R. Instead of riding on the machine as with the Spyder, the driver and passenger sit in the Cirbin. While this trike is a custom creation, its engine and transmission are sourced from Harley-Davidson. The strong V-twin produces 125 horsepower and the 5-speed transmission includes reverse.

Cirbin V13R

We haven't driven the V13R, but we did sit in this speedy looking vehicle at the 2007 SEMA Show. To climb in, step over the bodywork and place your foot on the seat, swing your other leg in, then slide down into the supportive racing seat. With a starting price of $49,999, this is a cruising toy for rich thrill seekers with poor balance.

Next Slide: Campagna T-Rex

Campagna T-Rex

Another boutique vehicle is the Campagna T-Rex. It also uses a two-front/one-rear wheel layout, but tunes the design for maximum stability and ultimate cornering power. Intended for ultra-high performance handling and acceleration, the T-Rex is a perfect tool for a day at the racetrack.

Campagna T-Rex

Powered by a modified four-cylinder Kawasaki motorcycle engine, the T-Rex boasts 187 horsepower. Maximum lateral acceleration is claimed to be 1.0 g and the run from zero to 60 mph takes only 4.1 seconds with a top speed of approximately 140 mph. This performance comes with a $48,000 price tag.

Next Slide: Piaggio MP3

Piaggio MP3

Taking a completely different approach to three-wheeling is Piaggio's little MP3. While the company name isn't immediately familiar to many North Americans, this Italian company is the world's fourth-largest producer of motorcycles and scooters.

Piaggio MP3

The MP3 features dual front wheels. Each moves independently, allowing dramatic lean angles and stability that is considerably superior to conventional scooters or motorcycles, especially over uneven pavement, lane groove, or streetcar tracks. A tiny 244-cc single-cylinder engine provides economical oomph.

Piaggio MP3

The front wheels of the MP3 assume a "stagger" mode when the scooter is parked. This stance keeps the bike upright, so no kickstand is required. The MP3 is on sale now with a starting price of just under $7000.

Next Slide: Fuel Vapor Technologies Alé

Fuel Vapor Technologies Alé

Three-wheelers tend to be oddballs, but they nevertheless continue to provide a magnet-like attraction for inventors and adventurers. These individuals, epitomized by those at FuelVapor Technologies intend to mainline three-wheeled vehicles by making their advantages (such as efficiencies) impossible to ignore. Kind of like a Big Wheel when you're four years old.
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