This tricycle goes from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds

A new street-legal trike comes with a V-twin, 106-horsepower motorcycle engine in it, instead of a baseball card stuck between the spokes.

By Roger Parloff, Fortune senior editor

(Fortune) -- You never read about America's love affair with the tricycle. But that's just because preschoolers don't publish wistful essays on American culture.

But now, at long last, the tricycle is about get its due. Last month, a company called BRP -- a leading manufacturer of snowmobiles and jet skis -- started selling its first street-legal product: a tricycle meant for adults on the open road that goes from 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds.

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Parloff on his new tricycle.
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Parloff on his first trike in 1959.
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This trike, called a BRP Can-Am Spyder, differs in three important respects from the one I used to ride when I was three. First, it's not red. Spyders come only in "full moon" (silver) or "millennium yellow."

Second, it has a 990-cc, V-twin, 106-horsepower, Rotax motorcycle engine in it, instead of a baseball card stuck between the spokes.

Finally, two of the three wheels have been placed in the front, instead of in the rear. BRP says that this distinctive "Y-architecture" provides optimal handling, while also serving a more prosaic purpose. The driver can always see the widest part of the vehicle (60-inches). If the single wheel were in front, you could forget you're not on a motorcycle, with nasty surprises.

When I rode a Spyder last month, I recaptured all the excitement I remember my trike affording me when I was three. Once again, I was racing as fast as I dared -- just me against the elements. And once again, I was the envy of all beheld me.

BRP positions the Spyder as offering an experience somewhere between the fun of a convertible and the terror of a motorcycle; more thrilling than the former, more confidence-inspiring than the latter. I'd say they're right about that, though I leaned more toward the terror end of the spectrum.

If you have a motorcycle license, that will instantly qualify you to ride a Spyder in any state (see box for state-by-state breakdown of licensing requirements). Ironically, though, motorcycle experience (and I have some) may actually make it harder for you to learn to drive this thing.

You steer a motorcycle by leaning. But because the Spyder has two wheels in front, you can't do that; you have to turn the handlebars. As much as the BRP people advised me about that beforehand, it takes time to unlearn the motorcycle reflexes. Initially, I thought the Spyder kept pulling to the right when, in fact, it was all pilot error: Unconsciously, I was still trying to steer left by leaning left, and it just wasn't happening.

Similarly, it was hard to satisfy myself that I wouldn't go flying into the roadside brush if I took a turn sitting bolt upright, the way one is supposed to with the Spyder.

Finally, when I reflexively stuck out my legs at stoplights, the way a cyclist does to catch the cycle when it tips, I sometimes found the Spyder rolling backward. That's because I was in neutral and had taken my foot off the only brake. (The right foot pedal evenly applies the brakes to all three wheels at once; it works great.)

The learning curve is not steep, though, and after an hour I was fully comfortable on the Spyder. BRP says that driving it will be more intuitive for non-cyclists, especially those who have ridden a snowmobile, jet-ski, or all-terrain vehicle (ATV.) (My Spyder had a 5-speed manual transmission, which works like a motorcycle's, but by June 2008 BRP will also offer clutchless semi-automatics, that should be simple for anyone to master.)

In any case, BRP doesn't expect to lure away die-hard motorcycle enthusiasts, according to Chris Dawson, who heads its Spyder program. Rather, it wants to attract non-motorcyclists or former motorcyclists, particularly from the ranks of existing powersports customers in the snowmobile, jet-ski, and off-road ATV markets.

BRP hopes that the Spyder's "balance between performance and peace of mind" will appeal especially to men in the 35-55 year-old range, who may have tried more "extreme" thrills in the past, but who now have "more responsibilities," says Dawson. It's for people who want "some adrenalin, but not unnecessary risk," he says.

When I approached small patches of sand or grease on the Spyder, I certainly did feel more confident than I would have on a motorcycle. On the other hand, I wouldn't oversell the peace-of-mind angle. You're still out there romping with 18-wheelers, sitting on an enormous engine, going 60 mph (theoretically up to 110 mph, according to BRP) with no seat belt, no doors, no roof, and no air bags. This is no Volvo.

The Spyder is a very high-end toy; it will set you back about $15,000. On the other hand, some of that investment goes toward high-end amenities like a Bosch electronic vehicle stability system, dynamic power steering, and double A-arm suspension. (More stabs at providing that elusive peace of mind.)

BRP, which is based in Valcourt, Québec, stands for Bombardier Recreational Products, and was spun off in 2003 from parent Bombardier (BBD). BRP also makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Sea-Doo jet-skis, ATVs and outboard engines.

Inauspiciously, Spyders began rolling off the assembly line on September 14, just about a week before the Canadian and U.S. dollars hit parity for the first time since 1978 -- a bad omen for a Canadian exporter. Nevertheless, BRP's Dawson says that the company already has received orders "in the thousands," resulting in a waiting list. If you order today, you may need to wait till May to take delivery. Top of page