Motorcycle or car? We’re not sure about the i-Road

Really? A Toyota in CMG? What’s the world coming to?

Truth is, I’m not sure what the Toyota i-Road is. It has three wheels, two in front and one behind like a Can-Am Spyder, which means the Canadian government thinks it’s a motorcycle.

Ride around Toronto or Montreal and you’ll probably be told to wear a helmet, which means you’ll look even dorkier than you do already in the thing.

Way to pick up chicks! A respected member of the media poses seductively with a hot pink i-Road. He’s from Quebec…

Toyota clearly thinks it’s a car, though, and the French here in Grenoble agree. It has a steering wheel, and brake and throttle pedals. It has a seat belt. It has a windshield wiper, which is nice when it rains, and it has plastic windows that aren’t so good at keeping the rain out, especially when they fall off. That’s about it.

But it leans around corners – and that’s the beauty of it and why it’s here. It leans really well, and the stabilizers keep it secure even when the road is slippery and crap. It won’t slide out and it won’t fall over.

That’s a slippery road, that is, but Editor Richardson doesn’t care. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any cares at all. Or dignity.

This could be the future of urban transportation, but it’s not ready just yet. There are 35 i-Road prototypes on test here in France as part of a car-sharing program, and this is the only place in the world you can try them. The project is half-way through its three-year plan, and the idea is to see who wants to use the i-Road, and for what. Mainly, Toyota wants to see if it helps remove regular vehicles from the road. They don’t turn heads here any more. Grenoblians – Grenobblies? – are used to seeing them on the street, often with perplexed-looking tourists behind the wheel.

So first off, the details. It’s an electric vehicle, with a range of 50 km and a top speed of 45 km/h, though in the service of CMG I sucked 48 km/h out of mine on a downhill stretch. It takes four hours to recharge from flat, and it costs 1 euro to rent for every 15 minutes, which is less than a couple of bucks. There’s a seat behind the main seat for a passenger, as long as that passenger is no bigger than the imp from Game of Thrones.

Hmmm – should we take one for 15 minutes, or the full hour? And what are we going to do with it when we have it? Decisions, decisions.

It’s as simple to drive/ride as a golf cart. The i-Road has to set up its centrifugal stabilizers first, so it’s not instant when the key is turned and it gives a little jiggle through the shocks to shake itself out, but then it’s off you go. Just press on the throttle and don’t bother slowing down on the curves. Instrumented testing for acceleration – me counting “one and a thousand, two and a thousand…” – shows zero-to-45 km/h in seven seconds.

This is all well and fine, but the trump card is the i-Road has rear-wheel steering, which changes everything. Like, everything. This makes it easier to park because its turning circle is negligible, and fun to ride at “speed”, but tricky to maneuver through traffic at slower speed because it swings the back end around to turn corners. This is why anyone who wants to rent an i-Road here has to take an hour-long training course first, just to get the hang of it. I spent the afternoon riding around the city here, trying to push my way through traffic and incurring the wrath of the Grenobblies, and never quite got used to it. But it was fun.

The i-Road is easy to park. Getting out is a different matter, as David Booth’s boss discovers. Maybe fewer eight-course meals are in order.

The i-Road is safer than your average motorcycle because it doesn’t fall over – you don’t need to wear a helmet – but it’s still too wide to filter through traffic and tricky to try with that rear steering. I’d like to say it’s a well-intentioned gimmick, but it’s not. It’s happening.

The car-share program is in Grenoble because this is an especially environmentally-conscious city. Surrounding mountains keep the smog in, so clean emissions are actively encouraged. Europeans are far more concerned with emissions control than we are in North America, and electric vehicles have no emissions at the tailpipe, which doesn’t even exist. Motorcycles, of course, have the dirtiest emissions of all. The cleanest motorcycle is far more polluting out of the exhaust than the dirtiest car, but it takes up a lot less space and uses much less fuel, so we’ll forgive it that.

It’s a prototype, which is one reason why the plastic window fell off. While it was raining. Editor Richardson got wet, which is why he looks glum.

Toyota has no plans to import the i-Road to Canada. In fact, it has no plans to import the i-Road anywhere right now. Make no mistake, though – vehicles like this are coming, and when they do hit our streets, we’ll be used to seeing them after just a year or so. They’ll be like iPhones, less than a decade old but taken for granted now. They’ll come to Europe first, which has narrower, more congested streets and more expensive fuel, but they’ll make their way over to North America soon after.

Go to any large car show anywhere in the world and there’ll be a few start-up companies with vehicles like i-Roads at their booths, and illustrations showing how they’re the future of transportation. The reps will tell you all about the benefits of small size and clean power.

Hmmm – Toyota or Guzzi? Which do you think looks the coolest. And the most fun? And is best for filtering through European traffic?

But with a nudge and wink, the Toyota people can also plug the fun of leaning around corners in the i-Road. We’ve been doing that since the first motorcycle, of course – the first bicycle even – but maybe car drivers will catch on. The future of transportation may look totally dorky, but at least there’s still hope it will be fun.

Where to? The world is our oyster! At least, the world within 50 km of a charging station is our oyster. This could be a long trip.




  1. “Motorcycles, of course, have the dirtiest emissions of all. The cleanest motorcycle is far more polluting out of the exhaust than the dirtiest car” – Beg pardon ?
    Oh yeah, and its Grenoblites… 😉

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