Can-Am Spyder

By Kevin Ash - 14/04/2011

The Can-Am Spyder certainly looks different, no doubt about that. And knowing there‘s an Aprilia RSV motor hidden beneath that funky bodywork only adds to the anticipation of driving, riding or whatever it is you do with the thing.

It comes with credentials too. This is not some one-off product of a drug-crazed garden shed session with an arc welder and some body filler, this is a full Euro 3 and traffic law compliant production vehicle built by the big, Canadian BRP company, once better known as Bombardier. BRP is also owner of Rotax (which happened to make the RSV motor, hence its appearance in this device) and producer of high quality Ski-Doo snowmobiles and Sea-Doo watercraft, as well as a host of well known names in other fields, such as Evinrude Johnson outboards. The Spyder is on sale in the UK right now from just over £14,000. So it‘s very real and in proper showrooms.

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Would you want one though? BRP says it‘s expecting some riders disillusioned with the safety aspect of bikes to switch to the Spyder, as well as car drivers after something more exciting and different to a sports car. Hmm, I‘m not convinced about the first one - our test ride (stiflingly nannied until I shouted at someone...) in scenic Austria was constantly hindered by four-wheeled tourists which on a bike you‘d nip past and barely notice, but having one wheel less than a car doesn‘t help the Spyder, it‘s still pretty much as wide and thanks to the extra weight and detuned engine, not as quick as a bike. So you end up queuing with the rest of them. Bike riders will simply find this too frustrating, and the while the 0-100kph time of 4.5 seconds will woo a car driver, that‘s dull commuter territory for us lot with a mere two wheels.

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Come at it from the car perspective and the concept works better, especially as it even includes some sophisticated auto chassis electronics in the Bosch ESP Electronic Stability Programme, used by Mercedes, BMW and many others to prevent spins, nasty oversteer, wheel lift and so on. Three wheelers are unpredictable generally so this is needed, although the traction control is overkill and spoils some fun by preventing any really exciting tail-out action. Within the restrictions imposed by the electronics the Spyder handles well enough, helped by the power steering which gets around the heavy steering issues of similar vehicles (not that there are many), but get near the limits and it‘s hard to tell what‘s going on, aside from the odd kick and twitch as the chassis computer deals with a problem you didn‘t know about.

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The motor is detuned to 105bhp to make it more suited to the 697lb (316kg) dry weight (for extra torque at the expense of horsepower), so it‘s not going to thrill with superbike performance or power to weight ratio, regardless of the heritage of the motor, but it does hustle along better than most cars you‘ll meet, although you won‘t be cornering as quickly as they can.

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It‘s good that it exists because it‘s interesting and different, and doesn‘t do us any harm. See it as a wheel-shy car and the Spyder is quick and fun, you get power steering and ABS as well as the other gizmos, there‘s a fair-sized boot in the front, it‘s well made and it‘s backed up by a big company. It‘s also so wildly different to most things on the road you wouldn‘t get any more attention if you rode it naked. But it‘s your slightly nervous, bike-shy mate who‘s more likely to get a kick out of it in the longer term, once the novelty of riding something so different wears off, than anyone used to enjoying what two wheels can do. Indeed, nervous car journalist Christopher Hubbard saw it “ a less potentially lethal approach to summer biking fun.” Poor dear.

As far as I'm concerned, three is more than four but less than two, I don‘t care what your maths teacher told you.

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Three models have become available since this test was written. The base model Spyder RS costs £14,139, the RT costs from £16,639, and the top spec RT-S starts at £19,769.

The RT includes a semi-automatic gearbox, sound system, heated grips and additional gauges, while the RT-S has four headlamps, a higher spec sound system with iPod integration, cruise control, adjustable rear suspension and improved trim.

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The Electronic Stability Programme was developed by Bosch and is now used by many car manufacturers under a variety of names, but always with the aim of keeping a car relatively stable and hence controllable at the edge of its handling ability.

At its heart is a yaw sensor, which detects how the car - or in this instance, the Spyder - is rotating about a vertical axis through its middle. In other words, it measures how quickly it‘s changing direction, and allows the ESP computer to detect if a spin is about to happen. There are also sensors measuring the steering angle of the front wheels, the rotation speeds of each wheel (three on the Spyder of course), the cornering force by detecting the lateral acceleration, and the pressure in the brake lines.

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If any of this information conflicts with the safe parameters programmed into the computer (in fact most ESP systems use two computers, each of which is significantly more powerful than a single ABS computer), ESP decides a spin, oversteer or understeer is imminent and moves into its chassis management operation. And as it reassesses the chassis every 20 milliseconds, it can react far faster than any human rider.

For example, if the difference in the speeds of any of the wheels is too great, the yaw rate is different to the rate at which the steering is being turned, the lateral acceleration doesn‘t match the combination of wheel speed and steering angle, and several other criteria, then ESP intervenes.

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It takes over by applying brake pressure to any of the wheels individually, or it cuts the engine power to the rear wheel to keep the Spyder on track rather than spinning off into the scenery. If you think you can match this yourself, you need to have superhuman reaction times as well as being to control three brake pedals simultaneously, the steering and the throttle while being hypersensitive to sideways forces. Congratulations, but you‘re a freak-

From a safety viewpoint it‘s an excellent system, with statistical proof that it reduces accidents. In cars however it‘s often criticised by enthusiastic drivers for intervening too early, before the driver can really push the car close to its limits. On the Spyder it‘s not so clear cut: Its combination of three wheels, softish suspension, a short wheelbase and relatively high centre of gravity (compared with a four-wheeled sports car, and don‘t forget much of that is due to the height of the rider), makes it an unpredictable little beast. Quite possibly even it‘s inherently unstable near its cornering limits, so rather like modern high tech jet fighters which can‘t even fly without constant computer control, it‘s only ESP which really makes the Spyder safe enough for ordinary mortals to ride hard.

Model tested: Can-Am Spyder

Price: from £14,139

Available: now

Engine: V-twin, liquid cooled, dohc 8v, 990cc

Power: 105bhp (est) 8,500rpm

Torque: 77lb.ft @ 6,250rpm

Economy: n/a

Tank/Range:5.5 gallons (25 litres, 6.6 US gallons)/ n/a

Transmission: Five gears, wet multi-plate clutch, belt final drive

Seat height: 29.0in (737mm)

Wheelbase: 68.0in (1727mm)

Rake/trail: n/a

Weight: 697lb (316kg) (dry)

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