Spira4U Three-Wheeler First Drive
Foam-enting a Transportation Revolution: All-weather mobility at scooter/motorcycle pricing
There's a yawning gap in the developing world's vehicle pricing landscape, between cheap blue-smoke-belching scooters and tuk tuks and entry-level hatchbacks and sedans. Lon Ballard and the Spira4U folks hope to drive this largely plastic and foam three-wheeler into that gap, and because they're from the U.S., they've designed it to also meet tougher North American (cycle) safety standards. The company is touring the country and signing dealers, and we caught up with them during a stop at Cobo Hall during press days of the NAIAS.
An overarching aim of the design was to improve pedestrian safety, as vehicles are responsible for an enormous percentage of deaths and injuries among pedestrians in the developing world. This explains the 8-inch layer of large-cell polypropylene foam covering the nose and the 4 inches of padding on the sides. The dash and steering tiller are similarly padded for occupant protection. The rest of the structure is largely comprised of a core board of polypropylene hex cells sandwiched between layers of fiberglass. These white core boards are cut and scored for folding, origami style, and then welded together using a process employing hot air and melted plastic to form the joints. These panels remain visible on the interior. Apply some sealant to a few bolt holes, and the thing even floats! The shiny colored exterior roof and fenders are molded of ABS plastic. The windshield is regulation laminated safety glass. Motorcycle suspension parts are fitted front and rear, and to cope with higher potential loaded weight, the rear wheel ball bearings are replaced by stronger roller bearings.
The finished vehicle measures about 9 feet long by 5 feet wide by 4 feet tall, and it weighs in at a feathery 420 pounds when powered by a 150cc four-stroke scooter motor converted to fuel injection for federal emissions compliance. That little engine is good for 53 mph and can drive up to 200 miles on its 2.5-gallon gas tank. So configured, the entry-level Spira4U will open at $6,000. Or opt for emissions-free mobility with one of four electric variants. For $9,000 you get a 5-kilowatt-hour battery, $11,000 buys 7.5 kW-hrs, and $13,000 buys the Tesla P85 of three-wheelers with 10 kW-hrs providing 140 miles of range and 300 mpg-e. Crazy-rich show-offs can even blow $15,000 for the 10-kW-hr battery powering twin 10-kW (13-hp) electric motors (one in each rear wheel -- the P85D of third-world three-wheeler -- the standard is left-wheel-drive). The power specs look unimpressive, but remember that in that top Spira4U weighing 520 pounds, the weight-to-power ratio (with a driver aboard) is about like that of an Accord, Fusion, or C-Max Hybrid. Oh, and in recognition of the reality that most customers in the developing world will lack the convenience of an attached garage with electrical outlets, the battery packs are all removable and portable into the living quarters for recharging. (This also serves as a theft deterrent!) Four hours will fully charge the battery on 110-volt power.
Electric models also get a reverse gear and backup camera. Eliminating a rear window permits a larger cargo volume, but drivers of the gasser must hop out and push it back into a parking spot. Of course, with most mass in the rear, it's not too hard to just lift the nose and roll the vehicle to wherever you want to park it, and an option is in the works to fit casters to the top of the hatch that will allow you to park the electric versions vertically. Gas tanks and oil sumps make this option difficult for the gasser. "Parking" them this way allows up to 18 Spira4Us to fit in a standard shipping container to make the trip from the Chinese manufacturer. (Licensees are being sought in Thailand and India to support local sales in those markets.)
Not surprisingly, the demonstrator unit is the twin-motor, big-battery job. I climb in through the right-side access door and sit down on the roomy seat. Two smaller adults will fit, though the steering tiller is centered in the cabin, so it might feel a bit awkward. Turn on the ignition switch up by the tiller's pivot point, flip two circuit breakers down at the front left corner of the seat cushion, and twist the right motorcycle-style hand-grip accelerator, and off we go. Horn, turn signal, and other functions live on these grips, as well, but the three disc brakes are hydraulically actuated via a single foot pedal.
The motor controller is programmed to withhold full power until the Spira4U is moving along at 5 mph or so to prevent roasting the little 100/80R14 tires, but even at much less than full throttle I sense a slight torque on the tiller when accelerating in a straight line. With no torque going to the front wheel, I figure the right rear motor might be getting a slightly bigger dose of power than the left for some reason. Using the tiller is plenty intuitive, and naturally the turn circle is determined by how hard you press it against either padded side panel. I also make the mental note that barrel-chested passengers riding shotgun could potentially complicate some steering maneuvers. The Spira4U nimbly negotiates the Cobo basement test track's many curves and gives a sense of the elemental transportation promised here. There's plenty of electric motor whirring to be heard, and even at less than 20 mph, wind can be detected whizzing by the sliding side windows.
My biggest takeaway from the experience is that probably even in the developing world buyers would have to have a huge incentive to save the world to opt for the electric version. At $6,000 I'm persuaded by the comfort and safety upgrade Spira4U promises versus the contemporary competition. At $15,000 this vehicle is laughable -- at least until they figure out how to make it drive on water.