Since 2007, motorcyclists have been giving the three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder the side eye and wondering, “What’s the deal with that thing?” I know you’re a little curious. Are your prejudices justified or is the Spyder actually awesome? Let’s go for a ride.
[Full Disclosure: BRP was kind enough to give us a Can-Am Spyder F3-S, and even deliver it in the rain so that we could race it around Manhattan against a Sea-Doo watercraft. Here’s how that went. And here’s a more critical examination of the Spyder experience.]
So there we were, huddled under a scrawny tree against a downpour when a nice man named Rich rolled up on the Spyder wearing a frog suit. He introduced himself and started showing us around the tricycle, which up close really looks more like a Decepticon wrapped around a very safe jungle gym.
Now’s probably as good a time as any to add a second disclosure: I agreed to ride the Spyder expecting to hate it. This is because my dad, who’s been a biker as long as I have, test-rode one when they came out eight years ago. “You’re gonna hate it,” was the extent of his review.
Looks pretty cool up close.
But that bright-orange basketweave of a superstructure was my first nudge toward giving the Can-Am a chance. Step one is, of course, deciding the thing looks kind of cool. And in that soggy New Jersey parking lot, the three-wheeled motomachine it did.
Actually, it looks coolest without nobody on it:
“You’re familiar with motorcycles?” Rich asked, knowing full well I’d already signed the death waiver.
“Yeah, been riding for 10 years. Ish.”
“Okay forget everything you know about that. What else have you ridden?”
“Uh... Quads. Jet Skis. Shopping carts?”
“What about snowmobiles?”
A snowmobile, it turns out, is the closest comparison this seasoned veteran of motorcycle sales could give me about the Spyder experience.
The foot pegs and handlebars were dialed to my six-foot body thanks to easy adjustments for both. Can-Am cleverly calls this, wait for, the the “Ufit” system.
A “different” ergonomic experience.
Just a few turns with an allen key and you can move everything for taller or shorter pilots, but no matter what your inseam is you’ll find the posture... unique.
Imagine sitting straight-backed in an office chair, with your arms and legs forward like you’re doing a flying sidekick, but instead of kicking you’re setting up to be hugging. Yeah, the ol’ “flying hug” feeling.
The first whiff of a “snowmobilesque” experience comes from the extremely wide fuel tank, which pushes your legs way out and gives you the sense of security you might have in a Miata. As in, maybe it feels bigger than a motorcycle but it’s still only gonna show up as “food” in the eyes of a predatory full-sized SUV or truck.
The transmission’s unique too.
The Can-Am Spyder F3-S I rode comes with two transmission choices, a regular “motorcycle style” lever-and-pedal shifter or an electronic sequential gearbox that shifts for you. Sort of.
The electronic shifter drops gears automatically when you slow down, or you can override it with a little “-” button to get more power on the fly. But you have to upshift it yourself regardless. Kind of exactly like the +/- system they put on basically every automatic car with a “manual” or “sport mode.”
Also like an automotive “manumatic,” it might feel like a lot of fun to somebody who’s never driven a car before. But if you actually know how to drive stick – or ride a real motorcycle – the experience is like having your carbon-framed XC mountain bike swapped out for something with training wheels and tassels.
And there it is. I resisted the phrase “real motorcycle” for about 10 whole paragraphs but the floodgates done broke.
The thing about the Spyder is that it’s not a motorcycle. And doesn’t claim to be, but you need a motorcycle license to ride it. And let’s be honest, most people with an interest in riding any kind of crazy contraption on the street will probably have some experience with traditionally two-wheeled deathtraps.
If you like riding motorcycles, the Spyder is a tepid experience. The animalistic feeling of charging through the wind is subdued by an enormous front end. The superhero rush you get leaning around and carving into corners is castrated by two big training wheels.
And if you don’t like riding motorcycles... why the hell would you want anything to do with this?
After a couple hours of buzzing around Manhattan – probably the second worst place in America to have a good time on any wheeled vehicle – I was definitely feeling the snowmobile vibe. You want to lean, but you don’t. There’s plenty of power there, and throttle-steering is forgiving. And it’s all very... easy.
It’s not slow, but it’s not scary.
A 1300 CC Rotax engine provides 115 horsepower, which pours on smooth as a CD carefully exiting your drive when you push the triangle-line button. What? It’s hard to think of something smooth that’s not “butter.”
But whatever cliché analogy you want to reach for, “smooth” power doesn’t mean excessive power. An engine this size on a sportbike would turn back time and howl like a banshee getting branded when you turned up the juice. In the Spyder, it’s very easy to keep a lid on.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty to toast your rear tire with if you boot the brake and strangle the throttle. Can you think of a better burnout machine than a single-rear-wheel-drive tricycle?
Between the traction control tech and weight of the machine, a little power-over slide is really easy to conjure and settle. So the Spyder can put a smirk on your face without requiring you to do anything but squeeze.
And since your bodyweight is on your butt instead of your wrists, I guess I could imagine this being an easier seat to spend a thousand miles on than a sportbike. Then again you could always just get a Sportster or a BMW GS.
What about around corners?
Have you ever played a motorcycle arcade game, where you feel a lean but stationary at the same time? That’s the closest thing I can liken the steering experience too for those who haven’t ridden a snowmobile.
You’re guiding the front skids (er, wheels) around, and very precisely controlling the amount of tailslide with the throttle. This is probably the most pleasurable part of the Spyder experience, because the trike is really comfortable spooling up and stepping the back out just enough to make you feel brave but not so wildly that you pee your pants and dump the thing on the pavement.
I’d probably never be brave enough to power-over on a motorcycle, but I was getting pretty dialed in with it on the Spyder after ten or twelve little blip-turns.
More convenient than a motorcycle... barely.
Unlike a motorcycle, you never need to balance yourself on a Can-Am Spyder. Just sit down and be moved!
But you’ve still still got to wear a helmet, whether it’s the law or you just don’t want your face to be shotgunned with bugs and rocks and road tar.
You can’t split lanes because you’re a fat ol’ thing, and you can’t fit in motorcycle parking spots or be loaded into the back of a pickup truck.
This is where a small convertible, which costs about the same (or WAY less if you’re willing to shop used) starts to look pretty appealing for that windy roadgoing experience you so desire.
Is the dang thing any good, or what?
At this point the verdict we heard before I even threw a leg over this thing pretty much proved itself: “it’s like a snowmobile for the street.” Or an entry-level compact sports car that gets great gas mileage and requires you to wear a helmet. Or a motorcycle you’re riding around town on that’s actually strapped down in the bed of a pickup truck.
The Spyder is easy and accessible and offers the open-air experience of a motorcycle with the stability of a car. It’s also got the inconveniences of both vehicles.
At the end of the day, you can have a good time riding it. But $20,000 also buys a whole lotta rides on a carnival carousel, and the experience isn’t all that far off.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.