Three Wheels Across America
Bombardier Recreational Products recently loaned us two of their top-of-the-line Can-Am touring models and a trailer for an exhaustive cross-country test. Starting in St. Louis, MO, we followed the Lewis and Clark Trail more than 3,000 miles to Oregon’s Pacific Coast. In addition to fluctuations in weather and topography, we experienced a wide variety of riding conditions on the secondary paved roads.
They’re Not Motorcycles!
The Can-Am Spyders, with their “Y-shaped” configuration of two wheels in front and one in the back, are obviously not motorcycles. You don’t counter-steer or lean them into corners. The steering is similar to that of an ATV or a snowmobile, where the handlebar a is swung in the same direction in which the rider intends to go. Also, the hand controls are different from a traditional bike: paddle shifters on the left change gears (which means there are no clutch or gearshift levers), and all braking is accomplished with the rider’s right foot. Although the throttle is operated with the right hand like a standard cycle, it took this veteran rider several days before running the Can-Am became a second-nature process.
Although the power-to-weight ratio of the Can-Am Spyder RT doesn’t make it a road burner, the torque-happy Rotax engine has plenty of grunt. Even riding two-up and pulling a loaded trailer, it accelerates rapidly and overtakes vehicles at highway speeds. The integrated ABS braking system worked flawlessly and inspired rider confidence when bringing the heavily loaded vehicle to a quick stop. Gas mileage on the Can-Am (two-up plus loaded trailer) averaged around 28 mpg. Jeff, who rode one-up without a trailer, but fully loaded, averaged around 35 mpg.
Although the Spyders have variable ratio power steering, executing smooth lines through curves is an acquired skill. When cornering at speed, I had a strong tendency to over-steer and make multiple corrections before exiting a curve. The suspension was initially set too soft, and mid-curve steering corrections occasionally created a back-and-forth rocking motion. This further amplified the over-steering effect.
Part of the handling solution was to increase the front suspension’s pre-load one notch and crank the rear suspension pre-load up to its maximum setting. In addition, it was even more important than on a motorcycle to look completely through curves and apply a relatively light touch to the handlebars. With more practice, I became pretty proficient at executing corners. However, there was a very noticeable “cliff effect” to the speed at which a curve could be negotiated easily. I usually had to slow down a little to even out the handling again.
Traveling across the Great Plains and through the Columbia River Gorge, we encountered very strong side winds. The Spyder RTs presented a sizable target for those gales to grab onto and toss around, especially riding two-up and pulling a trailer. That effect, combined with the vehicle’s relatively sensitive steering, made riding it in excess of 65 mph a handful. The problems substantially diminished, though, as speed was reduced to the 55 to 60 mph range.
Although a large, heavy vehicle, the Spyder RT proved to be adept at negotiating small spaces. The relatively tight turning radius, level platform with three wheels, and reverse gear made parking maneuvers a snap. The only significant OMG moment was a hydroplaning incident on a rain-slicked backroad, but that handling issue was solved by a considerable decrease in speed.
The most obvious safety advantage the Spyder has over a conventional motorcycle is its three wheels, which virtually eliminate the possibility of a low side crash, a tip over, or various other challenges to keeping the rubber side down. The Can-Am’s more substantial road presence also reduces the likelihood of not being seen by other drivers. I don’t recall a single incident of another vehicle pulling into my lane or taking some other action that suggested its driver didn’t see me.
The Spyders also have several electronic systems that promote safety. Besides ABS, there is a Traction Control System (TCS), an Electro Mechanical Parking Brake, Vehicle Stability System (VSS), Digitally Encoded Security System (DESS), Dynamic Power Steering (DPS), and the Stability Control System (SCS). I inadvertently activated the SCS on a curve when the inside wheel separated slightly from a rough section of pavement. The Spyder immediately reduced speed and re-established contact between the tire and the pavement.
One downside of the three-wheel configuration is dodging road hazards that suddenly appear in your lane. Because it’s virtually impossible to straddle or swerve around roadkill and other objects without crossing the yellow line (on a two-lane road), riders usually have to enter the opposing lane once it is clear of oncoming traffic or use the road’s shoulder.
The upright riding position and lower back support for the rider helped to lessen road fatigue during long hours in the saddle. To ward off cramping, I periodically stretched out my legs and rested my boots on the rubber air dams that direct engine heat out the side. I doubt those parts were intended for use as such, but they did a fine job of impersonating highway pegs. Other key features include GPS, cruise control, heated grips (for rider and passenger), passenger floorboards, 12V power outlet, and an iPhone/MP3 connection.
A firm, and sometimes jarring, ride was the tradeoff for increasing suspension pre-load. The electronically adjustable windshield, in its fully extended position, substantially reduced wind noise and helmet buffeting at highway speeds. At slower speeds, lowering it all the way down was necessary to improve rider airflow on very hot days. Overall, the windscreen and other deflectors seem designed primarily to protect riders from cold air and have limited adjustability to increase rider airflow in hot weather.
The RT-622 Trailer
Although the fiberglass trailer is a relatively light 250 pounds and aerodynamically designed, inevitably, there has to be some degrading of acceleration, handling, and stopping distance. The performance impact I experienced, though, was relatively minor considering the added hauling capacity and overall convenience the trailer provided for quickly stowing helmets and other riding gear.
Overall, the Can-Am Spyder RT Limited is both a fun and highly capable vehicle for long-distance touring. And riders get much the same open-air experience as riding a motorcycle. While it’s certainly true that Can-Am Spyders handle differently than two-wheeled motorcycles, there are clearly some unique advantages to touring on this three-wheeled vehicle. In the final analysis, it’s not a question of whether two wheels or three wheels are best, but a matter of personal preference. The Can-Am Spyder RT Limited has much to be recommended for. RR
Second Opinion by Jeff Arpin
The lure of riding is powerful, and satisfying that desire has given us a wealth of choices on what to ride. Can-Am has conceived and executed a new option that opens the world of cycling to a whole new segment of the population—those who may not wish, or be able, to execute the challenges that go with two wheels. The Can-Am Spyder makes for a highly able tourer that provides long distance comfort, commodious storage, plenty of power and features, and lots of operating convenience. After 24 days on board, I was never uncomfortable or fatigued, never short of a place to put something, in love with the integrated roller board luggage, impressed by the strong throttle and brakes, and appreciative of the thoughtful engineering.
If I had to pick an area that could be improved, it would be the steering. Because the Can-Am does not lean, and the front wheels remain vertical, higher speed cornering left me a bit unsure of myself. I felt that adjustment inputs were constantly needed, and when cornering aggressively, an edge that is too abrupt and sharp made for some grip grasping moments. I did get better with time, and doubtlessly would continue to do so.
Other minor tweaks I could suggest include: improve the size/visibility of some displays, enhance rider ventilation, add floorboards and highway pegs, simplify the starting/parking brake sequence, and locate the gas tank fill hole externally. Overall, the Can-Am Spyder is a very capable machine that should more than satisfy the desire to ride for many who feel the call.
MSRP $ 4,350
Effect on Warranty none, since manufactured and sold by BRP
Dimensions 7ft, 8in x 3ft, (L x W x H) 8in x 2ft,10in
Storage Capacity 622l
Suspension coil spring independent suspension
Wheels 12in vehicle matching wheels
Access front and rear lids opening w/ gas shocks
Locking uses same key as Can-Am
Colors match Can-Am Spyders
Empty Weight 250lb
2012 Can-Am Spyder RT Ltd
Distributor Bombardier Recreational Products
MSRP starting at $ 22,499
Engine Rotax V-twin
Bore and Stroke 97x66mm
Fuel Delivery multi-point EFI w/ 51mm throttle body
Power 100hp @7500rpm (claimed), torque 80lb-ft @5000rpm (claimed)
Transmission 5-speed automatic w/reverse
Final Drive belt
Frame Surrounding Spar Technology (SST)
Front Suspension double A-arm w/anti-roll bar, 5.9in travel, adjustable preload
Rear Suspension swing-arm, 5.7in travel, pneumatic adjustable preload
Brakes Front/Rear 4-piston calipers 250x6mm discs/single piston caliper 250x6mm disc
Tires Front/Rear 165x65 R14/225x50 R15
Dry Weight 929lbs
Maximum Vehicle Load 525lbs
Ground Clearance 4.5in
Fuel Capacity 6.6gal
Fuel Consumption w/ trailer/passenger 28mpg, w/o trailer/passenger 35mpg
Storage Capacity 155l
Seating rider lumbar support and passenger backrest
Seat Height 30.4in
Vehicle Dimensons 105x61.9x58in (L x W x H)
Colors Pure Magnesium Metallic, Viper Red, Quantum Blue Metallic, Pearl White & Lava Bronze Metallic