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First drive: Toyota i-Road

The Toyota i-Road EV may be the most unique vehicle you’ve ever driven

The major cities of the world are invariably the center of their regions’ commerce and industry. They offer the best in food, culture, and art, which is great for business. However, this leads to crowding and congestion. Traffic comes to a dead stop during rush hour and parking is a nightmare.

Public transport can help ease the flow, but traffic remains an issue even in the areas with the busiest trains and buses. Our populations are growing, and there’s only so much room to expand. Toyota is among the manufacturers building cars with all this in mind. Enter The i-Road: a three-wheeled electric vehicle designed to alleviate the headaches of driving and parking in a crowded city.

Lean on me

“We designed the i-Road to meet the demands of the city of the future,” said Toyota senior project manager Jason Schulz, who met me with the i-Road at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. It was here that I would put the three-wheeler through its paces.

What’s more fitting than bringing the i-Road to one of the busiest cities in the world? As a lifelong NYC resident, I can see that this type of vehicle has a possible future here. With a top speed of 35 mph, some might think the i-Road wouldn’t be able to keep up with traffic, but that is not the case here. Just last year, the NYC speed limit was lowered to a crawling 25 mph. On a workday you’re lucky to average half that. So the i-Road will be fine in that respect.

The i-Road is a zero-emissions electric vehicle with a small footprint (both carbon and physical). It can weave in and out of traffic with a maneuvering system that combines active lean with rear-wheel steering. Indeed, its chief engineer is an avid skier who “wanted the emotional connection” he gets from indulging in his hobby.

“We designed the i-Road to meet the demands of the city of the future.”

The i-Road is powered by two electric motors — one in each front wheel — making this a front-wheel drive vehicle. The transmission is a single-speed automatic. The wheels themselves move up and down independently of each other and are electronically synchronized to the steering wheel. This enables the vehicle to lean into turns, with the optimal degree of lean governed by a gyro sensor that measures steering angle and speed. Combined with the motorized rear wheel steering, the i-Road has a tight turning radius and, according to Toyota, can squeeze into a space the size of half or even a quarter of a full-size car.

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The i-Road measures about seven-and-a-half feet long and just under three feet wide. Its curb weight is 660 lbs. Its rechargeable lithium battery gives it a cruising range of 30 miles, which should be enough for the average round-trip commute in a large city.  Using a standard 110-volt outlet, a full charge can be reached in about three hours.

Spartan features

The very nature of the i-Road defines its styling. Its fully enclosed cabin is accessed by large doors on either side. The large sloping windshield dwarfs the tiny rear window. The upward slope in the doors leave some room for small side windows, which are manually raised and lowered via a nylon strap (this is a concept, after all). The i-Road’s body is built from composite materials and is topped off with a carbon fiber roof.

A single headlight illuminates the road ahead, while a pair of taillights are mounted high on the body on either side of the rear glass. The single reverse light is underscored by a small bump, the purpose of which is solely to convey an exclamation mark. Below that is the backup sensor which works in tandem with sensors built into the sides.

Toyota i-Road
Albert Khoury/Digital Trends

Inside, the cabin has room for one occupant and feels like a cockpit. According to Schultz, pilots who have driven the i-Road said that it feels like flying a small prop plane. A column of three push buttons control the transmission, and the conventional steering wheel would feel right at home in an older base model Camry.

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The canopy offers great visibility, which is more than I could say for the rear windscreen. One would hope that Toyota will add a backup camera for the production model. The digital instrument panel glows a cool blue, with large digits indicating charge, mileage, and gear. Overall, the interior plastics felt cheap and thin, likely part of an effort to keep price and weight down.

Electric glide

Upon starting the car, a series of tests and calibrations go into effect, as the car adjusts to the level of the ground as well as the driver’s weight. A small “READY” light indicates that it’s good to go. The steering wheel features active feedback, which vibrates to let the driver know if they are leaning too hard into a turn, giving them a chance to respond and correct. If the vehicle continues to sense a hazard, it will automatically level off.

It can weave in and out of traffic with a maneuvering system that combines active lean with rear-wheel steering.

I drove the i-Road on an interior track set up with cones. The overall layout was an oval, but it also featured a slalom course near the end, providing a chance to experience how the vehicle reacts to changing direction quickly. As expected, the first turn did indeed give me the feeling of being on a motorcycle. I found myself looking out the side windows as I took the corners, which made me stray off course. I was looking for a good driving line, using the cones as guidance. Toyota’s on-hand test driver caught wind of this and told me to keep my eyes on the road ahead, as I would in a regular car, which fixed everything. I found that the bump above the headlight functioned well as a point of reference.

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After just one lap, I was already eager to see what this weird little Toyota can do. As I approached the slalom, I gave it full throttle. I negotiated the first and second cones with little difficulty, but when I flung the wheel in the opposite direction for the third, I felt it vibrate and then I heard a thump as the car put the brakes on my antics. It was a bit startling, but I did not feel that I lost control. It was more of a reminder that there’s this thing called physics, and I was attempting to defy it.

Toyota i-Road
Albert Khoury/Digital Trends

After settling down, the next few laps went smoothly. I mentally pictured myself driving down seventh avenue in NYC, avoiding taxicabs and jaywalking pedestrians alike. I felt confident that this motorcycle-car hybrid could handle anything the city could throw at it.

There were times where the degree of lean made me nervous, however. On a motorcycle, I could adjust the angle by shifting my body, but here, I was forced to trust the car. I was also very conscious  of the rear wheel steering, which gave a gliding sensation in the corners. It would definitely take some getting used to, but I imagine that wouldn’t take long.

While being in an enclosed vehicle should make me feel safer, I would hate to think what a side impact would feel like. The lightweight doors are wafer-thin and don’t contain airbags. While my legs are fully exposed on a motorcycle, it is something I am constantly aware of and I subsequently accept. The main benefit of the i-Road’s roof and doors appears to be protection from the elements, but this also gives a false sense of security. Indeed, there’s just a single seatbelt for safety and no trace of an airbag.

Conclusion

After a number of laps, I realized that this was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had behind the wheel of an enclosed vehicle. I would classify it more as a scooter than a car or motorcycle. With its short wheelbase and instant torque, I can see this becoming a viable mode of transportation in congested areas where bicycles regularly overtake motorized vehicles.

The i-Road has undergone testing through pilot car sharing programs in Japan (Toyota City and Tokyo) and Grenoble, France, where the response has been mostly positive. Toyota has been quiet about the exact price and release date, but may be looking to implement a car-sharing program here in the U.S. I’m just waiting for the day when someone drops a Hayabusa engine in one.

Highs

  • A driving experience like no other
  • Compact size eases parking woes
  • Easy to climb in and out of
  • Highly maneuverable
  • Should easily keep up with busy city traffic

Lows

  • Active lean takes some getting used to
  • Doors feel flimsy and thin
  • Limited rearward visibility