Friday, February 12, 2016

Test Ride: 2016 CanAm Spyder RS-S

To be honest, I never understood the CamAm Spyder. It has all of the negatives of the motorcycle - the lack of crash protection, exposure to the elements, limited practicality, and excessive noise - with none of the benefits - outrageously quick acceleration, thrilling sensation of leaning into corners, ability to split lanes in California. For me, the Spyder always represented a segment of motorcycling that seemed too far outside of logical for me to really pay much attention to. Whenever I saw one on the road, I would generally roll my eyes and think to myself, "There goes another guy with more money than brains." So because of this, I had never really expressed much interest in giving the CanAm Spyder a test, even though their demo days seemed to be omnipresent no matter what city I lived in. This time around, at the International Motorcycle Show, I figured it was time to get over my prejudices and see if I could make sense of why people would find this thing even remotely appealing.

First impressions are mixed. The Spyder bears more resemblance to a snow mobile than a motorcycle with only a single drive wheel at the rear and two large drive wheels at the front. To me, the look is rather bulky and not particularly attractive. At least the paint scheme on my tester was impeccably done and looked impressively sporty. A single shock suspends that rear drive wheel while independent double wishbone suspension, much more like that of a car, is used up front. The motorcycle style handlebars turn the front wheels, but because of the wheel layout, there is no leaning. This would prove a crucial aspect of the experience.

Hopping on, things felt familiar. The controls are all largely motorcycle derived, aside from the presence of a foot operated parking brake and a switch to operate the reverse gear. Shifting is through a 5-speed gear box that uses the familiar 1-down-4-up pattern typical to motorcycles, with the neutral position between first and second gear. Turn signals appear on the left cluster while the kill switch and starter are on the right. The familiarity makes it easy to be lured into a false sense of security, especially as a rider with quite a few miles under the belt. 

Holding the clutch, a required step regardless of the bike being in neutral, and tapping the start fired up the 998cc Rotax built v-twin with a bellow. If there is one thing the Spyder does right, it is taking the pulses of the lumpy twin and turning them into a pretty aggressive sounding exhaust noise. Tipping into the throttle allowed me to watch the counter-rotating analog tachometer do its thing while I fiddled a bit with the various functions available in the digital center display. Using a little control pad built into the left bar cluster, I could have the system display most of the typical things such as average fuel economy, instantaneous fuel economy, miles to empty, and so on in addition to the digital readout of the speed. It was all pretty basic stuff, but well executed in terms of the graphics and animations.

Before we set out onto public roads, the team from CanAm requested all participants demonstrate that they understood the riding dynamics of the Spyder were different from a traditional motorcycle. They had set up a small cone course and requested each rider take the Spyder through it first to familiarize themselves with the handling and the braking. On a standard two-wheeled motorcycle, one counter-steers in order to lean the bike into the corner, but on the Spyder, you turn the direction you want to go, much more like a car. Also like a car, the act of cornering would push the rider's weight towards the outside of the turn, meaning it became necessary to fight that centripetal force. In some ways, it made more sense to think about the handling of the Spyder like a very exposed convertible with handlebar steering as opposed to a motorcycle. Heck, even the brakes, which are only actuated by the right side foot pedal, was more car than bike.

Having managed to wrap my head around the unusual dynamics, twitchy throttle response, and discombobulating braking, I got the nod of approval from the CanAm rep to get in line with the rest of the group. Unlike with other demo day rides I have done in the past, the test of the Spyder was conducted entirely in single file because it was not possible to safely stagger the trikes in the lane the same way one would with motorcycles. This meant a lot more likelihood of getting split up at stop lights and other traffic stops as we could not bunch up the way that motorcycles could. Not to say that the Spyder is huge, but compared to a motorcycle it is significantly wider. In fact, the total width of the Spyder felt like it was at least twice the size of my K1200.

Out on the highway, I finally got to open up the Rotax motor and get a feel for the performance. Displacing 998cc, the v-twin makes a rather meager 100 hp, but a stout feeling 80 lb-ft of torque at a modest 5000 rpm. That means that off the line, the acceleration does not feel like it suffers much, though go much into the upper half of the rev range and the performance pretty much falls flat. Plus, weighing in at a hefty 798 lbs, more than 50% more than my already hefty K1200, means that straight line performance suffers tremendously compared to most serious motorcycles. And my RS-S tester is the sportiest and lightest model in the entire line-up.

Speaking of being sporty, the RS-S version of the Spyder tries to emulate a sport bike riding position with a slight forward lean, pegs that are slightly behind the rider, and limited wind protection. Unfortunately, because of the lack of ability to lean, the end result is a very awkward rider triangle that left my legs stiff and uncomfortable and in need of serious stretching after less that 20 minutes in the saddle. Despite no needing to plant my feet at a stop to keep the trike steady, I found that I needed to stand up just so I could stretch my legs and keep from developing cramps resulting from the incredibly awkward position. In terms of rider comfort, I do not think I have ever ridden anything so uncomfortable ever before and, unlike the other versions of the Spyder, the RS-S does not offer any adjustability in the handlebars or foot pegs.

Around town at slow speeds, the steering was a bit cumbersome, requiring a pretty good effort to turn the bars. At speed, that steering lightened up, but the wide 165-mm tires, that looked more like car tires than motorcycle tires, tended to follow road surface imperfections far more than a traditional motorcycle. It is not difficult to overcome, but starts to become rather tiresome after only a short stint.

At one point, entering a highway on-ramp, the group somehow got split and we actually lost site of the lead rider, so the sweep rider ended up having to pull ahead and take over leading the ride, but not before some confusion had set in, resulting in at least one rider nearly getting lost. Luckily, we all made it safely back to the starting point and every rider ended up ultimately being accounted for. However, I left the ride still unsure as to why anyone would opt to spend their money on this option over a traditional motorcycle. In terms of sport, the Spyder RS-S lacks the acceleration and handling prowess of a similarly priced sport or even sport-touring bike. In terms of comfort, I find my BMW and virtually every other motorcycle far more comfortable. Plus, I get the added benefit of greater wind protection. Milling around town, the trike platform means I was stuck sitting in traffic like everyone else, unable to split lanes or even maneuver into tighter gaps.

The only redeeming quality I could think of for the Spyder is the fact that the version I tested is probably one of the least popular ones for sale. In fact, the bulk of Spyder sales are less about sporty riding and more around touring. The platform is designed with a lot of modularity allowing for different tail sections, pegs, front screens, and other changes from model to model. Spec out a full touring model with the tall windscreen, trunk, saddlebags, and super comfy looking seats and I might see how someone who is looking at a Honda Goldwing or BMW K1600GTL, but does not want to worry about the possibility of dropping it at a stop light, might consider one. Of course, at a base price of nearly $24k, you really would have to be already looking in that range to justify the cost.

But for a rider who has the money and really wants the experience of motorcycling without some of the challenges that come with riding a two-wheeled vehicle, something like the Spyder might make sense, especially if raw performance is not a big concern. For my money, though, there are simply better options at the price point. Heck, for $24k, there are a number of pretty comfortable cars that can be had with far more protection and far more comfort. I suppose you lose a bit of that "in the wind freedom" experience, but what you gain in comfort, safety, and practicality probably more than makes up for it for some riders.