Toyota i-Road driven
It has taken me a good part of two days to decide whether I should call this a drive or a ride. You see, the Toyota i-Road, which is a three-wheeled, two-seater, urban-mobility thingy, both steers like a car and leans into bends like a motorcycle. Furthermore, like a car, the driver gets a seatbelt, but the pillion, like on a motorcycle, doesn’t. But, these are trivial things, because the i-Road, more than anything else, is a hoot to pilot!
First, here’s a quick lecture on what the i-Road truly is. Toyota has been experimenting with a number of concepts to improve or aid urban mobility. It had the i-unit, which progressed to the i-swing and finally, there was the i-Real. And no matter what the latter concept’s name might suggest, it was still a far cry from turning into reality.
The Toyota i-Road though is different. For starters, it is more practical, uses a more palatable design, and instead of going all sci-fi, Toyota decided to combine the agility and freedom of a motorcycle with the comfort and safety of a car. So, the i-Road is only as big as a motorcycle in dimensions. But, for safety it has a closed glasshouse, a seatbelt for the front passenger, and three wheels. The number of wheels also ensure the i-Road doesn’t fall or tip over like a motorcycle when stationary.
The i-Road uses a lithium-ion battery that powers two electric motors mounted inside the front wheels. It has a top speed of 60kmph and it can travel up to 50km on a full charge. The single rear wheel meanwhile is used to steer the i-Road via a conventional steering wheel. And because it is rear wheel steer, the rear wheel doesn’t turn into the turn as with front wheel steering systems. Instead, it turns in the opposite direction; from the outside, it looks like the i-Road is in a perpetual state of drift.
However, as speeds rise and the steering angle increases, lean inducing actuators as part of the front suspension lift the inside wheel and drop the outside front wheel causing the i-Road to lean into the corner like a motorcycle. Not only does this cut the effect of centrifugal forces, it also prevents the i-Road from toppling over. The degree of lean is decided by an ECU which takes feedback from sensors recording speed, steering angle and orientation.
As far as features go, besides the seatbelt, the i-Road also gets lockable doors with windows that open; buttons to work the CVT ‘box; the option of air-conditioning and a stereo; and a front wiper!
We are at Fuji Speedway in Japan. Correction: We are in a pit garage at Fuji Speedway in Japan, which is lined with cones to form a makeshift track. And lined up alongside in blazing yellow, bright blue and oh-so-lovely pink is the i-Road. The course is a simple one. A tight right followed by a short straight into a flowing right, then a sequence of Essess, and we are done. All in all, a lap (if I can call it that) takes less than 30 seconds, less than 20 seconds if you are brave. It is tighter than a gymkhana event.
Driving the i-Road meanwhile is as simple as P, D, R. Press D to go forward, R to reverse, and P to park. Yes, it’s not really innovative, but it gets the work done. Furthermore, as with any electric car, after D comes depressing the accelerator and steering this three-wheeled wonder in the direction of intended travel. The i-Road for its puny size does take off with some vigour. And when you turn the steering, it also banks into the turn – as a motorcycle would – along with turning into it like a regular car. Now, for those who have never ridden a bike or cornered one, this might be a bit terrifying, at first. But, spend time with it steering, leaning, correcting, and accelerating it around a tight track, and you will start loving it. It’s like riding one of those amusement park rides, only here, you are in charge.
For me, it was entertaining from the word go. So much so that I had to be forcefully pulled out of it after going four rounds while we were only entitled one! It drops into corners with ease; offers predictable and adjustability of lean angles; and because it has rear wheel steer along with the lean, it surprises you by how much corner speeds it can carry. Add to it the i-Road’s narrow dimensions and it superb agility, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will make for a fantastic runabout in our congested cities.
Like Toyota, many have tried offering personal urban mobility solutions over the years. But, none really have made it to mass production. Not that the pluses aren’t obvious. First, the size reduces the i-Road’s footprint, which should cut down on road congestion. Two, for cities that have poor public transportation system, something like an i-Road will be more efficient and less harrowing to drive than a car. And, yes, a lot safer than two-wheeled options. Lest we forget, it will be a lot of fun too.
But, there are challenges. Cost, for instance. Given the construction, the drivetrain and the technology involved, the i-Road will be anything but cheap. Then there’s the people’s mindset. Would we ever pay as much as a car for a tiny two-seater, which might look funky and be handy, but does nothing for our social status! There’s also the question of infrastructure, charging infrastructure to be precise. In India where the penetration of hybrid cars is so low, let alone electric cars which hardly sell, a niche like the i-Road is still a very distant dream…