We assume electric vehicles without 800 horsepower and “Ludicrous” drive modes to be worse soul-suckers than middle age or IRS tax audits. The Nissan Leaf? A Smart Fortwo ED? Pretty much every non-Tesla struggles to move the desirability needle. Toyota may have inadvertently stumbled onto an exception to today’s EV reality with its quirky, somewhat experimental i-Road. Down one wheel on conventional cars and up one asinine steering mechanism, the little EV looks and drives unlike anything else out there, gas or electric, car or motorcycle.
We say Toyota tripped into this because the automaker pitches the interesting i-Road as a link in a largely car-free and uninteresting transportation chain. Step off your public train or bus, check out your fleet-managed i-Road like a book from a library, drive to the entrance to your utopian co-habitat, and walk to your door. We understand that for at least appearances’ sake, Toyota must ideate in futurist platitudes, but isn’t that what the Prius is for? For now, treating the i-Road project as one of several conveyor belts on which humans are to be shuffled like so much luggage undersells its considerable appeal.
We put the i-Road through its paces during this year’s Tokyo auto show on an improvised autocross course in a parking lot at Fuji Speedway. Just looking at the thing, we liked it immediately. It’s tall, narrow, and rides on two small front wheels and a smaller third wheel in back. In fact, the i-Road isn’t so much narrow as it is emaciated, measuring just 34.25 inches abreast. That exterior dimension is barely double the width of a typical economy-class airplane seat. To well-fed Americans, then, stuffing oneself into the i-Road’s perch will be an uncomfortable yet familiar process.
The cockpit avoids feeling cramped thanks to see-through plastic covering most of the doors, decent headroom, and ample visibility to the sides and ahead of the driver. The controls are jarringly banal, save for the steering wheel that’s nearly as wide as the entire cabin and an array of pushbuttons for “D, N, and R.” There is no “park” gear, and the buttons merely hold electronic control over which direction the electric hub motors in each front wheel spin. To properly stow an i-Road, a foot-operated parking brake must be activated. As there is little room in the narrow footwell, your shin will hit that brake accidentally, and it will be annoying. There is very little instrumentation, which is good, because we barely paid it any attention during our time at the wheel. A small digital gauge cluster displays speed in kph, an odometer, a battery-level indicator, and a charge/power meter for keeping track of the lithium-ion battery’s power usage and energy reclamation.
Before setting us loose in the i-Road, Toyota gave us almost nothing in the way of a pep talk. Certainly, no one touched on the notion of how unique the driving experience would be. Unlike a Morgan 3-Wheeler—or pretty much any modern three-wheeled vehicle that isn’t a forklift—the Toyota’s single rear wheel does the steering. The fronts stay pointed dead-ahead but are swung up and down via electro-mechanical actuators in sequence with steering inputs to lean the i-Road into turns like a motorcycle. All of the steering actions, from the leaning to the guidance of the rear wheel, are handled electronically, by-wire, and so there isn’t a mechanical connection between the steering wheel rim and the steered wheel. The dynamic lean action is more than a party trick, as it keeps the rear-steer Toyota from toppling over.
Our pre-flight briefing also did not include basic operating parameters such as top speed or the how severely the fancy front suspension might lean the body, but we were told that if the steering wheel vibrates in a turn, it’s the computers’ way of informing us we’ve overcooked things. Just as we were trying to imagine how understeer or oversteer might manifest themselves in the i-Road, a Toyota rep waved us onto the course for two laps. With no frame of reference to quantify accelerative sensations—Toyota wouldn’t provide horsepower or torque figures for the i-Road’s two hub motors, or performance estimates—we can say that the vehicle feels plenty powerful in its current state. Peak torque, whatever it is, hits immediately and sends the i-Road smoothly hurtling forward.
The power rush moved the i-Road out of the hole with such authority that we very nearly overshot the first corner on the impromptu racetrack. We then actually overshot it while coming to grips with the delay between cranking the steering wheel and the i-Road’s rear wheel affecting directional change. Failing to account for the time it takes for the body to lean itself and the whole apparatus to take a set, we dove for the apex only to miss and hit several cones marking the outside of the turn. The next turn was marginally more successful, but our lead feet still had us entering the corner too hot. The steering-wheel rim again angrily vibrated its scorn for our pace, but we carved a cleaner, cone-free line.
Every time the steering wheel vibrated, it wasn’t immediately apparent whether the front or the rear tires were letting go, or if all three still had grip and we had run up against the stabilizing limit of the lean actuators and the electric steering. Near the end of our first lap, having still failed to uncover a consistent interplay between steering inputs, resultant body lean, and speed, it had at least become clear that lifting off the throttle or braking mid-corner exacted a line-tightening effect like that in a (four-wheeled) car. By the second lap, our turn-in timing became more proactive, we were fluidly snaking through the course, stitching together graceful left-right-left dances through a chicane section and generally wondering how the company that builds the Prius stumbled upon something so fun.
The experience is so alien, so overtly mechanized as to be novel. Thanks to the digital rear-wheel-steering, turn-in response registers via a tail swing toward the outside of the corner, while the sickening, automatic lean into bends de-calibrates your body’s car-attuned gyroscope. Being tumbled toward the inside of a turn while your butt slides wide isn’t unlike what you’d feel on a jet ski. Substitute the wheel for handlebars and make it so the driver straddles the seat rather than sits in it, and the i-Road’s handling would feel more natural. It would also be much less distinguished. And besides, repeatedly exploiting the i-Road’s 9.8-foot turning radius wouldn’t have quite the same spinning-office-chair sensation.
Our two laps up, we poked and prodded a stationary i-Road for signs that it could be a viable transportation option in Michigan or New York. Besides the challenge presented by reconciling Americans’ XXL dimensions and the i-Road’s lilliputian ones, the only other thing holding back its immigration is its overwhelming impression of flimsiness. Touch points like the doors, the seat—heck, the entire interior, are flexible and tinny, and the nearly everything is assembled from easily scratched, cheap-feeling plastics. The doors’ thin, see-through lower panels don’t really line up with the seals around the door openings and subtly flap about at higher speeds. The draft highlights the lack of a heater and air-conditioning. The doors’ upper windows are raised and lowered by manually dragging them skyward or unsnapping them from the top of the door frame and letting gravity do the work. When dropped, the windows stick out over the lower panels—they can’t retract into the door when the only solid part of that door is a six-inch-thick strip housing the latch mechanism and a fabric pull strap. We’d wager that the whole setup is more water-resistant than watertight on a rainy day, and in case you feel like finding out for sure, Toyota fits an electric wiper to the windshield. At least the underlying structure feels solid, and at 660 pounds overall, the i-Road isn’t a total flyweight.
Would the little runabout would make an ideal around-town device, at least in global municipalities where smaller, slower-moving traffic regularly mixes it up with real-size cars? Sure. With a 37-mph top speed and a 31-mile driving range, the i-Road should cover the majority of urban dwellers’ automotive needs, so long as those needs can be met alone and with low regard for comfort. With only a 66.7-inch wheelbase (seven inches shorter than a Smart Fortwo), a chunk of which is hogged by the rear-steering apparatus, the Toyota has a vestigial yet fairly useless back seat aft of the driver. A vaguely human-shaped sarcophagus, the perch places one’s legs to either side of the driver and their head crammed up into the ceiling. Besides the physical discomfort, fitting two occupants requires those humans also grapple with the outward appearance that they’re trapped mid-coitus. Put your dog or groceries back there, and save the tantric spooning for motorcycle rides and Netflix evenings.
It thus makes sense that i-Roads don’t yet lay in consumers’ hands, and Toyota remains mum on the i-Road’s production prospects even as it metes out a few dozen of the three-wheelers to car-sharing projects in Tokyo and Grenoble. If the i-Road, with its complex front-wheel articulators, electric hub motors, and decent electric driving range can be made cheaply enough, Toyota could have a compelling scooter alternative. At 57.3 inches tall, the i-Road is a far more visible slice of personal mobility than most two-wheelers, and its mecha-cyclops appearance and funky paint colors are charming. It’s also painfully weird and carries such eco-smug potential that a cameo in IFC’s Portlandia TV show seems inevitable. We’ll keep our cars, thank you, but keeping one of these Toyotas in the garage for quick jaunts downtown wouldn’t kill us. It wouldn’t be a public service—we just think the thing is a blast, and at 92.3 inches long, you can park it anywhere. Or better yet, why not start a spec racing series with a dozen of the things rumba’ing around a narrow course, wheel-to-wheel? We bet it’d be more fun than racing Teslas.