Test Drive: 2006 Volkswagen GX3 Concept

Cute, cool, and clever, the GX3 may be just the halo vehicle Volkswagen is craving. Conceived and unveiled in Los Angeles, the three-wheeler is designed to combine the road-hugging stance of a thoroughbred roadster, groundbreaking driving dynamics, and the authorization to cruise the car-pool lane solo.

VW brand supremo Wolfgang Bernhard is a big proponent: “In America, almost everybody owns a Jet Ski, a snowmobile, or an ATV. It’s a huge market for specialty vehicles, and we want a share of it. VW would benefit from a new product that isn’t mainstream and not available from a rival company. That’s why the GX3 is more than a design exercise-what you saw on display is quite close to the real thing. I see the potential to attract more than 10,000 customers per year. We could have this vehicle at dealers in late 2007.”

According to one person familiar with the project, VW is about to strike a deal with Lotus to help with research and development and to supply the front suspension and steering assembly, which are similar to the Elise‘s. The components would be shipped to America, where the GX3 would be assembled by an as yet undisclosed partner using a locally sourced tub.

But the GX3 is not a done deal. There are those within VW who have concerns about handling, roadholding, and controllability and who question the appeal of the vehicle to U.S. buyers. In the words of a senior executive: “It’s nice to be able to use the car-pool lane, but it’s not so nice to have to wear a helmet, to be exposed to exhaust fumes and flying objects, and to sit so low that towering SUVs and big rigs pose a physical threat. I am not sure if we have thought this one through all the way.”

VW reportedly has decided not to sell the GX3 through established distribution channels. Instead, the company might launch a junior brand that would be legally separate from Volkswagen. By doing so, any product-liability issues could be kept at arm’s length, since, although it is closer to a car than to a motorcycle in size and appearance, the GX3 lacks a windshield, a stability control system, and air bags.

Says Bernhard: “We’ve done a lot of research on safety, and we’re satisfied with the results. Extensive simulation shows that active safety is not an issue. And as far as passive safety goes, this three-wheeler beats a motorcycle any day of the week. It offers better crash protection, and it won’t lean and fall over.”

Still, if the trike spawns negative headlines, the topless crossbreed between motorbike and roadster may pose the biggest product liability risk since the unintended-acceleration debacle hit Audi in 1986.