Blame the Lawyers: Volkswagen GX3 Goodbye Drive

It looks like a three-wheeled hornet from another planet. And had everything gone according to plan, this radical ride, first unveiled last January, would have started production by the end of 2006 and reached dealers this spring. But the skeptics prevailed, and at the eleventh hour, the Volkswagen GX3 was no more. Disaster averted, or opportunity lost? We took an exclusive drive to find out.

You almost lie down in the GX3, with both legs comfortably stretched out in the long tunnel leading to the narrow pedal box. A five-point seatbelt straps you into the thinly padded bucket, which has a fixed backrest and side bolsters. Although you might expect handlebars, a hand-operated clutch, and a twist-grip throttle, the GX3 has foot pedals for the clutch and the brakes, a gear lever located between the seats, and a tiny, suede-rimmed steering wheel that looks and feels as if it came from a racing car.

The test mule’s engine delivers only 80 of the promised 125 hp, but most of the other key ingredients are to VW standards. The steering rack is from the Lotus Elise, and the brakes are adapted from VW’s European-market Golf and Polo. Lotus also had a hand in the unequal-length control arm front suspension. The front tires are a pretty standard size at 215/45WR-17, but the single rear semi-slick is a 315/30YR-18. The fourteen-spoke aluminum rear wheel is located on a lightweight, single-sided swing arm with a compact coil-over damper. For cost reasons, VW opted for a chain to relay power to the rear wheel, despite the fact that a driveshaft would have been classier and a belt would have been quieter.

Although VW planned to market the GX3 as a motorcycle (to qualify for high-occupancy-vehicle lanes), the GX3’s footprint is closer to that of a car. The two-seater is 73 inches wide, 148 inches long, and four feet tall. It rides on a 106-inch wheelbase and sports a broad 64-inch front track, so you can’t weave through busy traffic. Nonetheless, the feeling this tarmac-hugging street spider conveys is as intimate as that provided by conventional motorcycles. You can always sense the detailed texture of the road surface and its tiniest irregularities. You soon learn to look out for gravel, puddles, and diagonal seams. You try to dodge potholes and brace for transverse ridges. In the GX3, even smooth-looking asphalt can feel uneven, and longitudinal grooves can bounce you off course without warning. Crests, expansion joints, manhole covers, and crosswinds are also liable to seriously deflect the flight path. All of these encounters tend to happen at sports car speeds, and since VW claims that the GX3 can pull up to 1.25 g of lateral force, even eight-tenths efforts will make your heart thump and your cheeks go wobbly.

The flyweight GX3 drives like a high-performance, high-tech soapbox. With no occupants on board, it tips the scales at a fit 1257 pounds. For better balanced lateral weight distribution, the fuel tank, the 2.8-cubic-foot cargo cubicle, the swing arm, and the battery are all located on the passenger’s side of the vehicle. According to VW, the airy plaything can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds with its designated 125-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. The company also claims a top speed of 125 mph and average fuel consumption north of 45 mpg.

This wild three-wheeler combines the classic dynamic thrills of a motorbike with the familiar reflexes of a roadster. As in an Elise, you sit low and snug. But this trike betters the exceptional Elise as it goes around bends, reaching ridiculous speeds that rival a go-kart on slicks.

After three or four hours of nonstop carving, skating, and gliding up and down challenging alpine roads, I have a broad grin on my face. No other car this inexpensive (VW claimed that it would have theoretically cost about $17,000) has ever been this much fun. Corner by corner, the sticky roadholding and the sweet handling balance enhance the appeal of this bug-eyed street machine. Climb by climb, the mix of instant grip and eager acceleration brighten its halo. Descent by descent, the subtle load transfer, the aggressive brake bite, and the very physical downshifts test the driver’s skills.

Once you’ve driven the wonderfully absurd and potentially iconic GX3, it’s easy to share the enthusiasm it generated at its launch. VW product chief Wolfgang Bernhard drove the car onto the auto show stand in Los Angeles himself, and later that day, after the first dealer meeting, the bigwigs were so fired up that production approval seemed only a formality.

“The business case was watertight,” confirms Jens Berger, who was in charge of body development, specification, and vehicle safety. “Even the base model would have made money from day one.” With the exception of the frame and the floorpan, all the major components come out of existing parts bins. The Germans struck a deal with Lotus Engineering, which was to build the GX3 and sell it to VW at a fixed price. Insiders claim that the net cost per unit was about $10,000, so each vehicle would have made a healthy profit–and that’s before options.

So who pulled the plug on the project so late in the decision-making process? Who killed a vehicle even the bean counters liked? You guessed it: the product-liability squad.

The GX3 has no air bags or stability control. “Passive safety was taken care of by the substantial crumple zones and by foam-padded side panels,” Berger explains. “Simulations showed that the tall, lightweight roll bars behind the seats would have done an excellent job in the unlikely event of the GX3’s landing upside down. Instead of stability control, we were planning to offer traction control.”

But imagine Paris Hilton rear-ending a semi in her brand-new GX3 on Highway 1 north of Malibu–you’d have high-speed, high-visibility carnage. Admittedly that’s a worst-case scenario. But once the American media got hold of it, Audi‘s 60 Minutes of unintended acceleration would seem like a speed bump by comparison.

Of course, the smart alecks knew all along that the GX3 wouldn’t fly. They pointed out the discrepancy between the low-riding GX3 and towering big rigs, they cited America’s love-hate relationship with motorcycles, and they pointed out the incompatibility between the three-wheeler and the rest of the VW model range.

It’s not the concept itself that’s at fault but rather the company’s confining focus on the U.S. market. What about Europe, where regulations are such that ATVs and minibikes can more easily be street-legal? There’s bound to be a market for 500 or 1000 or even 5000 VW trikes there per year. Anybody who signs a disclaimer and agrees to wear a helmet should be allowed to drive the GX3–both on the street and on a track.

America may live in the insular darkness of lawyer-led repression, but Europeans, at least, should get the chance to go play in the street.

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