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First Drive: 2017 Vanderhall Venice Roadster

Three-wheeler offers a pure driving experience for the price of a Miata

It might be that those vintage, aviator-style glass goggles of the 1950s will be making a comeback soon. That's because three-wheel vehicles are also making a comeback, materializing in greater numbers than ever before. Apparently there are more than 20,000 Polaris Slingshots already on the road, and now the 2017 Vanderhall roadster is poised to follow in its tracks. Open-cockpit, bugs-in-the-face motoring is rapidly becoming fashionable.

There's no mystery to the appeal of these small three-wheel runabouts. When you combine a responsive, personal-size package, a fresh, open-air encounter with the natural world, and the exhilaration of speed, you get a triple-distilled driving experience. If Lotus' Colin Chapman were still designing cars today, he would be thinking about expressing his obsession with simplicity and lightness with a three-wheel vehicle.

Well, maybe we're little intoxicated by the experience of briefly driving a 2017 Vanderhall Venice along the ocean in Malibu, California. But we're sure you understand. A pure, stripped-down driving experience always has appeal, especially if there's a possibility of a stripped-down price to accompany it. Lucky for us, the price tag for the Venice model in Vanderhall's lineup starts at $29,050. If you want more luxury interior appointments in your Vanderhall roadster, not to mention a carbon-fiber body instead of ABS plastic, plus a removable hardtop roof, then you step up to the $49,050 Vanderhall Laguna.

There are all kinds of three-wheelers, and we're embarrassed to admit that we have driven more than our share. Like the rear-wheel-drive Morgan 3 Wheeler-both old (1911-1939) and new (2012-now)-which takes you back in time to Britain in the early 1920s, when motorcycle-based cyclecars helped mobilize people at an affordable price. And then there's the front-wheel-drive Trihawk (1982-1985), a Citroen-powered vehicle engineered in part by Bob McKee, famous for his home-built Can-Am racing cars in the 1960s. And finally, there's the rear-wheel-drive Campagna T-Rex (1994-now), a terrific piece powered by a motorcycle engine that drives like an open-wheel racing car.

Compared to the other three-wheelers we've driven, the front-wheel-drive Vanderhall Venice is more like a car, for which we think most people will be grateful. You can step over the stiff sides of the cockpit tub while maintaining some semblance of grace, and then there's room for long, long legs when you take your seat and put your feet on the pedals. A turbocharged 1.4-liter engine delivers a wide, easy-going powerband, and the six-speed automatic transmission makes the powertrain even more tractable. Electric-assist rack-and-pinion steering takes the muscle out of parking lots, and the front-wheel disc brakes are more than up to the task of bringing this 1,550-pound package to a stop. Most of all, the suspension delivers both actual wheel travel and relatively supple damping, two things notably missing in any other three-wheeler that we've ever driven.

So there you are, following a winding two-lane road up a canyon to wherever it takes you, and you're sitting just 4.5 inches off the ground, so the low center of gravity helps the Vanderhall twist and turn quickly on its 100.4-inch wheelbase. The wide, 58.8-inch front track and standard 225/40R-18 Continental front tires help the car take a strong bite in the corners, and there's plenty of grip until the Vanderhall roadster predictably begins to understeer. The smart guys on the Vanderhall project tell us that front-wheel drive delivers a far more stable and predictable dynamic package in a three-wheeler than rear-wheel drive. Certainly we can all agree that it's better to have two wheels in front rather than just one, as the famous Top Gear video sequence of a Reliant Robin rolling itself into someone's front yard effectively proved.

At the same time, don't make the mistake of thinking the Vanderhall is just a cut-down grocery-getter. It'll sprint to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, we're told, and make it all the way to 137 mph if you're up to it. The engine whistles heavily through its intake track and then wheezes through its turbocharger's wastegate. The tall windshield is really effective, but there's still enough wind blasting through the cockpit that goggles are way, way better than living with the dust that will inevitably bypass your high-fashion sunglasses. There's 2.7 cubic-feet of cargo space behind the seats to carry a light bag. And while enthusiasts of three-wheelers are famous long-distance travelers, it takes some physical commitment to drive much farther than a single load of fuel in the 10-gallon tank will allow. The Vanderhall is really best for an afternoon drive on a winding road, as a freeway trip among the pickup trucks and SUVs will make you think twice about your life choices.

With its framework of welded extruded aluminum, the Vanderhall feels pretty smartly engineered. Of course, much of the smartness comes from the use of components sourced from the parts bins of General Motors. Even so, much smartness also comes from the vehicle's creator, Steve Hall. The son and grandson of immensely successful and innovative engineers in the business of oil and gas drilling, the youngest Hall seems to have had a teenage enthusiasm for not only cars but also computer-aided design. So when he embarked on this three-wheel project in 2010, he and his team were able to design and fabricate no less than eleven prototypes of varying configurations and some 40 pre-production units.

Last year, the Vanderhall began production in Provo, Utah, where Hall lives, and we're told that more than a hundred vehicles are now on the ground. In addition, Hall's experience as the operator of a retail outlet for exotic cars taught him some useful things about selling cars, so Vanderhall not only has a financing program for customers but also a flooring program for its dealers, which means that you'll be able to look at a car at the ten Vanderhall dealers around the country where the Venice and Laguna are being sold.

As three-wheelers go, the 2017 Vanderhall Venice is way less weird and way more mainstream. It would be great if it looked a little snappier and sounded a little meaner, but the real breakthrough here is the way it attracts grownups, not just kids. Of course, some states still think of three-wheelers like this as motorcycles, so your DMV might tell you that you must have a motorcycle rider's license and wear a helmet. But some 28 states now recognize the "autocycle," which is legally categorized as an automobile.

As soon as you snap your goggles in place and take the wood-rim steering wheel in your hands, you know this is really all about a classic driving experience, where the number of wheels on your car is way less important than the number of bugs on your teeth.

2017 Vanderhall Venice Specifications

PRICE $29,950/$31,600 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve/200 hp @ 4,300 rpm, 200 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-passenger, front-engine FWD roadster
EPA MILEAGE 24/32 mpg (city/highway) (est)
L x W x H 145.2 x 68.9 x 48.8 in
WHEELBASE 100.4 in
WEIGHT 1550 lb
0-60 MPH 4.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph