EL SEGUNDO, California — I have never understood why people in this day and age take up cigarette smoking. Everyone knows what tobacco does—it gets you addicted to nicotine, it numbs your senses of taste and smell, and it massively increases your chances of dying an early and rather painful death, all while costing you lots of money. Why would anyone willingly sign up for such a fate?
After driving the three-wheel 2018 Vanderhall Venice, I’m starting to see the appeal.
There was no doubt in my mind as I fumbled my way over the Vanderhall’s bodywork and dropped into the driver’s seat—Doors? Where we’re going, we don’t need doors!—that I was taking my life into my hands. The 1,475-lb Venice is essentially an aluminum-and-plastic shell with the go-guts of a Chevrolet Cruze strapped to the front. It stands barely waist-high to a short guy like me and wheel-high to a decent-sized pickup truck. When you’re driving a vehicle this small, even a Smart ForTwo poses a credible threat.
California does not require helmets for enclosed three-wheelers like the Vanderhall, though in retrospect I probably should have worn one. Yes, there are seat belts, and I’m sure that in the event of a crash they would have made my body much easier to locate, while the rollover bars would have greatly increased the odds that I could have an open-casket funeral. Never in my almost-thirty-year driving career has my own personal safety been so dependent on the vigilance and care of strangers. I may be a card-carrying Democrat, but this was a bit much even for me.
The saving grace is that no one seems to want to hit you. Everywhere I went, people reacted to the Vanderhall with double-takes, stares, smiles, and waves. I made rapid progress on the open road as drivers in front of me changed lanes and dropped back, presumably to verify that the little blue lozenge was indeed one wheel short of a quartet. Then they’d sit on my quarter and gawk, eager to see not only the car but also the nutjob crazy enough to drive it on a Los Angeles freeway.
Yep, that’s right, I took the Vanderhall on Interstate 405, and it did just fine. Driving as fast as I dared—an indicated 85 MPH—it felt stable and sure, though I shudder to think of what might have happened if I had to make a sudden swerve. Vanderhalls don’t have stability control, and what good would it do? There are no separate left and right rear wheels on which to apply the brakes.
I had a lot more fun on city streets and back roads where I could enjoy the point-and-shoot nature of the GM-sourced 1.4-liter turbocharged mill. The engine’s flat torque curve renders the six-speed automatic’s manual-shift function largely superfluous; just boot the throttle and you’re away, and if you keep your foot planted you’ll be rewarded by a nice double-pop from the exhaust as the transmission upshifts. Vanderhall claims a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds, which seems overly optimistic to me, but there’s no question this thing is quick. And loud. And risky. And wonderful.
The irony here is that as much as I loved the Vanderhall, if you ask me to expound on it, I can do nothing but complain. The driving position is terrible. The adjustable steering column doesn’t move far enough out or up to put the wheel where it needs to be. The brake pedal sits way higher than the accelerator, which makes the touchy brakes feel all the more abrupt.
You cannot open the hood without a tool kit, and you can’t carry a tool kit because you can’t fold the seats forward to access the vestigial cargo compartment (they do slide backwards and forwards, however). You can strap one or maybe two grocery bags into the passenger seat, but forget about storing cargo on the floor; it’s flat (thank you, front-wheel-drive), so anything on the passenger’s side can easily roll to the driver’s side and get jammed under the pedals.
The loud and nearly constant wheezing and whooshing from the turbocharger and its blow-off valve reminded me of the air brakes on an old GM city bus I used to own. And you know what else reminded me of the bus? The Vanderhall’s turning circle. U-turns require three lanes and a call to the harbormaster, and I couldn’t tell you the number of times I turned into a parking spot just a tad too late and had to back-and-fill to make it. (Actually, I could tell you the number of times—four—but I don’t want to.)
The ergonomics are terrible. The tiny circular mirrors are as close to useless as it is possible to be without venturing into actual uselessness. Overall, the car feels like it was built in a garden shed by someone who was impatient to finish and slightly hung over.
And to top it all off, Vanderhalls are ridiculously expensive. The single-seat Speedster lists for $27,925 (including destination charge; there’s also a prep fee that varies from dealer to dealer), plus options. The version we tested, the Venice, starts three grand higher. If you’re aching for a more thorough evacuation of your wallet, you can get the $50,925 Laguna model with A/C, paddle shifters, adjustable suspension, and a carbon-fiber body with removable roof. If you’re a regular reader of this site, I don’t have to tell you how much Miata—or, in the case of the Laguna, how many Miatas—you can get for that kind of money.
When I posted a pic of the Venice on Facebook, a fellow writer messaged me: “You’re driving a Vanderhall? That thing is terrible.”
“I know,” I wrote back. “I love it.”
Because for all its flaws—hell, maybe because of its flaws—I think the Vanderhall is brilliant. It’s quick to go, quicker to stop, and good fun to fling around the turns (supposedly giving in to benign understeer if you push it hard, but I didn’t dare). It’s cool to look at and comfortable enough to drive all day. I can even forgive its automatic transmission. Sure, real cars have manuals—but this isn’t a real car, is it?
Besides, is there any finer felicity than looking over your left shoulder to check for traffic and seeing nothing but the world beyond? The Vanderhall gives you all the joys of a motorcycle without the danger of falling over and looking like a dolt.
For the record, opinion among my Automobile colleagues is split. Senior editor Kirill Ougarov loves it as much as I do, possibly more. Online editor Ed Tahaney thinks it’s stupid but fun. News editor Conner Golden thinks I’m being overly enthusiastic, and senior editor Nelson Ireson thinks I’ve lost touch with reality. (He also requested I work the word “Vanderhair” into my review to describe the state of one’s coiffure after driving it. Done.)
In a way, buying a Vanderhall is a bit like taking up smoking. It’s addictive, it’s hazardous, it destroys your senses (hearing rather than smell), and long-term use will probably kill you. It’s awful and it’s dangerous—but unlike smoking cigarettes, driving a Vanderhall is absolutely fantastic. If these start turning up cheap on the used market, I might well buy one.
2018 Vanderhall Venice Specifications
|PRICE||$29,950/$35,129 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/200 hp, 200 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||0-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, FWD autocycle|
|L x W x H||145.2 x 68.9 x 48.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|