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2020 Vanderhall Edison Electric Three-Wheeler Test Drive

Vanderhall’s brand of madness goes all-electric.

Aaron GoldWriter, Photographer

SHERMAN OAKS, CALIFORNIA—Some of us on the Automobile staff—that's a thinly-veiled euphemism for "me"—have developed a strange affection for Vanderhall Motor Works' three-wheeled autocycles. This despite the fact that they're expensive, indifferently built, and a poor vehicle to be driving in the event of a traffic collision. But they're also good senseless fun, and they deliver it in a way that is totally unique, even among other three-wheelers.

So when Vanderhall offered to let us try its new electric version, the Edison 2, I was all over that action. Also, no one else on the staff volunteered. And no, this isn't the second Edison—it's alternately styled as the Edison 2 or the Edison2, with more Edison models planned with different exponents. Either way, we'll just call it the Edison.

The new Edison ditches the Chevrolet-sourced gas engine in other Vanderhalls for a pair of electric motors. Combined output is 140 hp, same as the 1.4-liter turbo engines in last year's gas-powered models, while torque is 25 percent higher at 232 lb-ft. (Vanderhall has upgraded the engine in its gas-powered models for 2020, and we haven't yet had a chance to drive one.) A 28-kWh lithium-ion battery sits under the hood, with the motors up front, jammed against the grille and each driving one of the front half-shafts through a belt-and-sprocket arrangement. The 1,400-lb curb weight makes the Edison about 50 lb lighter than the gas-powered Vanderhall Venice, and weight distribution is similar—about 70/30 with a driver on board.

What's the Edison like to drive? It's a laugh-riot, that's what it's like. Vanderhall claims a 0-60 time of 4.0 seconds, a half-second faster than the gas-powered Venice. I didn't strap on the timing gear, but I can tell you that the Edison is quick enough to plaster a near-constant grin on this driver's face. If you've driven an electric car, you know what that instant-on torque feels like. Imagine experiencing it without a car around you, and that's the Edison.

Vanderhall says it has completely revised the suspension of its cars for 2020, and I felt a significant difference—the Edison felt more stable than the last gasoline-powered Vandy I drove, the single-seat (and, sadly, discontinued) Speedster, which could get downright squirrely if you held the brakes into a right-hand turn.

The steering is two-finger light and race-car quick, and the Edison loves to dart around the corners. I cranked up the speed as high as I dared and never felt it slip. Cornering hard brings a loud growling noise from the tires, the kind of thing you don't hear when you're surrounded by steel and glass. On the freeway, the Edison will happily zip along at 80 mph feeling as stable and relaxed as can be, with the small windshield proving good shelter from the gale. (No wind in the hair, though—a helmet isn't mandatory when driving an autocycle in California, but I wore one anyway.)

For the electric version, Vanderhall claims a range of 200 miles per charge ("depending on driving conditions"), but that seems rather optimistic. Cruising on the freeway at 80 mph—or even 65—sucks down the juice so fast that you can practically see the battery gauge moving. I tried a mileage run biased towards city streets and back roads, which was cut short by an insistent clunking noise from the right-front wheel (more on that in a bit). When I got home, I'd done 96 miles and the battery gauge showed one-third remaining. The Edison might make 200 miles if you live in Kansas and never exceed 40 mph, but for the rest of us I'd say 125-150 miles is a more realistic figure, maybe 100 if you do a lot of freeway driving. I can't report on charge times since the closest dedicated EV charger was broken; I had to rely on a 120-volt outlet, from which a full recharge takes the better part of a day. As in the 24-hour kind.

Like the gas-powered Vanderhalls, there's plenty to hear once you get going: The whine of the motors, the wail of the regenerative brake, and the hum of the vacuum pump every time you use the brake pedal. Like the gas-powered Vanderhall, in which the turbo's blow-off valve is your constant companion, there is no attempt made to dampen such undesirable noises as is done in (for lack of a better term) a real car. Maybe I'm being overly kind, but to me it's all part of the Edison's charm.

Of course, what is charming to one person is torturous to another, and I can see how some might find the Edison unpleasant. Like the other Vanderhall models, the cabin is very tight, with two bucket seats squeezed tightly together. There is no way to take a passenger on without violating his or her personal space. I couldn't make a right turn without elbowing Robin the bicep.

The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, but the pedal angle is awkward; driving for more than a couple of hours made my aging right ankle ache. There's a tiny lockable glovebox and open storage space behind the back seats, and you'll want to use them, because anything left on the Edison's mostly-flat floor is in danger of ending up jammed under a pedal. Which, of course, is nothing to the danger of being run over by an errant Yaris, which towers over the Vanderhall. You don't know fear until you find yourself driving next to a tractor-trailer in a car that only comes up to your waist.

The parking brake is jammed tightly between the seats, which can make it difficult to use, depending on how the buckets are adjusted. That was no big deal on my test car, since it was one of several things that weren't working properly. The Vanderhall doesn't lock the drive wheels in Park, so I had to carry a wheel chock wherever I went. This led to some near-Laurel and Hardy moments when parking on an incline, as I'd have to jump out and get the chock into place before the Vandy rolled away, then grab the chock and hop into the already-moving car to make my getaway.

Other quality bugaboos: The shifter had to be man-handled into gear, and once I got it into D or R, the Edison occasionally refused to go, lighting up the Edison's only warning light (check engine, ironically) instead of moving. Sometimes a shift into neutral and back into gear fixed it, but a couple of times I had to let the car sit for a while then try again. Happily, it never stranded me anywhere, and that's a sentence I can't believe I'm writing in a car review in the year 2020. Oh, and the clunking from the axle, which got worse as I drove, turned out to be a faulty CV joint from a batch of bad axles the company received. (They are replacing them on owner's cars.)

To be fair to the manufacturer, this Edison was way more broken than the other Vanderhalls I've driven; still, all of them have given me the distinct feeling that they were built as a weekend project in someone's basement. Hopefully the glitches will disappear as production ramps up. But even if you buy one and it turns out to be a build-quality disaster, I'm sure you'll love it as much as I did.

Why? Because the Vanderhall three-wheelers represent a level of bat-shit insanity that is difficult to find in today's world, and the torquey, mostly-silent nature of the Edison makes it that much crazier. It's more minimalist than a Miata, easier to drive than a motorcycle, and offers the kind of off-the-wall thrills normally reserved for amusement parks.

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Just to prove I'm not alone in my opinions, I sent social media editor Billy Rehbock out for a spin. What did he think? "All Vanderhalls are silly," he said, "but the Edison is especially goofy. It thrills with its open cockpit and hand-built sketchiness (for better or worse). The electric powertrain suits the little three-wheeler better than the Chevy engine in gas-powered models. It screams off the line with the gusto of a Saturday morning cartoon mine cart."

And speaking of Saturday morning cartoons, my wife opined that "It feels like something Wile E. Coyote would build to catch the Road Runner."

At $34,950, the Vanderhall Edison is an expensive toy, but I'll tell you what: If I had that kind of cash just lying around, I'd buy one in a heartbeat, sketchiness and all. And I'll tell you something else: After a week with the Edison, I like Vanderhalls better than ever.

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2020 Vanderhall Edison 2
ON SALE Now
PRICE $34,950 (base)
ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN 28-kW-hr Li-Ion battery pack, dual AC induction motors; 140 hp, 232 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION Single-speed
LAYOUT 0-door, 2-passenger, front-motor, FWD autocycle
ELECTRIC RANGE 200 miles (est. )
L x W x H 144.0 x 71.0 x 44.0 in
WHEELBASE 100.4 in
WEIGHT 1,400 lb
0-60 MPH 4.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 105 mph