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A minicar for future urbanites

Three-wheeled vehicles, to many, are motorcycles with sidecars or jog strollers--but that may change. Photos: Three-wheeling in the city

A three-wheeled vehicle produced by a group of European universities seeks to combine some of the best elements of a Mini Cooper, a motorcycle and a camp stove.

The Clever (compact low-emission vehicle for urban transport) is a three-wheeler designed for city driving. Like a micro-car, it is small--measuring only a meter wide, or close to 3 feet, narrower than regular cars--so it can fit into tight parking spots. Ultimately, the car may allow city designers to build narrower roads or better disperse traffic congestion.

Despite the small size, the designers have tried not to sacrifice that car feel, something the researchers said other similar prototype cars lacked. The roof provides about the same level of headroom as a standard car, and the frame has been strengthened to give more protection against accidents. It can carry two passengers and go from zero to 40 miles per hour in about seven seconds.

The car, though, tilts into turns for better cornering, like a motorcycle. The difference is that the tilting is controlled by the car's computer systems rather than the driver. And it runs on compressed natural gas, similar to many household appliances. The fuel consumption is equivalent to 108 miles per gallon, roughly the same as some tinkerers are getting with modified hybrid cars.

"The Clever vehicle is a tremendous leap forward in the development of vehicles for the 21st century," Jos Darling, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath and one of the lead researchers on the project, said in a statement. "Making our vehicles smaller is a good solution to the relentless increase in traffic in our towns and cities."

With the high price of gas showing no signs of coming down, researchers at several universities are looking at new and sources of fuel for cars. Some of the ideas in the pipeline include on-demand jet travel in fuel-efficient planes and new types of diesel engines.