Are VentureOne's three wheels better than four?

Venture Vehicles, yet another entry in the alternative-car market, plans a motorcycle-car crossbreed to market in 2009. Photos: Rollin' with a three-wheeler

Venture Vehicles, another entry in the alternative car market, says that in 2009 it will start selling a three-wheeled electric car that tilts into turns like motorcycles.

The car, based on a steering technology invented by a Dutch company called Carver, will cost $20,000 for a hybrid version or $25,000 for a full electric version, hold two passengers, and come with optional luggage containers that strap onto the roof. The roof will also come off to turn the car into a convertible.

Called the VentureOne, Venture's car will look different than existing models from Carver, but will still have three wheels and tilt.

The company is hoping to capitalize on the growing interest in green cars with a vehicle more tailored for the urban environment. Venture's three-wheeler will only be 40 inches wide and is shorter than the average car, making it easy to park. You can put two of the 1,400-pound cars into a single standard parking space. (The passengers sit forward and rear, bobsled-style, rather than next to each other.)

It will also get good gas mileage--120 miles per gallon for the hybrid. The electric version will go 120 miles before needing a charge. Although most of the electric sedans and sports cars coming to market in the next few years will go 140 to 200 miles on a charge, those cars are expected to cost $65,000 to $100,000, or three times as much or more than the VentureOne.

Venture's car is smaller than most cars and will only hold two passengers, but that's all you need for urban driving, said CEO Howard Levine. Roughly 77 percent of car trips in the U.S. involve only one passenger, the driver, said Levine, citing government statistics.

To cut production and inventory costs, Venture will actually only make one car, but then let dealers and owners customize them with snap-on panels. "Twelve will fit into a standard 40 foot shipping container," he said.

Although city cars, both versions of the vehicle will be capable of freeway speeds. Both will also go from zero to 60 in five seconds, the company claims. That's faster than the low-speed vehicles some electric manufacturers are touting, although not as fast as the far pricier sedans or sports cars.

But most importantly, it's fun to ride in. Co-founder Ian Bruce took me on a spin around Redwood City in a gas-powered tilting three-wheeler made by Carver, the Dutch company that came up with the tilting mechanism. The tilt, the low center of gravity, and the overhead roof make it seem like you're riding to work in a torpedo.

Everyone who went for a ride seemed fairly exhilarated. The only really tough thing to get used to was the lack of creature comforts in the back seat. Basically, you stare at the headrest in front of you. On the other hand, the legroom is great. You straddle the front seat so you get complete extension of your legs. The car comes with a stereo too and the Spartan MG-Triumph-style cockpit.

How can Venture get the car to market so quickly? The Department of Transportation classifies three-wheelers as motorcycles. The crash testing is less intense. The first cars will hit the U.S. in 2009, and Europe in 2010.

Venture is also working with battery maker A123 Systems, which will also supply batteries to GM for the Volt, car designer Swift Engineering, and others.

Despite the lighter crash testing requirements, Venture is loading all sorts of safety features, said Robert Koch, a partner at venture firm NGEN, which invested in Venture. Swift, for instance, has an extensive history in building safety features into race cars. The car is also nearly impossible to tip over, although it can tilt at 45 degrees.

Still, Koch conceded that overcoming the perception of safety will be a challenge in marketing the car. Because the car is lower to the ground and smaller, many consumers will think they are unsafe at first glance.

Electric cars are one of the hot new trends (or crazes, depending on your point of view) in Silicon Valley. There are more than 20 start-ups and small companies touting electric cars or plug-in hybrids. While some have already started selling cars, most of these new cars won't come out until 2008. The price and performance of these cars range widely. One of the key conflicts these companies all face is lowering the cost of the cars--batteries remain quite expensive--and extending the driving range.