Review: The Vanderhall Venice reminds us that driving should be fun

This unique three-wheeler is all about the joy and freedom of motoring.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
5 min read
Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Vanderhall Venice looks like it came right out of the Wacky Races. It's got two seats, three wheels and not much else. There is no roof. It doesn't have doors. Climb in over the side and sit down. It's low enough that you can run your fingers along the pavement from the driver's seat.

There are a few other options in the niche three-wheeler segment. The Polaris Slingshot and Morgan 3 Wheeler are the biggies, but upstart Arcimoto and beleaguered Elio Motors are both working on electric three-wheelers with more traditional designs. As traditional as a three-wheeler can be, anyway.

Vanderhall Venice

Four wheels are so overrated.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Venice's classification can be a bit muddy, with some states calling it an autocycle, others calling it a motorcycle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officially designates the Venice, and its carbon-fiber counterpart the Laguna, as a three-wheeled motorcycle. Depending on where you live, you may need a special endorsement on your driver's license.

A helmet is not required to drive the Venice, but it makes the experience more comfortable -- not to mention safer. Wind buffeting on the freeway is extreme, even with the DOT-approved windshield. At 75 miles per hour I have to tighten my hat so I won't lose it. Still, while it's a blustery experience in terms of wind in your face, the Vanderhall tracks perfectly straight at highway speeds.

But really, in the Venice, the highway is for chumps; this thing is made for backroad cruising. The General Motors-sourced 1.4-liter turbo engine provides 180 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to move the 1,450-pound runabout around at a nice clip. Hitting 60 miles per hour takes just 4.5 seconds from a dead stop, which, if you're like me, you'll want to test at every single stoplight.

The engine is mated to a buzz-killing six-speed automatic transmission, and while I'd enjoy a proper manual transmission, Vanderhall at least offers a super engaging sequential shift lever. It's located to the driver's left on the body of the Venice, and while I thought it would feel weird, in reality, you get used to it easily. I've driven other vehicles that allow me to row through gears sequentially -- pulling toward me to upshift, pushing away from me to downshift -- but none of them make me grin like in the Vanderhall. Part of it is the old-school look of the ball shifter, but most of it is the response of the speedy gear changes. Ripping through the gears in the Venice is a joy, even without the beloved third pedal.

Vanderhall Venice brings vintage back, 3-wheel style

See all photos

The Venice is front-wheel drive, with 75 percent of the weight set over those front wheels. The company claims that by powering the front wheels, the stability is increased and there is no need for an electronic stability control. A trip through the canyons near Los Angeles proves this theory, the Venice diving into the turns with precision. The rear never came around on me and I experienced no understeer, even while entering a corner just a bit too hot.

Stopping the Venice, on the other hand, can be a bit tricky. Not because the brakes are bad, but because they are almost too good. An optional Brembo brake package can bring the Venice to a complete stop from 60 miles an hour in just 85 feet. Just to compare, a Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 does that same 60 to zero halt in 100 feet. It's pretty immediate.

And you want to talk attention? You'll get it in spades. More than one racer boi tried to beat me off the line from a stoplight. People asked me questions while stopped in traffic. Others came over to chat at the gas station, or ran to catch me in the parking lot. Buyer beware -- you'll be an unofficial brand ambassador for Vanderhall if you buy the Venice. Just do what I do: When someone asks you what the heck it is, respond with, "It's awesome."

Vanderhall Venice

The cabin is pretty bare bones, without air conditioning or a radio.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

This is the kind of vehicle that can make an everyday errand an adventurous outing. But it's far from your daily driver. There's no radio, let alone infotainment, let alone Apple CarPlay or Android Auto . The only way to listen to music is via some lousy Bluetooth-only speakers. I would have killed for a USB port, but all you get on the charging front is a 12-volt charger. This test car has cruise control, but it won't follow a lead car or bring the Venice to a stop on its own. What little tech there is in this car is all super old-school.

The interior of the Venice is like a combination fighter jet and steampunk dream, with switches for things like Bluetooth and cruise control, but knobs for the heater and air vents (not air-conditioning vents, just air vents). I totally dig the wooden steering wheel with the Venice logo in the center. And with no roof there is plenty of room for taller passengers. At 5 feet and 9 inches I have a few clicks of the adjustable seat left for wiggle room, and the 6-foot-5 gentleman who brought me the Venice seemed to fit just fine.

There is a tiny bit of storage in the Venice, but be prepared to travel light. There is an open hole in the dash that begs for a lockable door to store small items. But I wouldn't put anything like a phone in there for fear it might fly out of the vehicle during a spirited drive. Moving the seats forward reveals space for driver and passenger to each stow a small shoulder bag in back. That's it.

I'd like better seat bolstering, but because the two chairs are so close together, there isn't much room for more support. At the very least my passenger notes she'd like an "oh shit" handle somewhere in the cockpit, just for a bit more security.

Vanderhall Venice

The Vanderhall Venice is pretty low to the ground, so it can be tough for other drivers to see you.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Vanderhall Venice starts at $29,950 while a carbon fiber Laguna will set you back nearly $50,000. There is also the electric Edison for $34,950, which we hope to drive in the near future. The Utah-based company currently can produce 1,000 units per year and is planning on moving to a new facility in 2019 to ramp up production even more.

After a day of driving with the wind in my hair, the sound of the turbo in my ears and the satisfying thwack of the shifter in my hand, I'm reluctant to give the Venice back. Yes, $30,000 is a lot to spend for what's essentially a toy, but if you've got the coin to spare, the Vanderhall Venice is a pretty exhilarating alternative to other open-top sports cars .