Behind the wheel of the Toyota i-Road, I felt as graceful as Yuzuru Hanyu winning the gold for figure skating in the 2014 Olympic Games. I leaned smoothly over through one turn, then fluidly rolled over to the other side for an ensuing opposite turn, driving through a cone course Toyota had set up in a parking lot in San Jose.
It was graceful, it was fluid, it was athletic.
And, to be honest, I can't claim little responsibility for the i-Road's driving behavior. This little electric...thing rides on three wheels, two in the front and one at the rear. When I turned the steering wheel while driving above 5 mph, the front suspension pushed down the outside wheel and retracted the inside wheel, making the whole conveyance lean through the turns.
The i-Road uses a remarkable turning steering mechanism that not only made me feel like a pro MotoGP rider, but also seemed very safe, as it counteracted the inertial forces that would have pulled this electric trike over on its side. Toyota designer Koji Fujita told me that the i-Road uses a gyroscope and inertial sensors, combined with data on speed and steering angle, to determine how far to lean the i-Road.
The steering is actually done through the single rear wheel. At low speeds the i-Road felt exceptionally nimble, like a shopping cart on well-oiled wheels, as the back end slid out in response to my steering input. The arrangement gives the i-Road a very tight turning radius, which Toyota's spec sheet notes as 3 meters (9.8 feet). At speed, though, the turning radius became wider due to the stability mechanisms.
Although steering the i-Road seems pretty idiot-proof, Toyota fitted it with technology to mitigate my enthusiastic behavior. With the accelerator floored, it limited how sharply I could turn, and also vibrated the steering wheel to tell me I was at the i-Road's limits.
Where the rear wheel steers, the front wheels are powered, each using an electric motor of about 2 kilowatts. The range and speed figures show that the i-Road isn't intended for cross-country trips, instead set for short commutes or errands. It's top speed of 37 mph (60 kph) classifies it as a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), as does its 30-mile range. Toyota would not give me the capacity of the i-Road's lithium-ion electric battery pack, but a spokesperson said that it takes about 3 hours to charge from a standard household outlet.
The complicated steering system let Toyota keep the i-Road narrow, so it could maneuver in crowded urban streets. Less than 3 feet wide, Toyota rates it for one passenger. However, there is a rear seat behind the driver. While this space might fit a bag of groceries, CNET editor Antuan Goodwin managed to squeeze in. Even though he did fit, the weight of two adults would likely have been a challenge for the little i-Road.
The front seat was reasonably comfortable, and although covered in soft plastics rather than upholstery, the cabin seemed very car-like. As a convenience, doors open on either side of the driver, adding flexibility for parking and access.
Toyota does not currently sell the i-Road, and what I drove was a prototype. However, the company is currently testing fleets of i-Roads in Japan and in Grenoble, France, the latter serving as vehicle sharing service. To gauge the US market, Toyota brought a couple of i-Roads to San Jose, Calif., and conducted public driving clinics.
The i-Road received a very positive reception from consumer test drivers, something I could well understand. The driving character was so engaging that I could have spent hours slaloming through the cones.