The i-Road is a battery-powered prototype that works well as a driver’s plaything, but not as a substitute for a really small car.
THE i-Road reminds me of two other atypical Toyotas I drove in the past.
One was the iQ, a 996cc runabout that tries to be smarter than Daimler’s Smart micro- hatchback in terms of packaging. The other was a forklift.
Like the iQ, the styling of the i-Road could qualify as a car-toon from the pages of a manga comic book.
And like the Toyota forklift I took for a spin years ago, the i-Road has three wheels – two in the front and one in the back.
But this little Toyota is much closer to being a car than a warehouse industrial vehicle, or one of those peculiar three-wheeled scooters.
It has a completely enclosed cabin, with a pair of doors plus front and rear windscreens made of glass, the front one equipped with a demister. The side and quarter windows are made of a resin material.
Those doors have proper handles on the outside and regular openers on the inside, but you grab a strap or window sill to shut the door.
To close the plastic window, you pull it up and secure it to the top of the door frame with attached magnetic clips.
It’s all rather tacky and the doors feel a little flimsy. But my 1.73m body frame can enter/ exit the i-Road without difficulty, I can fit easily behind the wheel, and the narrow, thinly padded seat with fore-aft adjustment is less uncomfortable than it appears.
Behind the seat is a storage area with a cargo net and enough space for two or three backpacks. The area might be able to fit a primary school kid, but he or she will be sitting on hard plastic and cannot be belted in.
The i-Road is a single-seater prototype in Japan, but the European version (being tested in France under a car-sharing programme) has been configured as a tandem two-seater.
The fixed steering wheel looks vaguely familiar, like it came from an old Yaris or Vios. It doesn’t have an airbag, but you get a three-point seatbelt. There’s no need to wear a helmet, by the way.
There’s neither an air- conditioner nor a blower fan, so you need to keep the side windows down to get ventilation. If I were driving this in inclement weather, I’ll have to position the windows just so to let some air in without getting myself wet.
The downsized dashboard only has five buttons – three on the left for the electric drive mode (R for reverse, N for neutral, D for drive), and two on the right for the hazard lights and windscreen demister.
A single stalk on the left operates the exterior lights and two-speed wiper. And there’s a USB port to charge your iPhone in the i-Road.
ENGINE 2 in-wheel electric motors, lithium-ion battery
MAX POWER Not available
MAX TORQUE Not available
POWER TO WEIGHT Not available
0-100KM/H Not available
TOP SPEED 60km/h
CONSUMPTION 50km range
CO2 EMISSION 0g/km
PRICE EXCL. COE Not applicable
The instrument panel is equally straightforward, with a digital display showing the drive mode, vehicle speed, status of the lithium-ion battery (five bars), state of charge and an odometer. Frontal and lateral visibility is excellent.
It’s so simple to hit the road in the i-Road that I feel overqualified as a holder of a Class 3 driving licence. Arcade game “driving experience” might suffice in this case.
Twist the key in the ignition slot, step on the brake pedal, press the D button, release the foot-operated parking brake and the machine is ready to scoot.
And off it goes, like a gigantic radio-controlled toy car, with a pair of teeny electric motors whirring softly while they’re powering the skinny 16-inch front wheels, which are made of aluminium alloy.
The acceleration to 25km/h or so is instant, and the smile on my face is constant. The deceleration is immediate, too, not only when I tap the brake pedal but also when I lift my foot from the accelerator pedal.
My constant smile becomes wider as I manoeuvre the i-Road on the cramped, clockwise circuit. With the 10-inch rear wheel steering the thing and tightening the turning circle to just 4.6 metres, the way it changes direction is more like a twirl than a turn.
Adding whirl to the twirl is the Active Lean System, a clever yoke mechanism that makes the i-Road lean in the same direction it’s steered. The same system also enables the vehicle to remain level when parked on uneven ground.
The combination of Active Lean, rear-wheel-steer, prompt electric propulsion and a kart- size footprint provides a bundle of unusual fun.
The fun lasts for up to 50 kilometres (the claimed range on a fully charged battery, at a steady speed of 30km/h). And the car can hit 60km/h, apparently.
According to Toyota, the typical range in stop-go city traffic is 30-40 kilometres, and recharging from a standard household power outlet (100- 220V) takes about three hours.
In the Singapore context, the three-wheeled 300kg i-Road probably cannot be classified as a motorcycle, even though it has fewer than four wheels and an unladen weight that doesn’t exceed 400kg. That’s because the driver sits inside the i-Road, not straddle it like a weird motorbike.
In Japan, the i-Road remains at the prototype testing stage with ongoing road trials.