One of the major narratives thrown around these days about the current state of the automotive industry is that there are no more bad cars being made, that glaring defections and flaws have been ironed out over the years and eliminated from dealer lots across all the country.
There may be some truth in this (although I could nominate several as evidence to the contrary), but it doesn't mean that all cars drive the same. In fact, as new cars have inched towards being jacks of all trades, it only intensifies their core differences. As the notoriously underpowered Toyota Corolla has increased its output and the notoriously bumpy Mazda3 has smoothed out its ride, we can now more accurately focus on their true personalities instead of their formerly glaring flaws. The differences are what give new cars their distinct character, and it’s always refreshing to hop into something that purposefully aims to be different. Which is why the 2014 Can-Am Spyder RSS is one of the most enjoyable vehicles I’ve driven in a long time.
The new Spyder RSS is unlike any other car, because, of course, it isn’t a car. Riding on three wheels with handlebars, but outfitted with Stability and Traction Control, it fits somewhere between a car and a motorcycle, but should be characterized as neither. It’s a black-and-yellow, bug-eyed unicorn with exoskeleton suspension and a 255mm rear tire, and should be marketed as such from now on.
The RSS is the most extreme Spyder you can buy, though it isn’t the most expensive. Lighter and with less storage space than some of its big brothers, the 2014 RSS retails for $19,599 with the five-speed semi-automatic transmission. It may be the most unique model in the Spyder family, too, sporting an array of design and engineering touches that make the RSS look and feel like some of the most fun you can have on two-through-four wheels.
I set off in the RSS for Palos Verdes to push through the hills, with my father chasing in his beloved blue Harley-Davidson Road King Police, on New Year’s Day. We got off to a late start, leaving Long Beach around 9:00am, past cheering bystanders and a young boy in pajamas riding his bike and staring gape-mouthed. Off-days and hangovers kept the roads clear as we blasted across the Gerald Desmond Bridge and reached the bluffs.
Palos Verdes is a quiet and exquisitely manicured community full of gated compounds that overlook the Pacific Ocean and basically all of southern Los Angeles County. Because there are cliffs instead of beaches, it’s more like a coastal Beverly Hills than bustling, touristy Malibu. But the homes are equally impressive and make for a popular retreat for movie executives and pro athletes that need their space. It’s also home to the only interesting road in about a 15-mile radius.
That road is Palos Verdes Drive E., and the 998cc V-Twin engine sang its praises as I cranked my right hand and sliced into the first uphill turn. The high-revving motor let out a delightful rattle while my left hand blipped through the gears with the handle-mounted shifter – push your thumb for up, pull your forefinger for down. There is no clutch, and it does have a Reverse gear that engages with a simply euphonic mechanical thunk.
With no cars or stoplights ahead for the first time all day, I could simply watch the RSS do its work below me. Fox shocks, A-arms, red rings on a black tach. Neon, air scoops, slotted Brembo brake discs. To my right, the increasingly curvy horizon. To my left, the approaching hairpin. No blind spots, nothing to interrupt, nothing but air and road and a three-wheeled unicorn.
The V-Twin only makes 100 horsepower, and both Traction and Stability Control make their presences known should you flirt with getting sideways. Even still, throttle response is very quick and the sensation of speed – not just speed itself but the sound, the muscle, the surge – is undeniable.
Which is why you have to be careful on the twisties. The Spyder RSS may be classified as a “three-wheeled motorcycle,” but physics react on it like a car. We climbed through the bluffs, which dove downhill into a forest as one sweeping curve after another unfurled itself in front of the RSS. No more upright gazing – I hunkered down over the tiny windscreen, tightened my grip on the bars and readied my right foot on the brake.
There is no leaning into turns with the RSS; in fact, the G forces send your body away from the turn. You can duck in and even drop the knee a little if you like, but it’s not helping cornering like it does on a Ducati. If you stay upright, then your body is going to drift out, and it can be a weird sensation to move the opposite way your arms are turning, while trying to keep a steady and consistent grip on the accelerator so you don’t accidentally twist it at the wrong moment.
In a car, this is what extreme understeer feels like. It’s difficult to get the two front wheels around sharply, and as quickly as you could with a steering wheel, because physics are pushing your whole body in the opposite direction. Even if you can get the balance just right and ask for a burst from the engine, Traction Control intervenes to bring the power on smoothly. The Can-Am Spyder RSS never “comes alive” in the way that a Porsche Cayman, or even a Mazda Miata, might on a road like this. Can-Ams are meant for traversing great distances and exploring the open air with comfort, ease and freedom – not necessarily hot-shoeing it around S-bends.
It’s only 7.5 miles, Palos Verdes Drive E., before you reach the man-made reservoir at the bottom of the hill and the fun stuff is over. My dad and I pulled off to plan the next move. College football games were well underway, and with an infant at home, eating pizza on the couch on an off-day is basically my wildest fantasy realized these days. We determined the fastest way home was to catch the freeway and cruise home.
But there is something about a neon yellow unicorn that just doesn't seem right on four lanes. I could see the mountain we’d just come down looming over us with its paved curves hidden under cover of foliage, and put my gloves back on. I simply couldn't let the ride end. “Let’s do it again,” I said. “The other direction is even more fun.”
It may not be perfect, but the 2014 Can-Am Spyder RSS is different. That’s what matters.