What planet’s this from? It looks like a mash up between a Lotus Elise, Ariel Atom and Reliant Robin…
This is Volkswagen’s GX3 – a minimalist three wheeler that combines a superbike’s blistering acceleration with a sports car’s flat-out cornering ability. And after a world exclusive drive in the Austrian Alps, I can reveal that no other motor vehicle tagged at $15,000 has ever been this much fun. After four hours of non-stop carving, skating and gliding up and down twisting alpine roads, the broad grin on my face is now frozen stiff – and it’s nothing to do with the temperature. Every corner enhances the sticky roadholding and sweet handling balance of this insect-eyed street machine. With every climb, the mix of instant grip and eager acceleration gets ever more addictive. And with each descent, the subtle weight transfer, aggressive brake bite and the quite physical downshifts challenge the man at the wheel. Had we not run out of fuel, it would have taken a chainsaw to separate me from the GX3. This trike performs like a drug.
Sounds amazing – and nothing like the VW norm. How the hell did they come up with the GX3?
It’s the out of this world-work of Team Moonraker, a task force charged with finding initiatives to boost VW’s faltering image in North America. Founded in spring 2005, and led by Stefan Liske, the 23-member Moonraker team was based in Los Angeles and reported directly to VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard. Currently, the Volkswagen brand has a strong female bias – something the uber-macho GX3 seeks to redress. The GX3 was unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show in January 2006. After a stellar reception, Volkswagen’s suits began to wrangle over whether to sell it exclusively to US punters.
Come on, give me the spec details…
The GX3 is actually quite close to a Lotus Elise in length, although it’s wider and taller thanks to the big front track and roll-over hoops. Lotus was heavily involved in the project, supplying engineering support and components for the mule we thrashed. The steering is from the Elise and Lotus also had a hand in the double wishbone front suspension. VW lifted the brakes from the Golf up front and the Polo at the rear. The mule runs on bespoke soft-shoulder Bridgestones. The front boots are a familiar 215/45 R17 in size, but the massive asymmetrical-compound rear semi-slick tyre wears an uncommon 315/30 R18 size index. Why asymmetrical? For smoother breakaway characteristics and a less edgy handling at the limit. The black 14-spoke aluminium wheel is located on a lightweight mono swing-arm with compact coil-over damper. Without crew, the GX3 tips the scales at a commendably fit 570 kilos. Mounted in the rear of the tubular steel frame is a 125bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine which is mated to six-speed manual transmission. On tap at 3000rpm, the maximum torque of 112lb ft is relayed to its single taker via a duplex chain. A driveshaft would have been classier and a belt would have been quieter, but for cost reasons VW opted for the chain which needs regular lubrication and tensioning.
It must be an incredibly visceral drive…
VW planned to classify the GX3 as a motorbike, and it delivers the same sense of freedom and thrills. We climbed to 2000 metres, where the temperature dipped to a frosty 4deg C. VW recommended a helmet, but I opted for gloves, a headband and glasses. Nonetheless, my eyes filled with tears beyond 50kph, the cold wind pounded my cheeks, occasional drizzle threw a thousand needles against chin and forehead, and plenty of loose chippings ricocheted through the crystal clear air. Some bullets were also triggered by the odd oncoming vehicle, but most came flying off my own back wheel. On paper, the 125bhp GX3 can crack 0-62mph in 5.7sec and hit 125mph, although the mule we tried only mustered 80bhp. This tarmac-hugging street spider feels as intimate and pure as a Ducati. Every road texture, every seam, every puddle is transmitted back to the driver. Longitudinal grooves can bounce you off-course without warning, and crests are liable to seriously deflect the flight path. All these encounters tend to happen at sports car speeds, and since this VW can pull up to 1.25g of lateral force, even eight-tenth efforts will make your heart thump and your cheeks go wobbly. Unlike bikes, the GX3 doesn’t lean or respond to physical weight transfer. Having said that, the driven rear wheel nonetheless leads a life of its own, so be prepared to get used to a whole new set of rules.
It looks like a go-kart – does it feel like one inside?
You sit – almost lie – very low, with both legs comfortably stretched out in the long tunnel leading to the narrow pedal box. The seat adjusts in reach only. It consists of a thinly padded pvc bucket with a fixed backrest and fixed side bolsters. The five-point belt secures the shoulders, the hips, the torso and the crown jewels. Most trikes typically feature handlebars, a manual clutch and a twistgrip throttle. Not so the much more car-like GX3. The clutch is hoof-operated, the brakes are exclusively pedal-controlled, the gearlever is located between the seats, and the tiny dished suede-rimmed wheel looks and feels as if it came straight out of a formula junior race car.
The colour choice was to have been restricted to only four different shades: white, yellow, black and red. But the proposed options included bespoke paint jobs and seat trims, special rims and steering wheels, alternative seat designs, a sound system, a tonneau cover and a choice of no windscreen, a small driver-side glass pane or a taller full-width screen. Other available goodies would have included high-intensity driving lights, LED tail-lights and painted brake calipers by AP or Brembo. VW was confident in the GX3’s substantial crumple zones and foam-padded side panels; switchable traction control was also plumbed in.
I need a GX3. When can I have one?
Sadly, the management has refused to give the GX3 the green light. Sales were due to commence in spring 2007, the starting price had been pegged at an ambitious $15,500 (£10,500), and the total output over the six-year life cycle was targeted at 25,500 units - minimum. But then the sceptics began to throw spanners in the works, and at the eleventh hour a great idea was no more. Why? Because VW feared a high-profile accident on an American highway, that could have done untold damage to the brand. The nay-sayers – who from the very beginning pointed out the discrepancy between the low-riding GX3 and the towering big rigs, cited America´s love-and-hate relationship with the motorbike, and emphasised the incompatibility between the three-wheeler and the rest of the VW range – won the day. And Team Moonraker was disbanded on 1 July 2006.
Is there any way we could see a GX3?
You don´t need to read between the lines to conclude that the GX3 fan club has a new member. After two days of adrenalin rush, one thing is clear: it’s not the GX3 concept that’s at fault, but the decision to make it a US-only product. Could enough European customers be willing to take the risk for the hugely rewarding driving experience? CAR Online believes there is a market for up to 5000 VW trikes per year. Anybody who signs a disclaimer and agrees to wear a helmet should be allowed to use the GX3 on road and track. True, the trike is missing a wheel when compared with a Westfield, Radical, Caterham or Ariel Atom. But believe me: this numerical handicap does in no way diminish the driving pleasure.