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Vanderhall Venice first drive: three times the fun, or three-quarters?



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There is a long and storied history of three-wheelers in the auto industry. Sometimes manufacturers of four-wheeled cars make them: Morgan has been making three-wheelers for over a century; Mazda made the Mazda-Go in 1931; in the ‘70s, Reliant made the infamous, flippable Robin. Modern carmakers have toyed with the idea of three-wheelers: GM developed the Lean Machine in the ’80s; Peugeot unveiled the racy 20Cup in 2005; VW showed the GX3 in 2006 and made sounds like maybe it’d go into production (it didn’t); Honda still makes the cool little leaning Gyro scooter in Japan, and we even drove the articulating, tandem-seated Toyota i-Road in 2013 and liked it.

But mostly when a company makes a three-wheeler today, it’s a small startup looking to get around DOT crash-test requirements. Vehicles with three wheels count as motorcycles, not as cars in the eyes of the federal government. As such, they don’t require crumple zones, airbags or a lot of other high-dollar safety structures. Think of the failed Corbin Sparrow, the maybe-coming Elio, the coming-along Arcimoto, the still-selling Campagna T-Rex and the Polaris Slingshot.

The rear-drive T-Rex and the Slingshot have sporty pretensions, as does today’s subject, the Vanderhall Venice. It looks most like the Morgan three-wheeler. But while the Morgan has a 2.0-liter motorcycle engine powering the rear wheels, the Vanderhall has a front-wheel-drive GM powertrain driving its front wheels. 

There’s room inside the Venice, and the gauges are straightforward and analog.

The Venice’s 180-hp 1.4 turbo-four is found in the Chevrolet Malibu, Cruze and Sonic, and it’s a perfectly good powerplant in those applications; in fact, the whole powertrain is from GM, so that includes the 6T40 six-speed automatic to which Vanderhall has added a sequential shifter. With a racy curb weight of just 1,475 pounds, it claims a 0-60 in 4.5 seconds and a top speed at 140 mph.

The suspension is interesting. In front is a pushrod coil-over setup that reduces unsprung weight and saves space. Front tires measure 225/40-18. In back, the single wide 285/35-18 tire is like something from a sports car. A single-sided swing arm reaches around to grab hold of the 18-by-10.5-inch rear wheel, while a coil spring mounts about midway back on the swing arm.  

The base platform of the Venice is aluminum, while the body is composite. To save weight, there is no opening front hood or rear trunk. To get at the engine, you have to unscrew the front bodywork. Weight distribution is 70 percent front/30 percent rear, which suggests either “massive understeer” or “great stability,” depending on which side of the marketing material you’re on. 

Venice in Venice

Venice in Venice.

The Execution

I could have gone anywhere from Thousand Oaks to Thousand Palms to drive this, but when the offer came through the place to meet up was pretty obvious. Thus, there I was, cruising through Venice, California, in a Venice. The colorful characters and the tourists all liked it, posing for selfies and taking spy shots that would make them rich beyond their wildest dreams, or at least rich enough for a Venice, which stickers for just $29,995.

It’s easy to get into and even a little bit roomy — roomier than a Caterham, for instance, and maybe even roomier than a Morgan. You don’t have to be skinny to enjoy the Venice either.

First thing I noticed upon sliding into the seat was the windshield: it’s warped and wavy on the upper left corner, right where the driver looks through it. It’s not warped if the driver leans right and down to gaze through the center of the windshield. This driving position is, as we used to say in high school, “The Gangster Lean.” It’s how you should be driving, anyway. The Vanderhall rep said the ripply glass was just on that one windshield and that all the others are all good. That was the exact same thing the Corbin Sparrow guy said. Really. 

Venice in Venice Beach

Venice in Venice Beach, or nearby in Santa Monica.

The engine sounds less like a sports car and more like a repurposed GM econo plant: anemic. The intake sounds, in particular, are what I’d call frappy. They are combined with whooshy, wheezy turbo wastegate sounds, the type heard on tuner cars where the tuners didn’t think through all 82 million things you have to think through on a car. It wouldn’t take all that much to fix. They should come up with an engineering solution to it before they make any more of these. It’d be simple and cheap. Don’t know about that windshield, though.

Underway, the Venice handles well. It’s surprisingly stable, as you’d expect of a front-wheel drive GM platform. That single trailing rear wheel only stepped over a couple inches on two occasions, both when braking going into a turn, but it just moved a bit. Otherwise, the whole car stayed in line despite the tight, twisting road on which I was thrashing it. The general feel is perhaps just a little bit spindly, maybe, but overall it’s stable, with no evidence of torque steer. The half-shafts are said to be equal length, which should address any torque steer before it happens.

Yes, it’s fun to drive, but it isn’t fun in the same way a Miata is fun. In fact, after a while, I realized what it felt like: a front-wheel-drive Chevy Cruze Turbo. Now, the Cruze Turbo is a reasonably fun car. I recall when it came out and I had a great time driving it on the press intro. But it’s still just a FWD commuter car. It’s less tossable and slightly less precise to steer through a tight, twisty road than a rear-drive car like a Miata.

The Venice power-to-weight ratio is listed at 8.6:1, which ain’t exactly supercar territory, but it’s still pretty good. In manual mode, the sequential shifter works well enough, providing some sense of drivetrain control beyond simply letting it sit in automatic. But each time you step on the gas, you get that wheezy, gasping intake sound, followed by the turbo wastegate whoosh. 

Venice in a curve

The Venice handles curves stably and predictably.

The Verdict

The Vanderhall Venice is kind of fun in a kind of goofy way. I enjoyed the day, but maybe not as much as I would have enjoyed the same day in a well-tuned Miata. Or on just about any motorcycle. You could get a good used (really used) Miata for $6,500 or a new Miata for five grand less than the Venice’s price. Heck, motorcycles are cheap. This would be a fun car to take to the local Carz ‘N’ Coffee for a while. It’d be fun to take out on the occasional weekend. Heck, it might just be fun all year. You won’t see another one on your block unless you live near the factory in Provo, Utah. So consider it along with a high-mileage mid-90s Z3, Pontiac Solstice or even a Mini convertible. There are lots of choices out there, all fun. 

On Sale: Now

Base Price: $29,995

Drivetrain: 1.4-liter turbo I4, fwd, six-speed automatic

Output: 180 hp @ 4950 rpm, 185 lb ft @ 2450 rpm

Curb Weight: 1475 lbs (mfg.)

0-60 MPH: 4.5 seconds (mfg)

Pros: Unique, no one else has one, stable handling

Cons: Not as much fun as you might expect it to be, or maybe it is




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