In Terry Gilliam's classic movie "Brazil," Sam Lowry drives around a dystopian future cityscape in a three-wheel Messerschmitt KR200, a 1950s-era European microcar that looks equal parts cool and ridiculous. For this year's Geneva Motor Show, Toyota has taken the idea of a three-wheel, tandem-seat microcar to a modern extreme in a concept it calls i-ROAD, and because the future has more in common with "Brazil" than we might prefer.
Most major automakers are working on ideas of vehicles that fill the space between a small car and a motorcycle — something small enough to fit in tight urban environments, but sizable enough to provide weather and crash protection so that passengers wouldn't have to wear helmets. None has advanced to the point of production, and the slow progress of a few start-ups has made such vehicles seem an answer to a question not many people have thought to ask yet.
But the trend lines say rising fuel prices and crowded metropolises will eventually demand a replacement for the four-wheel compact car. In the i-ROAD, Toyota combines an electric motor and battery that can travel 30 miles on a charge with a stability system to keep the trike upright; its front wheels raise and lower in turns to lean the body without toppling it. By seating two people in tandem, Toyota says the i-ROAD is no wider than a conventional motorcycle, and would require no special training to drive.
The chances of Toyota building a 21st-century Messerschmitt hover close to zero at the moment; the world's largest automaker has plenty of demand for its real vehicles, and as the Scion iQ shows, four-wheel cars can get far smaller than most people find comfortable. But it's impossible to rule that such vehicles will never emerge, and there may yet be a formula for drivers who want to lean into the future.