Monday, July 8, 2013

Campagna T-Rex: From Canada, a three-wheeled terror

It is as cramped as a Shriners car, as noisy as a jackhammer and possessed of what is surely the steepest operational learning curve of any production motor vehicle. But to its devotees, such apparent downsides are all part of the fun.
This $62,000 three-wheeler is a wild ride indeed, delivering a degree of unmitigated outrageousness that excuses minor grievances like spinal trauma and hearing loss.
Montreal, Canada-based Campagna, under the guidance of company founder Daniel Campagna, has been turning out the handcrafted T-Rex since 1995, at a rate of two or three per week. The current car is a refined version of a tube-frame prototype from 1988. It seats two abreast, and within its steel structure and fibreglass bodywork beats one of two motorcycle-derived hearts: a screaming Kawasaki Ninja engine or, in the new 16S model, a torque-rich in-line six-cylinder from the BMW Group’s motorcycle division, BMW Motorrad. Matched to a Motorrad six-speed sequential manual motorcycle gearbox (modified by Campagna to include reverse), this liquid-cooled 1,600cc engine spins out a smooth 160 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque. These figures seem modest only until factoring in the vehicle’s trifling 1,100lb curb weight. From rest, the T-Rex will crack 60mph in four seconds flat, although the combination of noise, wind and bobsled-like proximity to the ground makes the trip feel half as long.
Placing oneself into the cockpit requires the removal of the steering wheel and strict adherence to a choreographed sequence: rump here, hand here, other hand there, legs this way, feet together, lift, swing, slide, drop. With the seatbelt clicked, wheel reattached and key inserted, you are ready to go. Well, you are ready to try, at least.

For a newbie, stalling the T-Rex is a given. One stall, two, five, nine – the throttle is so sensitive and clutch travel so brief that successfully harmonising them is a virtuosic feat. In a fast-food drive-thru: stall. In rush-hour Los Angeles as the light goes green: stall. Trying to impress the young ladies who just snapped your photo with their mobile phones: stall. In the T-Rex, smooth starts are small badges of honour, and because fate has a sense of humour, the best ones invariably occur when nobody is watching.
The car is short and wide – three inches broader than a BMW 7 Series sedan, in fact. As such, it is supremely stable. It is not a difficult car to drive very quickly, and the driver is soon smacking up and down the gears with reckless abandon. For longer drives, earplugs and goggles are prudent, a full-face helmet is better (the latter having the added benefit of hiding the driver’s identity).
The front tires – 205/45ZR-16s on Enkei rims – are grippy but narrow enough to keep steering effort light and precise. At the rear, a single chain-driven wheel wrapped in a fat 295/35ZR-18 tire puts the power down effectively and manages to hang tight in corners. It can be reluctant to perform both tasks at the same time, however. The engine it is never more than a stab of the throttle from overpowering the rear rubber, something that in a straight line is giddy fun, but in a hairpin corner is hair-raising. Serpentine asphalt is best tackled with prudence, at least until a driver masters the machine – a process that clearly takes longer than the duration of a test-car loan.
In a functional sense, the T-Rex has staked a claim in some of the last vehicular wilderness, halfway between an elemental roadster (think Mazda MX-5) and a touring motorcycle. It is wilder and more raucous than either one, and dramatically more expensive. In fact, at $62,000, the T-Rex 16S overshoots some fairly exceptional sports cars, including the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray ($51,995) and the splendid Porsche Boxster ($51,350) – and it does so without air bags, anti-lock brakes, stability control or a single cupholder. There is no rational reason to select the T-Rex, but rationality rarely comes into play during such purchases. To those who are smitten, the T-Rex is an objet d’art: singular, irresistible and far above the mundane act of comparison.
Vital Stats: 2013 Campagna Motors T-Rex 16S
  • Base price: $62,000
  • As tested: $69,646
  • Drivetrain: 160hp, 1.6-litre six-in-line motorcycle engine, six-speed sequential manual motorcycle transmission, single-rear-wheel drive
  • Major options: Pearlescent white paint $1,649; chrome kit $3,999; colour-matched side bags $1,699; wind deflector $299

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