Remember the original Kawasaki Jet Ski? Launched in the early-to-mid-’80s, it featured a handlebar on a rigid, hinged steering column. It required its operator to start on his knees, then pop up to a standing position once enough speed was reached that the rider could maintain his balance. Like surfing or single-ski waterskiing, this initial starting maneuver was tough to master; and like those other sports, everyone who did it said that once you got the hang of it, riding a Jet-Ski was easy and fun. But because it was difficult to even get started, the market for Kawasaki’s new water toy was quickly saturated.
Then, everything changed. In 1991, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) released the Sea-Doo Xp. Using technology swiped from its Ski-Doo snowmobiles, the Sea-Doo puts its operator in a seated position, eliminating the tricky pop-up start and doing away with standing altogether — and revolutionizing the personal watercraft industry overnight. Think that’s an overstatement? Consider this: in 1992, at the height of its popularity, Kawasaki was selling around 20,000 Jet Skis per year; in 1995, BRP moved more than 100,000 Sea-Doos. That number has remained a constant. Kawi, meanwhile, doesn’t make stand-up watercraft anymore.
The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that BRP is not a company content to rest on its laurels. Rather than simply make advancements to an existing platform, it reinvented a vehicle, and revolutionized an industry. With the Can-Am Spyder Roadster, BRP is attempting to do the same to open-air riding.
“It’s not a motorcycle. Don’t think of it as a motorcycle, and don’t ride it like a motorcycle, because it’s not a motorcycle.”
Drilled ad nauseum by the BRP marketing team, both at the media presentation the night before and while suiting up for my ride the following day, I pulled out of the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel aboard a 2012 Can-Am Spyder RS with that mantra running through my head. By the time I merged onto the 101 Freeway north not three minutes later, I no longer heard it in my head; instead, I felt it in my bones and under my butt.
Based on appearance alone, it’s easy to appreciate that the Spyder is different from a motorcycle. But it’s more than that. Built on technology gleaned not from the motorcycle industry but from years of personal watercraft, snowmobile, and side-by-side production, and full of technological advancements such as vehicle stability system (VSS), power steering, and a clutchless, semiautomatic transmission, BRP has developed a vehicle it calls a roadster, and it’s unlike anything else on pavement.
It starts, obviously, with the Y footprint. Like a snowmobile, the Spyder keeps two front feet firmly planted while using a single rear wheel for propulsion. The roadster’s squat stance makes for a low center of gravity, and the surrounding spar technology frame is designed to reduce weight. The Double A-arm front suspension includes dual shocks and provides more than 5.7″ of travel, while the electronically controlled dynamic power steering provides varying levels of steering assistance depending on speed, angle, and acceleration. On the base model Spyder RS, the muscular 998cc Rotax V-twin pumps out 106 hp at 8500 rpm and 77 ft-lbs. of torque at 6250 rpm, and Can-Am claims it can go from 0-60 mph in under five seconds. (I tried to confirm this, but succeeded only in giddily spinning the rear wheel until I got a steely glare from a BRP VP.)
The belt-driven Spyder comes with the SM5 standard manual transmission that features a five-speed gearbox with reverse, using a traditional hand clutch and footshifter. However, most of my time was spent using the optional SE5 semi-automatic transmission, an electronic five-speed (also with reverse) that’s controlled by the left thumb and forefinger, akin to paddle shifter. This was by far my favorite aspect of any of the Can-Ams, a phenomenal feature that fully lived up to the marketing team’s hype (and BRP’s $1,500 price bump). The tranny shifted up and down smoothly and efficiently, with no quirks or idiosyncrasies of any kind. It eagerly handled downshifting and high-rev acceleration; in engine braking, it dropped gears quickly and quietly, and slowed the roadster with nary a jerk or clunk. You might think the best part of bringing a Spyder to a stop would be that there’s no need to put your feet down. You’d be wrong. While that is admittedly cool, trumping it is the fact that the electronic semi-automatic tranny automatically downshifts when the roadster slows. Just brake calmly and the Can-Am smoothly and efficiently comes to a stop. In first gear.
Can-Am’s VSS incorporates stability control, traction control, and antilock braking technologies to improve rider control in adverse situations. We put it to the test in the hills north of Los Angeles, and I’m here to testify. Using handlebar and throttle inputs, stability control compares the roadster’s actual direction with its intended direction. If they are not the same, SC corrects the situation by reducing engine rpm and/or actively braking the front wheels individually. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up, and, finally, if the rear wheel loses traction in a curve and begins to fishtail, traction control senses it and automatically reduces engine rpm until grip returns. Working in conjunction, these three systems keep the Spyder from flipping, elevating, and/or sliding out. The VSS is so smooth and subtle that if it engaged at all during my ride — and there were a few instances where I was certain that it must have — I couldn’t tell.
Six roadsters make up the 2012 Can-Am Spyder line. The RS comes in basic black or Pearl White. The RS-S is the sporty Spyder, with vibrant, two-tone paint and graphics, dual-spoke front wheels, contrast-stitched seat, and painted front spoiler and A-arm covers. The gas-charged FOX Racing Shox front shocks have threaded preload adjustment for compression and rebound damping, plus boast a 33 percent weight reduction over stock. Color schemes include Can-Am Red/Satin Black, Magnesium Metallic/Steel Black Metallic, or my favorite, Neutron Green Metallic/Satin Black. The RS-S also sports carbon-black aluminum on the handlebar, foot pegs, and front and rear suspension springs.
The RT is the touring Spyder. It features an upright body position and distinguished appointments such as a full fairing with adjustable electric windshield, heated grips, touring saddle with integrated lumbar support, electronic cruise control, and 41 gallons of onboard storage. It, too, sports the liquid-cooled 998cc Rotax V-twin power plant, but it’s been tuned for high-end smoothness rather than torque and performance. Still, the Rotax mill puts out 80 ft-lbs. of torque at just 5000 rpm, ideal for the extra weight of fully loaded touring with a passenger, and plenty for hauling the optional matching BRP trailer, which offers an additional 164 gallons of storage. The new, amber-colored multifunction LCD includes a digital speedometer, tachometer, odometer, trip and hour meters, gear position, temperature, engine lights, electronic fuel gauge, and clock. The Spyder RT comes in four packages: standard, Audio & Convenience, RT-S (sporty), and RT Limited (luxury). Each adds another level of technology and sophistication, such as a high-end sound system, adjustable rear air suspension, GPS navigation, LED accent lighting, and exclusive colors.
BRP says it wants to combine the open-air freedom of riding a motorcycle with the stability of driving a sports car. And it largely succeeds. I briefly rode a Can-Am in 2008, and felt it had a lot of unrealized potential. A cool and novel machine, that first-year Spyder was a heavy vehicle with a strong motor, but with squishy handling and a fistful of drawbacks, such as excess unused dash space, clunky shifting, and a rider interface that was far from user friendly. A couple of years back, Editor Steve Lita went to BRP headquarters outside Montreal for the launch of the RT, and reported much the same: a vehicle that on the surface seemed fun to ride but was arduous to push around, and had numerous quirks in the design and tech departments.
But the mark of a good company is its reaction to criticism, and BRP has clearly tweaked and modified its product to address rider concerns. For 2012, the Can-Am Spyder roadsters have been streamlined across the board and are ready for the spotlight.
On both the fully dressed tourer and the aggressive RS-S, whether on the super-slab or the twisties, the Can-Am’s 2012 suspension is dialed in perfectly for each model. Reverse is now simple to find and use. The powertrain is ideally tuned. Rider interface overall is far more amenable — the dash is sleeker, with less wasted space — and the machine as a whole feels lighter and nimbler. Still, operation isn’t effortless. The ride is still sledlike, akin to that of a snowmobile (or, as a couple of us noted, those old-time three-wheeled ATCs, another industry BRP helped revolutionize). Leaning and countersteering are obviously futile, so the only way to change the Spyder’s direction is by turning the handlebar. On the highway, the Spyder, particularly the fully equipped tourer, is a graceful, smooth-flowing sleigh that needs little or no rider input; however, pushing a Spyder around tight canyon curves all day, even with the power steering, required enough brawn to leave most of us a bit sore in the upper back the next day. It’s not what the kids would call flickable.
But clearly, the Spyder has found its stride. As opposed to 2008, the potential of this distinctive vehicle has been realized, particularly in the touring-ready RT line. If the Spyder finds a core audience once the novelty has worn off — and Can-Am swears it’s in the roadster game for the long haul — then the sky’s the limit. Can a roofed, four-wheeled, or off-road roadster be far behind? The Can-Am Spyder may not have the cool factor of a chopper or café racer. But then, it’s not a motorcycle, is it? RB
Words by Jonny Langston, Photos by Brian J. Nelson
Story as published in the May 2012 issue of RoadBike