Yamaha introduces a $3,300 lean-machine. Will it light a fire under the micro-cars of Nissan, Toyota, Honda?

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Japan is, according to lore, a country with very small cars navigating very narrow roads. Some of it is true. Residential roads can be extremely narrow. Parking is scarce and expensive. Japan’s major automakers come to the rescue with even smaller cars, while the government is dragging its heels.

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Yesterday, Yamaha showed its Tricity LMW in Tokyo. The event attracted a massive throng of Japanese media, much bigger than what comes to a car launch of Japans three major automakers. A few hundred members of the Fourth Estate crowded the UDX convention center in Akihabara to witness the announcement of a 125cc / 11 hp scooter.

The Tricity LMW of course is not any old, or even any new scooter. “LMW” stands for “leaning multi wheel.” It is a tricycle, with one wheel in the back and two in front. The front wheels can go up and down independently, thereby inducing lean. This comes in very handy when going into turns. A regular trike can’t lean, unless it lifts a tire off the pavement. According to people who have been on it, the Tricity LMW is immense fun to drive. Test rides were available yesterday, but booked for hours, so I passed instead-of passing-out waiting.

Toyota i-ROAD 4 - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Looking at the Tricity, I was immediately reminded of my test-drive of Toyota’s i-ROAD last year, a vehicle Toyota-engineers dubbed the “lean-machine.” Unlike the gasoline-powered Tricity, the i-ROAD is electric. Unlike the Tricity, the i-ROAD would cost well over $10,000 if it would be available commercially, which it is not. The Tricity goes for scooter-like $3,300 plus tax when it is launched in September in Japan.

The i-ROAD shares a predicament with other similar vehicles made by Nissan and Honda: It is illegal to drive in most places in Japan. The vehicles don’t fit into Japan’s strict certification regimen. The few vehicles on Japan’s roads do so under local, and very restrictive variances.

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Nissan’s New Mobility Concept, for instance, can be rented in Yokohama as part of a test. Nissan offered me to take one home over the weekend. Slender as it is, I could have parked it at home in my “driveway” (you can drive a bicycle there, if you are careful.) However, the law did not allow the NMC in Tokyo – Nissan’s variance is only good for Yokohama.

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To drive Nissan’s NMC all the way around a Japanese island without attracting the wrath of the law, I had to travel to Teshima, a tiny island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. In the 1980s, Teshima reached fleeting notoriety for an industrial waste scandal. Now, the island is famous for its art museums, and for the fact that one can rent a Nissan NMC there. The NMC’s Renault-Nissan Alliance sister model, the Renault Twizy, is street legal in Europe. It sold 12,456 units through March 2014, and it was Europe’s top-selling plug-in electric vehicle 2012.

Toyota’s i-ROAD likewise is street-legal in a few chosen spots of Japan only. By the end of 2014, the French alpine town of Grenoble will open up to the i-ROAD as part of a large-scale “car” sharing project.

Honda-BETA

Honda’s entry in the micro vehicle field is appropriately called MC?, as in beta. The diminutive two-seater again is only allowed to hit Japan’s roads on a test and trial basis, as part of field tests in two Japanese cities. While it is waiting for government approval, the carlet can be admired in Honda’s lobby in Tokyo.

Yamaha’s Tricity does not have to contend with these regulatory difficulties. It is classified as a small motorcycle in Japan. All you need to drive one is a license for a moped. Nissan, Toyota, Honda are blocked from commercial sales, and must call their tiny vehicles a “concept” until the law is changed.

Unencumbered by restrictive regs, Yamaha can go and sell its leaning moped. The company wants to sell 100,000 globally within the next three years. Which might light a fire under Japan’s larger carmakers to come to terms with the government for their smallest “cars.”

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And if that doesn’t work out: The tiny, motorcycle-classified trikes have a large and ready market as delivery vehicles for pizza, or soba noodles, as in the use case pictures above.