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The Electra Meccanica Solo is a Canadian success story, but it’s currently tied up in red tape

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The Electra Meccanica Solo is a three-wheeled electric vehicle.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

With more than 20,000 preorders on the books, the Electra Meccanica Solo is set to soar. It’s a Canadian success story, one that builds on a 60-year history of specialist car manufacturing. The only problem? In Canada, the Solo is still currently grounded by airbag regulations.

Itʼs easy to see why thereʼs considerable interest in this little, three-wheeled electric vehicle, or EV. Fed up with dragging three or four empty seats along for your daily commute? The Solo lets you shed the bulk for a slimmed-down, all-electric, single-passenger experience.

Itʼs all as sensible as khaki trousers, but happily a lot more fun. The Solo is zippy and entertaining and ridiculously easy to park.

In the United States, the Solo is classified as a motorcycle, and conforms with all importation guidelines. Transport Canada, on the other hand, has specific rules for three-wheeled vehicles, which include safety requirements much closer to a four-wheeled passenger car. The Soloʼs current lack of side airbags is an issue for the 2020 model year and beyond, and Electra Meccanica says an exemption seems to be slow in coming from Transport Canada. A handful of earlier, first-generation cars are on the road locally.

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Because it lacks side airbags, the Solo currently doesn't meet Transport Canada's safety criteria for three-wheeled vehicles.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

This is a shame, because the electric vehicle market in Vancouver is hotter than ever. At half the price of a Nissan Leaf before federal and provincial rebates are taken into account, the $19,998 Solo would make a great second vehicle for a lot of city commuters.

Electra Meccanica Vehicles Corp. is a new company, but one with old roots. InterMeccanica was founded in Turin, Italy, in 1959 by Frank Reisner. A Hungarian-born Canadian, Reisner started out by selling go-fast parts for Fiat. Eventually, he began building his own coach-built cars, using underpinnings from larger manufacturers.

Reisnerʼs punchy machines had success right out of the gate, even beating an Abarth-tuned Fiat at a race held on the Nurburgring track. Later, cars such as the Italia promised Italian-style coach building blended with easily maintained underpinnings.

However, it was in the 1970s when InterMeccanica really made its mark, with a replica Porsche 356 Speedster. Eventually relocating to Vancouver, Reisnerʼs company sold hundreds of Speedsters. When Reisner died in 2001, his son, Henry, kept the business going.

“Weʼre becoming a clean energy company,” Henry says of his latest products.

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The Solo's battery provides 160 kilometres of range.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Think of the Solo as the modern interpretation of one of the bubble cars from the 1950s, microvehicles such as the BMW Isetta or Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. Back then, pod-like transports with motorcycle engines were all the rage, providing thrifty mobility to the masses.

The Solo takes this same simple idea and adds plug-in power. Its 16-kilowatt battery provides a range of 160 kilometres and can be fully charged in three hours at a 220V outlet. Power is a modest 82 horsepower, but thereʼs plenty of torque, and the vehicle is, of course, lightweight.

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The lightweight Solo only generates 82 horsepower, but is still good fun to drive.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

This particular test-drive model is an early prototype, so steering is a little on the heavy side – later models have power steering. The brakes are also pretty touchy. Other than these quibbles, the Soloʼs quite good fun.

Three-wheeled vehicles are relatively uncommon, and the Solo is certainly odd looking from some angles. It looks like an escape pod thatʼs just shot out of a minivan. As such, it attracts far more attention than any Lamborghini or Ferrari, especially here in supercar-crammed Vancouver. People stop, stare and walk over to ask questions.

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The Solo's peculiar angles draw plenty of attention.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The first question is usually, “What is that?” The second question is, “Is it safe?” The answer to the latter question is a little tricky. The Solo complies with all required crash-testing but, as mentioned, currently lacks side airbags. Itʼs safer (and drier) than riding a motorcycle, but not as safe as a conventional four-wheeled car.

Even with those compromises, the Solo makes a great deal of sense for some and is also an excellent rolling billboard for small businesses. Leona Greene, owner of Greenʼs & Beans deli in New Westminister, B.C., has put 20,000 km on her early-delivery Solo in the first two years of ownership. Itʼs ideal for small-scale deliveries.

Success for Electra Meccanica lies south of the border, particularly given Californiaʼs ever-more-stringent emissions standards. Thereʼs a huge dealership and storage location in Los Angeles.

“The market in California alone is 10 times bigger than the rest of North America put together,” Henry says. The Golden State comes first. The home market will have to wait.

Still, there are two pieces of good news for Canadians interested in the Electra Meccanica brand. The first is that the company is combining its roots and its new electric-vehicle focus with electrified versions of its Porsche 356 replica. Reisner expects these to start being delivered to customers in the fall, although the replica is built on a smaller scale than the mass-produced Solo.

Then thereʼs the coming Tofino roadster, which has nearly double the preorders of the Solo. Instead of a sensible little runabout, this machineʼs more like an EV version of the Mazda Miata concept, with pricing expected to start at US$50,000. An affordable, lightweight convertible that plugs in canʼt arrive fast enough for many enthusiasts.

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The Solo's primary market is California, where stringent emission restrictions make EVs particularly popular.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

In the meantime, the Solo offers proof-of-concept for Electra Meccanicaʼs central idea. Itʼs quirky, but it makes a great deal of sense to climate-conscious, cost-conscious drivers, and offers performance levels perfectly acceptable for modern traffic flow. At a cost of US$16,250 (which includes a US$250 refundable deposit) for the U.S. market, it’ll likely do well in California.

With luck, that success will fund other interesting projects, keeping the Meccanica streak of specialty automotive manufacturing going. Itʼll be good to see a long-running Canadian company doing well. It will be even better once we get the chance to buy one.

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