Jeremy Korzeniewski of Autoblog reported today that Tuk Tuk USA has “officially been granted both DOT and EPA approval for its line of Mitsubishi-powered three-wheelers.” Jeremy’s clearly a big tuk-tuk fan, he’s been following Tuk Tuk USA for about year, and he also posted an elegy for BajajUSA’s three-wheeer.
That’s exciting news, most scooterists have at least a passing interest in scooter-based three-wheelers, and they may well have a niche here. It just seems hard to believe the U.S. market could support a fraction of the wide range of Tuk-Tuk variations that TTUSA lists, nor that TTUSA could stock and support such a wide range of vehicles (including proposed natural-gas versions), especially in 30 standard colors. Korzeniewski points out that BajajUSA’s models were a hard sell because of their manual transmission, but even with an automatic (and almost certainly more powerful) Mitsubishi powerplant, the market for a $10,000 three-wheeler seems pretty small, and that’s reported as the base price, so that’s probably a stripped-down manual-transmission model. (A fairly well-outfitted tuk-tuk sells for about half that in Thailand.)
Tuk Tuk USA is welcome to overestimate the market, and we’d all love to see more goofy vehicles on the road here, but it’s worth noting that it took BajajUSA several years to clear out a modest inventory that, while poky, included attractive 3-wheelers based more closely on the classic European-designed Piaggio Ape*. And speaking of the Ape, that brings us to our $10,000 question:
Tuk Tuk USA’s site and the Autoblog story feature a Piaggio press photo of the limited-edition Piaggio Ape Calessino (you can see other photos from the series here, note the same female model and shoot location). The Calessino was a limited-edition (and expensive) collector’s edition announced in late 2007 and allegedly (we’ve never seen one) released in Europe in 2008. Paolo Timoni of PiaggioUSA once suggested at a dealer meeting it was a potential product for the U.S., but that never seemed likely. Piaggio has their own plants in India and southeast Asia making three-wheelers and three-wheeler engines, so it seems improbable that an independent third party produced the Calessino, and it seems even more unlikely that the Calessino would feature a Mitsubishi powerplant. Furthermore, the wide variety of other machines on TTUSA’s site are all of a similar design that only superfically resembles the Calessino.
So what’s a limited-edition “luxury” Piaggio-engined Ape Calessino doing on Tuk Tuk USA’s site, with a crudely-photoshopped Tuk Tuk USA logo and a third headlight replacing the horn? Even if by some strange twist of Asian manufacturing weirdness they DO have plans to produce and import the Ape Calessino, it’s not listed among their proposed models, and it seems incredibly unlikely they’d have permission to use Piaggio’s press photos, so it’s especially strange that TTUSA chose to use that photo for their most high-profile press appearance to date (the AutoBlog story).
* The Piaggio Ape was just relaunched in England a couple weeks ago. Vespa fans know that “Ape” is pronounced “AH-pay” and is italian for “bee,” a cousin to the Vespa (“wasp”). Comically, every story we saw in the British press featured a “banana” or “King Kong” pun in the headline, making us wonder if even PiaggioUK is unaware of the proper pronunciation).