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VW's three-wheel hybrid could be more than a creative test car

What do you get when you cross a motorcycle, a subcompact car, and teardrop-shaped aerodynamics? According to Volkswagen, the answer is: a car for the urban driver, a hybrid vehicle known as the Scooter.

The Scooter combines the front-wheel-drive transaxle of VW's popular European minicar, the Polo, with the single rear wheel of a motorcycle. The combination, according to Volkswagen engineers, provides stabler handling than a motorcycle, with a lower cost than a conventional passenger car chassis.

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That curious three-wheeled drive train supports a lightweight, fiberglass, gull-wing body that would look more at home in a wind tunnel than on today's highways. Indeed, the Scooter boasts the aerodynamics of a sleek jet.

Just 10 feet long and weighing only 1,200 pounds, the Scooter is a prototype concept vehicle that Volkswagen officials view as a best-of-both-worlds mating of commuter car and sports car.

While they admit the Scooter is so far just a test bed for some creative designs, they insist it could go into production within the next few years - if there is enough demand.

``It's designed to be drivable, a produceable vehicle. It can be done right now,'' says Michael Kaptuch, head of VW's MotorSports division. ``Right now we have no specific plans, but we're trying to judge consumer reaction, which has so far been very favorable.''

At the very least, reaction has been one of mild shock and curiosity, to judge from the way other motorists reacted when they saw the Scooter racing around scenic Monterey, Calif., in a recent demonstration for automotive reporters.

Mr. Kaptuch is careful to note that the Scooter is ``not just a 30-mile-an-hour commuter car.'' Equipped with a 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine, it can go from 0 to 100 kilometers an hour (0 to about 62 m.p.h.) in 8.3 seconds. It has a top speed of 127 m.p.h. Yet it also delivers fuel economy that rivals the best economy cars.

One drawback is price, which leans toward the sports car side of the equation. Kaptuch estimates that if the Scooter were to go into production today, it would cost about $8,500, far more expensive than even VW's own minicar, the Fox.

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That could be brought down substantially, he notes, if the vehicle were to be built in Brazil or Mexico, rather than in West Germany, where a deflated dollar has added almost 50 percent to the cost of goods shipped to the United States.

Another possibility, he adds, is that Volkswagen may license the design of the vehicle to one of a number of specialty vehicle manufacturers that would be better equipped to manufacture limited-production vehicles.

While the Scooter meets European safety and emission standards, it is unclear whether it would satisfy US government regulations. That would depend, Kaptuch says, on whether the import would be classified as a motorcycle or an automobile.

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