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A Recliner That Goes 40 KPH


Lilliputian cars are no big deal in Japan. Tiny, fuel-sipping vehicles are far more common on the streets of Tokyo than V8-powered hulks. But a new Toyota concept -- a one-seater called the i-unit -- makes subcompacts look downright Brobdingnagian. Not that you're necessarily going to see the i-unit at your local dealer anytime soon. Toyota Motor Corp. () is making the prototype as a showcase for automotive electronics -- with a healthy dose of environmentalism thrown into the mix.

Toyota says it designed the i-unit to evoke a leaf, though it looks more like a cross between a jet pack and an undernourished Pokemon character on wheels. Powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery, the i-unit's rear wheels each have independent electric motors that allow it to reach speeds of up to 40 kilometers per hour. And it's made of plastic-like materials derived from corn, sugar cane, and kenaf, a fast-growing plant native to Africa. That's pretty well hidden, though. Even a close-up inspection of the scuffless silver paint job reveals a fit and finish indistinguishable from other Toyotas.

WOW-MOBILE

After dazzling crowds at the World Expo in Japan this summer, an updated version of the i-unit made its U.S. debut in November. At slow speeds, the driver is nearly vertical in the open cockpit and the front wheels sit just a few centimeters from the rear ones -- giving it a stance similar to a Segway scooter. But for faster speeds, the driver can push a button that makes the rear and front wheels slide apart and the seat recline, which offers greater stability on the road. Although there's no seat belt, two arms embrace the driver and get tighter as the i-unit speeds up. And the driver's head is enclosed by a transparent shield that reflects a multihued LED display. All told, the i-unit has 4,500 LEDs, some for safety but many as decorations on the hubcaps, fenders, and the orb-like controller that takes the place of the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedal.

Although Toyota says it has no immediate plans to sell the i-unit, it has already made several dozen of the prototypes. Ultimately, Toyota says, the i-unit may be pitched as a high-tech wheelchair or an alternative to the golf carts common in gated communities. "From a technical point of view, we are quite close to being able to [mass-] produce," says Yoshiaki Kato, chief engineer for the i-unit. Price? Kato says it would cost less than a low-end compact car.

If Toyota does get the i-unit into production, at least one U.S. dealer says he's interested. A demo unit in Toyota of Manhattan's showroom attracted plenty of attention. "I'd love to have it," says general sales manager Carlos Horrvitiner. "People keep coming in off the street to take a look." Who needs a V8 when this little one-seater will give you a hug?

By Chester Dawson


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