Saturday, October 20, 2012

It is an ATV! It's a boat! It's both, and it works great

AP/Carlos Osorio

The new Quadski, a one-person motorboat that also drives on land, is being billed as the first commercially available, high-speed amphibious vehicle by its maker, Michigan-based Gibbs Technologies.

By Bryan Laviolette,
We fire up the Gibbs Quadski — the world’s first production, fast amphibian — and head straight for the water. Just as the tires start to get wet, we instinctively grab the brake lever because, well, wheeled vehicles aren’t supposed to go in the water.

But then we remember that this wheeled vehicle is different. The fact that the Quadski can roll into the water is precisely what makes it special.

As a Gibbs marketing representative said, “that’s when the magic happens.”

After pushing a button to raise the wheels — the key feature that transforms the Quadski from land vehicle to boat — we squeeze the throttle lever and in as little as five seconds after entering the water, we’re planing across the lake where we tested the vehicle.

Gibbs, founded by New Zealand industrialist Alan Gibbs, has been developing what it calls High Speed Amphibian technology for 15 years. But after teasing enthusiasts for years, it is finally going to start making one model of the long-awaited vehicles.

The Quadski can hit 45 mph in the water, the same on land. And a transition between the two takes as little as five seconds. That’s what Gibbs has said the Quadski would do and finally is ready to deliver after years of promises and premature production plans.

A year ago, we had a chance to take a quick spin on a Quadski prototype and came away thinking that it needed more pop “out of the hole.” Problem solved. Gibbs completely redesigned the jet and impeller propulsion system, making it bigger to provide more thrust.

Now, the Quadski feels powerful from rest. It gets up on plane quickly and easily achieves top speed. Power comes from a 175-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder lifted straight out of a BMW K1300 motorcycle.

The ride is smooth, and the Quadski feels well-balanced, although our test drive was on a mirror-smooth lake, so we can’t say how well it handles in rough water. It carves smooth turns, although the shallow V-shape of its hull results in it not being able to turn as well as the best-handling personal watercraft.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Quadski is Gibbs’ insistence that it doesn’t need four-wheel drive. Will the Quadski be able to hoist itself out of the water on slick or steep transition zones? Unfortunately, our test didn’t include any difficult spots on which to test the Quadski.

It is an ATV! It's a boat! It's both, and it works great

AP/Carlos Osorio

The Quadski zips across the water. It's equally at home on a lake or on a trail.

Gibbs says that rear-wheel drive — with a limited-slip differential — combined with the jet are more than enough to push the Q up any suitable landing.

Now, let’s check out the other half of the Quadski equation. It’s time to put the wheels back down and see what it can do on the trails. As easy as it is to go in the water, it’s just as easy to exit. After coming off the plane mode, toggle the wheels down. Because the jet is always engaged, we can still power through the water until the wheels reach land and help propel the vehicle out of the water.

All-terrain vehicles require far less power than personal watercraft, but the Quadski uses the same 1.3-liter BMW four-cylinder nestled under the seat for propulsion on land. At one point, Gibbs said its solution was to cut engine power while on land to 20 percent, but it is not currently publicizing that number. How much horsepower does the engine produce on land? The company won’t say.

Despite the cut in power, the Quadski accelerates quickly and easily hits its 45 mph top speed. Even with the limited-slip differential and the reduced power output, the the Q still willingly kicks out its tail end under power.

The ride is very smooth, and the single-seat Quadski always feels stable. At 126 inches in length and 63 inches wide, it ought to.

Gibbs uses BMW’s constant-mesh six-speed manual transmission, but mounts its own automated clutch. Shifting is by a toggle switch on the left handlebar. There is no full automatic mode. Computers prevent the operator from over-revving the engine.

Does a vehicle with a 45-mph top speed need a six-speed transmission? Not really. Three speeds would be plenty. In water mode, the Q uses third gear.

Gibbs has been using a Polaris Sportsman 800 as a chase vehicle at its test site. The smaller Sportsman’s engine achieves 54 horsepower and doesn’t feel as quick as the Quadski, suggesting the Gibbs machine is probably producing about 80 horses while on land.

Many buyers will be tempted to try to eliminate the governor and coax the full 175 horses out of the engine on land. Better get an advanced computer-engineering degree, because you’re going to need it. Gibbs Chairman Neil Jenkins described the Quadski as tamper-proof.

The cut in power does not stop the fun on land. Even with a limited-slip differential, the Quadski allows some tail-out antics in turns.

Here’s what the Quadski is not: It is not the ultimate rock-hopper all-terrain vehicle. And it’s also not going to out-handle the most extreme personal watercraft. But it is a better ATV than any other personal watercraft, and it is a better personal watercraft than any other ATV.

Criticisms? The Quadski features a single large dial for speed with an LCD readout in the lower-right corner for other information such as tachometer readings and gear number. The LCD is virtually unreadable while moving. Gibbs officials said production versions would have a more legible LCD, but it’s still too small to see easily. A separate analog tachometer would be more useful.

Then again, even making reduced power on land, the Quadski is rarely wanting for power, so being in just the right gear isn’t all that important.

Also, there are several exposed screws on the body. While it’s a matter of taste, the Quadski would look better with hidden fasteners.

But nothing detracts from what the Quadski represents. Instead of having an ATV and a personal watercraft, you can now have one vehicle that is both.

Without getting off the vehicle, you can go from fishing in the middle of the bay to riding the trails. Instead of leaving your personal watercraft at the beach of a remote island, go farther on a Quadski. Forget the trouble of trailering and launching a personal watercraft; you can drive into the water right at the beach. Instead of storing an ATV and a personal watercraft on a trailer, you store one vehicle.

While the exact price has not been set, Gibbs announced it will be “about” $40,000. The company will begin taking orders at next week. Deliveries will begin in November.

Now here’s the problem for everyone who doesn’t live in the eastern United States. With a plan to build just 1,000 of the machines in the first year, Gibbs will limit sales to just five or six dealers, all of which will be east of the Mississippi River. It expects to have as many as 20 dealers within a year.

As a new manufacturer building a product unlike anything else in existence in a new factory, the company wants to make sure the Quadski performs up to expectations before it ramps up production to 5,000 to 6,000 per year. The price is likely to come down as the company realizes economies of scale. How far could the price come down? Gibbs would like to get the price to the high 20 thousands.

Gibbs has been working on its High Speed Amphibian technology for 15 years. After years of broken promises and $200 million in development costs, the company is finally ready to put one of its amphibians into production.

The Quadski is just the start. The company is also taking orders for its Phibian, a 30-foot amphibian aimed at first responders. Variations on the Quadski are also expected.

And once it can clear more significant regulatory hurdles, the company will build an amphibious car, called the Aquada. In fact, the company originally developed its HSA technology for the Aquada, but decided to focus on other vehicles while the Aquada is mired with regulatory problems related to fundamental problems that make it impossible to meet all government regulations at the same time.

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