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It’s not quite a full-blown automobile – at least not as we know it – and not quite a motorcycle, but it’s cheap and gets unbeatable fuel economy.
A sleekly designed three-wheeled two-passenger vehicle from startup manufacturer Elio Motors in Troy, Mich. is planned for introduction sometime during 2015 that promises up to 84 mpg on the highway and a sticker price starting at just $6,800. Being developed as an economical low-cost commuter car – ideally the second or third model in a family’s fleet – the as-yet unnamed “autocycle” will include amenities like three airbags, power windows and door locks, an audio system with an iPhone/iPod interface, air conditioning and a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty.
“As a commuter, 93 percent of the time you’re in a car by yourself,” explains Jerome Vassallo, the company’s V.P. of sales. “You’d drive a small car like this to and from the office and leave a larger vehicle parked back home in the driveway for when you need to carry additional passengers or have more cargo room.”
We recently had a chance to drive a prototype of the as-yet-unnamed Elio and discuss the fledgling automaker’s plans with Vassallo as part of a multi-city tour being conducted to show off the vehicle, gather impressions and take reservations, of which the company has racked up more than 22,000 thus far.
For starters, the Elio looks like no other car on the road. It’s about the length of a Honda Civic, but is nearly half as narrow, with a long hood, tall roof and back end and only a single conventionally hinged side door. The front wheels extend beyond the front-end bodywork, with an exposed suspension and individual aerodynamic fenders reminiscent of the hot-roddish Plymouth Prowler from the 1990’s.
The interior is about as basic as could be imagined (at least in 1968), with simple gauges and controls adorning a color-keyed dashboard. Designed with a suitable solo commute in mind, it can nonetheless accommodate one additional passenger sitting directly behind the driver in what some might find to be a claustrophobic back seat. A solid hatchback covers a small backpack-sized trunk, with the rear seatback able to fold flat when additional cargo space is needed, say to carry a set of golf clubs to the links.
Officially classified as a motorcycle because it has fewer than four wheels, the Elio is nonetheless mechanically more car than it is bike and is every bit as instinctive to operate. It has a conventional steering wheel, foot pedals and shift lever and will come powered by a three-cylinder, 0.9 liter, 55 horsepower, fuel-injected automotive engine that drives the front wheels via either a five-speed manual or automatic transmission. Traction control, stability control and antilock brakes will come standard. A 70:30 front-to-rear weight ratio should benefit foul-weather traction for those living in the Snow Belt (see the embedded video at the bottom of this post).
With a curb weight around 1,200 pounds, the Elio would be the lightest passenger car on the road. For those nervous about driving such a small and lightweight car on the highway, Vassallo says it’s engineered to achieve a five-star crash rating by automotive standards with unibody construction, a hardened steel roll cage, crumple zones at the side and rear and added side impact protection. It would typically require motorcycle registration and plates but whether it would require a motorcycle license in most states to legally operate has yet to be determined.
Founded by automotive engineer Paul Elio in 2008, Elio Motors plans to build the new three-wheeler – ironically perhaps – at the former General Motors’ plant in Shreveport, La that used to crank out Hummers. Production is scheduled to begin next March with an initial hire of 1,500 workers. The company hopes to sell 50,000-60,000 cars during its first full year on the road, and as many as 250,000 units annually after five years. “Admittedly that’s a big number, but they’re so affordable that – at least theoretically – we could put one of these in every household’s garage,” Vassallo suggests. “If someone’s spending more than $150 a month on fuel just going to and from work this vehicle will indeed save them money.”
Plans are to sell the three-wheeler through a network of Elio-owned stores in the top 60 U.S. markets with multiple locations in each area. Since the vehicle is officially classified as a motorcycle and not a car, Vassallo says the company can side-step state laws that govern new-car sales and sell the vehicles themselves without facing the same legal pitfalls as Tesla has encountered for its efforts at bypassing the traditional franchised dealer arrangement. Sales in Canada and Mexico are planned moving forward, with expansion into emerging world markets an eventual possibility.
Options, which will include items like a sunroof, leather seats and audio upgrades, would be installed to order at one of as many as nine regional “marshalling centers,” with a next-day turnaround promised. “This allows us to build all the cars alike at the factory to maximize our efficiency,” Vassalo explains. In another departure from the norm, the cars will not be serviced at the company’s dealerships, but rather via Pep Boys car care centers. “That means we’ll have over 800 service locations nationwide from day one.”
Though its primary market will be commuters, Vassalo says the car will likely also appeal to cash-strapped buyers who might otherwise only be able to afford a well worn used vehicle. “At this price we can draw business from what would otherwise be the ‘clunker’ market and offer them a new car with a full warranty.” The company is actively reaching out to car sharing companies and fleet buyers and has been talking with hotels about the possibility of owning one or more Elios for rental to travelers for a few hours’ use at a time.
So how’s the car drive? We took what turned out to be a very rough prototype out for a spin in suburban Chicagoland and found it to be, shall we say, interesting.
For starters, entry and egress is about on a par with most small cars, and once inside there’s generous headroom with adequate leg and headroom for taller drivers to stretch out, though its narrow fighter jet-like cockpit takes some getting used to. Forward visibility is good, but small side mirrors and a lack of a back window and rearview mirror conspire to make backing up more of a challenge than we’d like. Novice drivers should put up Post-It notes around the cabin to remind themselves that the front wheels are set significantly apart from the body to help avoid scraping the fenders on other cars, curbs or at ATMs, tollbooths and fast food drive-through windows.
Unfortunately we could only approximate the driving experience afforded by the final production version, as the prototype we piloted was fitted with a crude carbureted engine rescued from an old Geo Metro and lacked an exhaust system of any kind. Still, with an ultra-low curb weight, the 55 horses with which it will roll off the assembly line should suffice, albeit barely. We’re told the car’s brakes, which faded faster than a black shirt in a bucket of bleach when asked to bring the car to halt, were mercifully not to final spec. Ride quality seemed adequate, at least over the well paved roads to which we had access. While the Elio felt stable at higher speeds, low-speed handling was unpleasantly heavy, given the car’s unfortunate lack of power steering. This would definitely not be our choice for careening around twisty roads, though our biceps could probably stand the workout they’d get by maneuvering the vehicle into tight urban parking spaces.
Still, the Elio all about providing basic transportation on a budget, and from that standpoint we anticipate the final production version should indeed deliver the goods. Whether sufficient U.S. commuters, otherwise accustomed to larger and more powerful rides, will embrace the tiny three-wheeled Elio in sufficient numbers for the company to turn a profit remains to be seen.
“We’ll never get around the need for a big vehicle – there will still be boats to be towed to the lake and kids to be driven to soccer practice or school,” Vassello says. “But the kids and the boats don’t come to the office with us every day, and it’s wasteful to drive a big sedan or SUV with most of the seats unoccupied to travel maybe 10 or 20 miles at a time.”
For more information, log onto the company’s website: www.eliomotors.com.