Quietly, upstart American automaker Elio Motors has been making headway on plans to produce an 84-MPG car that is expected to cost roughly $6,800 — and it only has three wheels.
The Elio, as it is known, is essentially marketed as a cost-conscious, fuel economy-intensive commuter machine. Elio Motors namesake and CEO Paul Elio said as a single father, he would still have a need for a minivan from time to time, but a majority of his driving miles would be much more efficiently accomplished in the three-wheeled, two-place machine.
“The premise behind the vehicle is that most households have at least one car that’s primarily a single occupant,” Elio said.
“Like in my situation, I’m a single dad. I have three kids…and I have a minivan. This is why America drives big vehicles. I’m the case-in-point. I could get by with a small sedan most days. But if I want to take my kids camping, I need the minivan.
“So I step up to the minivan for 5% of the miles I’m going to drive, and then 95% of the miles I’m driving a whole bunch of metal that I don’t need. And so half the month, I’m by myself driving a minivan — and it’s absurd. But I can’t buy a Yaris. It’ll cost me more money to save gas and drive a Yaris than to just waste gas driving the car that I own.
“That’s why we’re addicted to oil, is people buy these big vehicles for a good reason,” he said.
“You know, they need them for these special purposes — they just don’t need them all the time. And there’s never been a product where you could own both and it financially make sense. I think that’s truly the breakthrough in what Elio Motors is doing. It finally makes sense to own an Elio and your bigger vehicle. You don’t have to choose.”
Elio said his eponymous car would be available for purchase on a plan where the gasoline cost savings effectively “pay” the car payment. The new owner would be given a credit card for purchasing gasoline, and every time the car was filled up, Elio would charge the card three times the amount of the gasoline purchase. If you purchased $10 in gas, Elio would charge your card $30, with the other $20 going toward paying off the balance on your car note. The only catch, Elio said, was that you had to use the card every time you gas up. Up for debate is how Elio Motors plans on enforcing that requirement — we didn’t ask during our interview.
Elio explained in more detail what he called the “Let Your Gas Savings Make Your Payments” plan:
“Now as long as you drove into the dealership in something that’s 27 MPG or less…your monthly fuel bill actually goes down. Three times 27 is 81, and we get 84. So from the customer’s perspective, they have a brand-new vehicle under warranty, it’s fun to drive, [and] they don’t have a car payment,” he said.
Right about now, you’re leery of the prospect of a three-wheeled car, aren’t you? Don’t worry, not even Jeremy Clarkson could flip this — well, okay, maybe he could, but only owing to the ham-fisted buffoonery for which Clarkson is noted. The Elio has two driven wheels up front, with the single wheel located in the rear.
“We have a 67-inch track, so it’s wider than a Ford Taurus. We have a 5 3/4-inch ground clearance, so about the same as a Mustang. So you know, low CG, wide track, double A-arm front suspension with McPherson struts,” Elio said.
“We can take .9 lateral Gs, so it handles very very well, and you can’t roll it over on level ground,” he added.
A Reliant Robin this is not.
“It’s the same as any other small car, from a handling perspective,” he said. “We actually have 33% of the mass on each wheel, so it’s almost perfectly balanced.”
So with a tubular frame tying it all together and keeping the chassis reasonably rigid, it sounds like the little Elio three-wheeler might handle pretty well. However, it won’t be a barn-burner in terms of driveline performance. The car will be powered by a traditional 0.9-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine designed by IAV, a Detroit-based supplier who has designed engines for automakers including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and others. Elio said the overhead cam fuel-injected engine with variable valve timing would be good for around 60 horsepower, allowing the car to hit 60 MPH from a standstill in less than 10 seconds. In the end, Elio Motors will produce the IAV-designed engines.
“We have a 0-to-60 of 9.6 seconds, so we’re faster than Yaris and Smart and Versa and Prius — you know, all the little guys. But yeah, we’re gonna get our ass kicked by a Mustang or Camaro, you know?” he laughed.
“But it’s remarkably fun to drive because it handles so well,” he reiterated, adding, “you don’t realize how awkward it is sitting off the center of the vehicle until you get to drive right in the middle. You feel like you’re in a little Indy car.”
The Elio’s use of old-fashioned aerodynamic chassis design and engine technology to reach its estimated 84 MPG highway, 49 MPG city fuel economy flies in the face of ever more complex hybrid and electric drivetrains that keep finding their way into fuel economy-focused cars from mainstream manufacturers. Elio said former DiamlerChrysler CEO James Holden, who has a seat on Elio Motors’ Board of Directors, has told him he’s of the opinion such arrangements don’t make sense from a financial standpoint, either for the consumer or the automaker.
“He said when he first got involved, he was like, ‘I want to do this because hybrids don’t make sense. You can never put two drivetrains on a vehicle for the price of one. You’re always going to be too-high priced.’ And he’s right. You can’t get the range out of a pure electric, and a hybrid, you can’t get the payback” on fuel savings because of the high buy-in cost of a traditional hybrid, Elio said.
Of course, fuel economy isn’t the end-all, be-all for most of us. Safety is a definite concern with any commuter car. Elio said preliminary computer models show his car should achieve five-star crash ratings from the front, side, and rear.
“We have three crush zones up front,” Elio said. “You’ll notice we have a very long nose, and that’s why.”
In addition, the Elio features a front airbag for the driver and two side curtain airbags that cover both seats. Once the car is retail ready, it will reportedly have stability control. And with its front engine/front-wheel drive layout, Elio said it should do okay in the snow.
Considering the Elio can be bought for less than, say, a Triumph Bonneville — a motorcycle whose 865cc engine is of nearly the same displacement, makes roughly the same amount of power, and gets considerably worse fuel economy while exposing you to the elements — this upstart automaker may be on to something. Sure, the Elio doesn’t tick all the sex appeal boxes the Bonneville does, but it’ll save a small mountain of gas money over a typical 5-year ownership span and allow its owner to arrive dry at a business meeting during a pop-up summer rainstorm, and that means a lot.
We’ll continue to keep you posted about the Elio. For now, Elio said the car is set to hit the U.S. market in the fourth quarter of 2014.