EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CEO: Not a Typo: Elio Motors Plans 84-MPG Car Priced at $6,800

Sections: Car Safety, Chassis, Fuel Economy, Powertrain

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Elio Motors Silver driving photo 001

Elio Motors plans to release this three-wheel commuter machine in the United States next year at a price of about $6,800. (Photo courtesy Elio Motors.)

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.

Silver Elio Press Photo 002

The track of the Elio’s front wheels is wider than that of a Ford Taurus, according to Elio Motors CEO Paul Elio. That combined with the car’s low center of gravity (CG) means it is very stable on the road even during evasive maneuvers, he said. (Photo courtesy Elio Motors)

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.

Elio Motors frontal crash impact animation

Elio said computer crash test models show his car should receive five-star crash test ratings in frontal, side, and rear impacts. (Image courtesy Elio Motors)

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.

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  • Gary Scherler

    I’m # 528 to receive mine!!! Get more info on the Elio Motors Facebook page as well as their Eliomotors webpage. Read about it and you too will reserve one!!! Non-Refundable with benefits or refundable reservations!
    Can hardly wait! This is going to be fantastic.
    Beside all the safety features and the great gas mileage you can drive in the HOV lane with one person. Tolls will be cheaper as it technically a motorcycle.
    Just so many positive things all for $6800.

  • http://eliomotors mike redding

    if caddo parish don’t receive your plant. come on up to webster parish. we have plenty of empty bldg, also a great number of people that want & needs jobs. they are will to work & want to work. just contact the mayor of cullen,la or the mayor of springhill,la. the people here will not disapponit you. thank you.

  • Mason

    Yeah, pretty sure this will never be put on the market and the company will be shutdown.

    • Lyndon Johnson

      What makes you say that, Mason? If it’s crash test scores you’re concerned about, consider that the Elio has more front crumple zone than the Smart Fortwo and just as many air bags. And if it’s the unconventional layout of the vehicle you think will be its downfall, the folks at Can-Am have a reverse trike called the Spyder that they’re selling very well to nontraditional motorcycle/trike enthusiasts.

      I’m genuinely interested in why you (and others I’ve seen trolling comments sections on stories about the Elio) think the car will fail beefore it can be produced.

  • Concerned

    If it fails, it’ll be due to Big Oil and Corporate Lobbyists crushing it before it has a chance. We could all get by on half of what we use, waste, consume etc… An American made car company with Northern American distributors is unheard of nowadays. Creating jobs at home with a possibility for future exports therefore creating more jobs at home. Imagine that!! Incredible gas mileage and safety ratings with a $6800 price tag!!! Anybody that can afford it, should purchase one on principle alone.

  • Fritzthecat

    Show me this vehicle on a test track, which I am sure their are many available for this.
    All I ever see is this vehicle going around some parking lot.
    I need to see it handle at safe top speeds, not 20 mph.
    Also if it is so innovative, where are the deep pocket investors to back it up.
    Why ask the little guy to kick in for the start up.
    I would want one, but I will not give up good money for something that “maybe”
    I do not see this happing

    • Lyndon Johnson

      Elio Motors’ website has plenty of videos of this vehicle. There is only one right now, a prototype. Once production ramps up, the government will select a random sample of Elio cars to do full crash testing. A couple of examples are below.

      As for “asking the little guy,” bear in mind just about every car of this kind has had a lengthy “deposit” process in the run-up to actual production. Seldom is that process “asking the little guy to kick in for the start up” as much as it’s an attempt to get a more accurate gauge on initial interest from early adopters. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF had similar reservation/deposit schemes in the run-up to production, for example. It’s worth noting as well that Elio has bought the recently shuttered GM truck plant near Shreveport, LA — machinery and all. You don’t make that kind of investment by asking for $1,000 deposits from early adopters.

  • Vern

    One reason it may not go?? 1948 Tucker. Great car way advanced for the era but. . .

  • Doug MacLean Sr

    I find the car very pleasing to the eye inside and out like the concept of better Millage on Gas. I would like to put the deposit on the Car need address to send it to. Will there be any Dealerships in the Metro Detroit Area ? Doug Mac Lean

  • Tommy

    “All in” for 100-bucks…, nothin to lose, I had dinner for $101. the other eve.
    I have a summer place (several miles away)& the trips were getting fewer due to $3.xx/gal. for fuel.
    Now cost will be $5-round trip, not $50. It’s worth a try :)

  • Bruce in New Mexico

    Everyone who needs a fuel efficient car should consider this, and this could start a new following like the older VW Beetle did years ago. Finally someone has the RIGHT idea, not just creating fuel guzzling monster vehicles to support Middle Eastern oil fields, who might be supporting terrorist activity.

  • Ronald Hixson

    I want nothing more than this car to succeed ! I also think if possible to add a second model with side by side driver passenger compartment would greatly add to the appeal of this concept ! a little more conventional thus attracting more buyers to the company.

  • Mike Elliott

    Three wheelers are common in the world market. The reason we do not see them is they do not meet emission standards mostly.

    You could take any front wheel car and remove the back axel and place a third wheel in its “sweet spot” and you would be amazed how well it would drive.

    This is really an old and tested concept and should be a successful production for introduction into America . Not for everyone but for a little money you will have a car on a motorcycle budget.


    I have reserved one I have a CanAm spyder RT S SE5 same wheel lay out, stable at 100 mph plus and a lot shorter wheelbase and a narrower front end. The negatives have not rode this type machine should be very stable

  • Everett Brown

    When does production start

  • Lee

    Does anyone remember the BMW ISETTA car where the front tilted out so the driver could get in or out of the car. It had 2 wheels set apart like this one in front, and 2 wheels very close together in back. If this one stays as a motor cycle maybe the Co could put 2 thin wheels close together in back to make it a 4 wheel car.

  • Everett Brown

    Lets leave as a Motorcycle

  • Michael Garcia

    Well it certainly has peaked my interest. Made in U. S. A. and sold for about the cost of a nicely equipped motorcycle but arriving to your destination dry and with a stereo… I think it could be a good change for a country who is obsessed with hemi’s and tons of power. It’s not for everyone but it sure would interest a nitch market.

  • Charles Z

    Are they in production and if not when expected?

  • Charles Z

    I have a motorcycle endorsement and own 2 scooters and one motorcycle ( a trusty
    Honda!) I really hope they get this going because we need something like this-I also like On Star.

  • Yosi_Amram

    I have been lusting after a 3 wheeler for years, almost buying a kit car. This would be a better alternative as it has air conditioning, and it would be a lot safer than a barebones kit 3 wheeler. The question is whether Elio will get this off the ground and into production, and if it will perform as promised.

  • blundar

    Most Americans have driver’s license for cars. A much smaller percentage have license to drive motorcycles. This immediately eliminates a huge demographic here in the USA. Put 4 wheels on it with a similar suspension on the back as it has on the front and you have a much better chance to succeed here in the USA. I would consider it if it had 4 wheels.

    I even like the look of it. Love the comfort of staying dry, heat, air conditioning, stereo radio. I would also add cruise control and power windows as a minimum. Almost good enough to be a daily driver.

  • Albert Stokes

    Fuel is not the only cost here – you still have insurance, maintenance, depreciation, parking and interest in car loans.

    If you must drive a better solution is car sharing – zipcar, Hertz on demand, City CarShare, IGO, DriveNow, RelayRides, vRide, Car2Go, Enterprise Car Share.

    The solution is to get *less* cars on the road, not more.