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Three Wheels, 84 mpg and $6,800

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Having observed the auto industry up close for decades, I take my hat off to the gargantuan task necessary to get a new model on the market. Can you imagine the zillions of engineering meetings, endless marketing sessions, and midnight oil burned by countless executives and workers just to, say, freshen the Ford Mustang?

The three-wheeled Elio is wild looking, but the shape is highly aerodynamic. (Jim Motavalli photo)For that reason, I’m especially respectful of anyone who tries to start a new car company. There’s a reason that Tesla is the only real American automotive start-up success story in the last, I dunno, 50 years. And that’s why I think Paul Elio deserves a hearing with his self-named car company, Elio Motors. The Elio is a bit unorthodox looking, with only three wheels, but Elio (an engineer trained at the GM Institute, now Kettering University) has big dreams.

The target for the car is an 84 mpg vehicle he can sell for $6,800. Elio also wants a five-star safety rating, but a quirk of the law means that three-wheeled vehicles are rated as motorcycles and don’t actually have to get crash tested at all.

The Elio’s on-sale date is supposed to be the summer of next year, but it’s going to be a rush to the finish. The car I drove recently in New York City looked like a real Elio, but under the hood was the very noisy engine from a 1990 Metro, with the manual transmission and dashboard to match. Can you imagine a three-wheeled ’90 Metro with futuristic styling? You probably can.

The Elio's dashboard is borrowed from an old Geo Metro, but a sleekly modern one is planned for production. (Jim Motavalli photo)The test drive with that powertrain didn’t do Elio any favors; the company probably should have kept its test mule under wraps until it had its all-new 50-horsepower three-cylinder engine from IAV Automotive Engineering ready to go. What we have here is a case of jumping the gun. The folks at Fisker, when asked about delays, always said, “You have one chance to make a first impression.” They’re not the best authorities in the world, but they were right about that.

Can Elio succeed? It’s a long shot, but some things about the car were intriguing. The design is an acquired taste, but very aerodynamic. The build quality of this one running car was decent. The passenger sits behind the driver, which sounds weird but isn’t that odd in practice.

Elio told me the car, as yet unnamed, has been in development five years. He plans to build the car in a former General Motors plant in Louisiana (if he gets through some local political issues), and is stressing the made-in-America theme. He has big dreams of employing 1,000 people to make Elios. Who can blame him for that? It’s very American to have big dreams. Here's a closer look at the car on video:

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