NEW YORK CITY--- The Elio draws a crowd. I was handed the keys to the latest driving version of the Elio, a new three-wheeled, two-seat car hitting the market (after a delay) next year that, Elio Motors says, will achieve 84 miles per gallon and sell for $6,800. People definitely love the idea; there are 17,000 reservations.
In screaming “creamsicle,” my test Elio was instantly mobbed when I parked it in Manhattan. Sample thoughts:
“It’s awesome, I love it.”
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It looks like a space ship.”
“6,800? I guessed $50,000.”
“Wow, you know, right?
The Elio is a work in progress. I was hoping the new version would include the company’s engine, but Jerome Vassallo, Elio’s ex-VW vice president of sales, told me that now exists as a cast block. Elio hopes to have the 900-cc three-cylinder, 55-horsepower unit from IAV in place at the company’s Detroit engineering headquarters by the end of the summer, which seems like fast work to me. It will be a huge improvement on the Geo Metro slug in the car now—with vastly more torque, acceleration should go from zero to 60 in 13 seconds to 9.5, Vassallo said.
New since I drove it the first time in Manhattan are a trunk (very makeshift now, but capable of holding a golf bag), a climate-control system with air (not working), a Siemens stereo that accesses music from smart phones (also non functional), production-grade seats from Lear (comfortable), and a much smoother-shifting transmission. It’s far from ready for prime time, but the glimmer of a real car is emerging. Vassallo assures that the $6,800 price target is still in place.
One sits low down in the diminutive, 1,200-pound Elio—it’s the opposite of above-the-traffic SUV driving. Rear-seat rides are claustrophobic, but with surprising head and legroom. On Third Avenue, the Metro motor was still a boat anchor, and loud as hell with a straight pipe. The non-assisted steering was truck-heavy at low speeds but it lightened up nicely once underway. The coil-spring-over-shock front suspension was set hard and a bit bouncy on New York pavement. The brakes were OK, but needed a fair amount of pedal effort. It was drivable, though.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a Tesla—it’s a built-to-a-budget commuter car. Still, I expect the exposed screw heads, lock-free trunk and rough finish will go away on production versions. The lightweight composite body panels on this prototype looked good and fit fairly well.
Safety is an issue with a car this small. Elio has said from the beginning it’s aiming for a five-star crash rating, though that’s premature without even a complete body structure or engine. There are crumple zones, a steel rollcage to protect occupants, and three airbags (two above the windows, one in the wheel). The car will be registered as a motorcycle, which means no crash testing is required (and the rules for driving it are state-by-state).
Vassallo told me that delays were due to money issues and getting the engine ready, but Elio is now funded with $55 million, which will get the company through the engineering phase. The full goal to make it to launch is $200 million. The car will be built in the 100-acre former Hummer factory in Shreveport, Louisiana. Initial production runs are targeted at 250 to 300 a day, and Vassallo said 1,000 a day is the goal. Ultimately, Elio with export models (and possible diesel and electric versions to come) would want to be building 250,000 a year, Vassallo said. But this is all down the road. Getting the car on the assembly line is the big hurdle now.
Elio has a complex tiered non-refundable reservation system. If you put down $1,000, you get to be first in line and get $1,500 off the price of the car, plus a t-shirt and bumper sticker. You can also put down $100 to get at the end of the queue ($150 off the price).
If it makes it to production, the Elio would be only the second American automaker to successfully launch since Chrysler (in 1925). It’s tough to get a car company off the ground, and Elio still has plenty of charges. It’s made progress, though. And if jaded Manhattanites are any indication, the interest is certainly there. $6,800, right? Right.
Here's the Elio on video: