Crowd Pleaser: The $6,800, 84-mpg Elio is Getting Closer

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 28, 2014

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.

The Elio in extroverted "creamsicle" on Seventh Street in Manhattan. There will be seven production colors, including orange, black, blue, red, silver, white and green.(Jim Motavalli photo)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.

Typical Elio amazement. (Jim Motavalli photo)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.

The steering wheel is new, but the instrument panel is still Geo Metro. The actual Elio panel will be modeled on a Lord Elgin watch. (Jim Motavalli photo)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 watching is a participatory sport. (Jim Motavalli photo)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).

The prototype Elio heads out to its next assignment. (Jim Motavalli photo)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:

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