Elio Motors is one of those automotive startups that raises all sorts of flags that makes some people think that it’s a scam, or at least on shaky financial ground. Almost every bit of news from Elio has been greeted with some skepticism, understandably (here, here, and here). They’re planning on selling a three wheel vehicle with a composite body that gets amazing gas mileage. Those facts alone remind people of the Dale scam, and the failed Aptera venture. Also, they’re taking deposits on a vehicle whose design has not been finalized, a year away from production, and that evokes memories of Preston Tucker, who had his own problems. Then there’s the financing plan that Elio says will allow people currently driving beaters, the working poor if you will, to get a new car with a warranty just for what they’re currently paying for gasoline. When you buy the $6,800 tandem two seater reverse trike, whatever balance there is after your trade-in and/or deposit is applied will go on a credit card. Monthly payments will be required to pay down the balance but the way Elio is pitching it, when you use that credit card to buy gasoline (and some other purchases) instead of being billed for the actual cost of the gas, you’ll be billed 3 times that amount and the difference between the actual price and the billed price will be used to pay off the car.
Why 3X the price of gas?
Elio Motors is aiming for a city rating of 49 mpg and a highway rating of 84 mpg. The average fuel economy of all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States in 2012, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, was 23.8 mpg. Assuming that their customers are lower on the socio-economic scale, that means they probably are driving older cars that get even poorer gas mileage than 23.8. If you’re getting three times the gas mileage you used to, paying three times the price of gas means you’re still paying the same amount of money every month for gasoline. Now no promotional materials from Elio will ever use the word “free”, but that’s pretty much how the car will be marketed: for what you used to pay just for gasoline, driving an old, unreliable beater getting poor gas mileage, you get a new car with a warranty, and once it’s paid off the savings over that old beater will be significant.
Unusual car financing aside and scarlet flags aside, I’m not convinced that Elio is a scam. Unlike just about everyone else that raised an eyebrow about Elio, I decided to see for myself. Elio says they will start building their car in the former GM assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, but the company will be headquartered in Troy, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Elio Motors is promoting the car in an interesting way, sort of a grassroots PR campaign, taking the car on a road tour, to things like sporting events, outlet malls, the Woodward Dream Cruise and putting it on local & national news shows. I contacted the company to see if I could check it out when it was in the Detroit area in between public appearances.
The company graciously arranged for me to meet Jerry Vassallo, Elio VP of Retail Operations, at the logistics company that’s managing the road tour. Though I didn’t get to drive it, I did get to spend about 30 minutes up close and personal with it, and I did get to see it start up and drive around one of those “nondescript industrial parks in suburban Detroit” that are the location of so many Motor City stories.
Red flags aside, from an automotive standpoint, they just might be able to do it. They’re promising 49 mpg in the city and 84 on the highway for a two passenger front wheel drive vehicle with standard air conditioning, radio, power windows, a five-star crash rating, and a warranty, all for about half the price of the cheapest car currently on sale in the U.S., and not much more than scooter powered Chinese reverse trikes of dubious build quality.
It’s really not a moon shot, though, there’s no rocket science needed. It’s a 1,000 lb vehicle with a 70 horsepower 3 cylinder engine, so 49 mpg in the city is achievable. That whopping 84 mpg isn’t unrealistic either. When I asked Vassallo how close the current prototype is to the production car (other than the Elio built, IVL designed, engine that will replace the Suzuki Swift engine used in the car I saw), he said that it’s close but they are fine tuning the aerodynamics to get that 84 mpg. Aero is going to be critical in reaching that figure. With tandem seating and what is essentially an open wheel setup in the front of the car (there are rather sporting cycle fenders that turn with the wheels) the actual body is very narrow, to get that good aero. It’s so narrow that they left out the back window. Vassallo told me that there’s no point in having one. It would be directly behind year head rest. There’s no interior rear view mirror, either. An interior rear view mirror would only give you a nice view of the rear seat’s headrest. Actually, vision to the rear is fine for driving in real traffic. There are two tiny side back windows by the passenger seat that give you adequate vision in what would be your blind spot and when Vassallo stood directly behind the car, while I couldn’t see his head, I could see both his shoulders in the side mirrors. You should easily see anything behind you that you need to see, including pedestrians, motorcycles and cyclists. The production version will have a hatch that opens to access the small cargo compartment. With the rear seat folded down there’s enough room, I’m told, for a set of golf clubs. Vassallo said they were considering selling something like a sedan delivery version with no back seat for service businesses like computer support that don’t need a lot of cargo room but still have to get people to customers’ locations.
As for that $6,800 price. Building their own engine might be a sticky point in terms of cost, but the rest of the car should be cheap to build. Other than the engine, Vassallo told me that 90% of the mechanical components, down to the suspension parts, are off-the-shelf items used by other automakers. They are also using a lot less metal and plastic than a conventional car needs. Eliminating the fourth wheel means eliminating a lot of cost.
So they might be able to see their mileage benchmarks, and even build the car cheap enough. What about that five-star crash rating? Ever seen video of sprint car dirt track racers when they wreck? A properly designed roll cage can protect passengers in very serious collisions. The Elio three wheeler passenger compartment is essentially a roll cage with a plastic skin. There are also crush structures designed into the front and rear of the car.
The Elio has only one door, on the driver’s left. That helps with chassis stiffness and cost. While the prototype had a fixed window on the right, both windows will retract in the production Elio, and power windows will be standard. Interior trim and panels were fairly cheap plastic, but this was a prototype. However, don’t expect the production car to have leather and burled walnut on the dash. The seats are going to be supplied by Lear and they were actually nicer than I expected. Controls are normal automotive controls. The shifter is on the right. The as yet unnamed Elio car will be offered with either a five speed manual transmission or an automatic. No word on how many speeds the autobox will have or if it will be an extra charge option.
Once inside, it’s fairly comfortable. You do feel like you are sitting in the cockpit of a small plane, but it’s not claustrophobic, at least in the front seat. Elio has photos and video of a wide variety of body types fitting in the car – they say it’s designed around the 95th percentile of adult men. The back seat is a different story. Getting back there was surprisingly not too difficult. I deliberately left the front seat in the rearmost position to make access to the back harder. I’m not a particularly large person at 5’6″, but I’m not exactly skinny either. I didn’t really have to contort myself to get into the back seat. Once there, though, even with the small side back windows, unlike the front seat it feels rather claustrophobic. I was told that there will be ventilation for the rear passenger. Still, I wouldn’t want to have to sit back there for a long ride. On the other hand, it couldn’t be any worse than riding back to Ann Arbor after a Frank Zappa concert in Chicago having to ride sidesaddle in the back of my buddy’s 1971 Firebird (gold, just like Jim Rockford’s).
Overall Length: 160.5″
Front Wheel Track: 66.8″
Overall Height: 54.2″
Interior dimensions are:
Headroom: Driver 39.8 Passenger 36.4 in
Seat width: Driver 20.6 Passenger 25.3 in
Interior Shoulder Width: 26.8 in
Front seat Legroom: 42.7 in
Rear seat Legroom: 33.1 in
27″ x 14″ x 10″ (extends to 47″+ with rear seat down)
In terms of styling and design, I think most folks will think that it’s cute. The exposed control arms of the front suspension and the cycle fenders that turn with steering give it sort of a track-car Lotus Seven look. The coilovers look sporty as well. As a matter of fact, the stubby front end does sort of remind me of the Seven. With three wheels it’s bound to look a little strange and the rear does have a bit of a futuristic feel to it, but overall it’s rather pleasant to look at.
As mentioned, this is going to be pitched at working folks who need to get to work and possibly also as a small commercial vehicle. I think that if the Elio car does go into production, they may find that it’s embraced by another group, enthusiasts. With only 70 HP and a top speed of “over 100”, it’s not going to be a speed demon, but then neither is the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Brit reverse trike costs 6 or 7 times as much as the Elio is supposed to cost. Besides, Elio and IVL are tuning their engine for gas mileage. Seventy horsepower out of a liter engine most likely leaves some headroom for more performance. With the engine up front, it’s got the forward weight bias needed for reverse trikes to handle and keep both front wheels on the ground. One of the off the shelf components will be the transaxle from a front wheel drive vehicle. Unlike the Morgan, the Elio will be driven by its front wheels. While this means that you won’t be able to do Morgan style rear wheel burnouts and drifts, the Elio trike should stick to the ground.
Elio announced earlier this year that a real estate speculator is going to be buying GM’s shuttered Shreveport, LA assembly plant for their use. They haven’t yet, though, made any kind of announcement about how the cars will be sold. No dealer franchises have been awarded yet.
You can, however, put a deposit down on an Elio and reserve one for as little as $100. Other reservation levels are $250, $500 and $1,000. If you make that deposit non-refundable, you’ll get a discount on the car and some swag, like tshirts and bumper stickers. The more money you put down, the higher priority your build will have.
So, bottom line, is Elio Motors a scam? I don’t know. I don’t think so, the vehicle makes sense to me and they might just be able to build it at their target price point, but until we see a production vehicle in the hands of a retail customer, we’ll never know for sure. Towards that end we’re trying something new. Whenever the topic of how to improve TTAC car reviews comes up, one or more of the Best & Brightest will suggest that we do it the Consumer Reports way, only report on cars that we’ve bought, so we’ll have an authentic consumer experience. That’s just not financially possible in most cases. However, I’ve discussed the matter with our Editor In Chief pro tem and it looks like we’ll be reserving our own Elio car with a $100 non-refundable deposit. That way, even if the Elio never makes it to production we can have a t-shirt giveaway to our readers. We’ll use our reservation as a hook for following Elio’s story and keeping you informed about the startup car company. If the little three wheeler comes to fruition, who knows? We might even test out their put it on a credit card and pay 3X for gas financing scheme.
If you’d like to check out the Elio three wheeler for yourself, it will be in Colorado next week, the start of a swing through the western United States. Wednesday August 28th, Park Meadows Mall, 1-7pm Lone Tree, CO; Thursday August 29th – Flat Irons Crossing Mall, from 1-6 (plus the concert!),Bloomfield CO; Friday August 30th, Cherry Creek Mall, Denver, 10am-9pm and Monday at The Taste of Colorado, 1600 Broadway, #610 in Denver 11am-8pm. It will be in Seattle, WA on Sept. 5-8, and in Portland, OR on Sept. 12-15, with dates in California to follow.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS