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It seems that most of the media coverage of automotive startup Elio Motors and their proposed $6,800, 84 mpg reverse trike can be sorted into two groups: general media outlets that have taken a bit of a credulous gee whiz attitude, and automotive folks who have cast a more skeptical eye on the enterprise. I’m as skeptical and as cynical as the next guy but unlike many in the automotive community I actually think that Paul Elio and his team have a decent chance of at least getting their vehicle to production. Also unlike most of the critics, I’ve actually taken the time to talk with members of Elio managment along with one of their major backers and I’ve spent time with their prototypes. Perhaps because I’ve tried to give the project an even break the people at Elio have been pretty forthcoming with me and now they’ve let TTAC be the first automotive publication to have an extended and unsupervised test drive of their latest prototype. They figuratively tossed me the keys and literally said, “bring it back when you’re done.” That takes some confidence.
I was free to drive it as long as I wanted and I ended up spending more time with the Elio prototype than I would have with a car at a typical media ride & drive. There were some restrictions, however. When I asked about speeds, I was told to try and keep it under 45 mph, avoid some of Michigan’s deeper crevices and potholes in our roads, and to make sure that I could always see the cycle fenders over the front tires, so I wouldn’t run into curbs. Other than that, I could drive it as I saw fit. I first headed to a nearby industrial park to shoot video of the trike coming and going. The cul de sacs also made nice impromptu skid pads to check cornering grip. Then I cruised up a 45 mph county road to see how I felt driving the Elio in traffic. Finally I ducked into a residential subdivision whose winding roads let me check how tossable the trike was.
As with the previous prototypes, the latest Elio, P4, is powered by a Suzuki G10 carburetted three cylinder engine out of a Geo Metro. The Metro’s automatic transmission is also used. The production Elio will use a proprietary 0.9 liter triple, designed by IAV, that will put out the same 55 horsepower that the Suzuki engine had when it left the factory more than 90,000 miles ago. Those were likely not easy miles because the engine was tired. Still it motivated the trike just fine for a commuter car. While the power ratings of the prototype’s engine and Elio’s production motor are equal, I was told that Elio’s triple will have significantly more torque than the G10. Elio’s engine will also weigh less than the Suzuki powerplant in the prototype, which should help lighten up the steering at low speeds.
The Elio engine has an aluminum cylinder block and head and is an undersquare design with a stroke longer than the cylinder bore. Induction is via multi-port sequential fuel injection, a bit of a surprise at a time when many engine manufacturers are embracing direct injection. Elio Motors has spent a good deal of their marketing emphasizing the car’s $6,800 price. Using proven, if not cutting edge, technologies is one way of keeping costs down. Another way of keeping costs down, at least for consumers, is the use of conventional 5W-20 motor oil with standard 3,000 mile change intervals. No synthetic oil required and no premium high octane fuel either. To reduce maintenance costs and increase durability, the single overhead cam engine will have a metal timing chain running that camshaft, not a rubber belt.
As it stands today, they’re aiming at 55 horsepower but the final power rating will be contingent on that 84 mpg (highway) target. In the current configuration they can increase power by about 10% if needed.
A number of companies use the Woodward Dream Cruise to gauge consumer reaction to concept and production cars and this year was no exception, with journalists and celebrities running Hellcat Challengers up and down the famous cruising boulevard. Elio has been drumming up interest in their three-wheeler by taking it on an extended road tour, displaying it at events with large crowds. With a million or so people walking up and down Woodward as they watch the movable automotive feast go by, it’s not surprising that Elio brought their road tour to the WDC, though their car has one less wheel and about 652 horsepower less than the Hellcat. Of course, Elio is going after a different market segment.
The publicity seems to be working. At the Dream Cruise display there was a constant stream of people checking it out, seeing if they could fit. I convinced a rather large man to climb into the back seat and once he got back there he fit just fine. Another girthy guy needed no convincing to try both tandem positions. He’d driven the 100 miles or so from Toledo just to see if the car fit him before putting down his reservation money. He was very happy with what he saw. With about 29,000 reservations in at this point, Jerome Vassallo, Elio’s vice president of retail operations, told me that a growing number of people who show up at their road show stops are already familiar with the trike or even have put down money to reserve one.
Vassallo also updated me on Elio’s retail plans. Since they will be selling directly from factory owned stores in about 60 major U.S. markets, they understand that they may be subject to the same obstacles that Tesla’s factory outlets have faced due to state franchise laws and opposition by dealer groups. They’re hoping, however, to use the trike’s legal status as a motorcycle to piggyback on the exemptions given to factory owned Harley Davidson and Suzuki dealerships.
Like I said, the PR seems to be getting the word around. While we were shooting video in an industrial park near lunch time, a couple of people walked over to ask us about it and mentioned Elio by name.
What’s it like to drive? Pretty much like any other small front wheel drive car. At first you feel like you’re driving a cross between a small airplane and an open wheel track car, but fairly soon you start to feel like you’re just driving another car. Well, till you again notice people craning their necks and checking what you’re driving in their mirrors. From the outside it looks like nothing else on the road but from the inside it looks very automotive. Yes the fuselage is narrow, but the cockpit is fairly roomy for one person, and there’s even more hip room for the rear passenger than for the driver. I’m not a skinny guy but I had plenty of room.
The car itself is skinny, you can hold both hands out both side windows at the same time, but the cockpit has a Goldilocks feel to it. If the car was wider, visibility to the rear might be an issue since there is no rear window, just a hatch for putting in groceries or a bag of golf clubs. There’s no rear view mirror mounted on the windshield, unneeded because it would just give you a view of your own face. The small side mirrors, which will likely be significantly enlarged on the production version, gave me an adequate view of traffic behind me.
As I said, it handles pretty much like you’d expect a small FWD vehicle to drive. If they didn’t know it had three wheels, most drivers probably couldn’t tell from the driver’s seat. I tried to hang the rear wheel out and get the trike to drift like a Morgan 3 Wheeler can but between the tired Suzuki 3 cyl and the fairly decent contact patch (much fatter tires than on the Morgan 3 wheeler) the back end stayed firmly in place. It understeers, but with a bit more power you might be able to get the vehicle to rotate quicker. Since the Elio trike has a classic double wishbone front suspension with coilover shock/spring units (and a trick pull rod to get the dampers out of the air flow) it can probably be adjusted for more aggressive handling. When cornering hard I didn’t notice much body roll – don’t worry about the inherent instability of three wheelers and their tendency to lift the inner wheel in a turn. Not gonna happen here. To begin with, reverse trikes are more stable than three-wheelers with one wheel in front, and as long as weight is sufficiently biased to the front tires, both of them should stay on the ground.
Steering wasn’t as quick and there was less feel than I expected from manual steering in a 1,200 lb vehicle. I was told that the production trike will have a different steering rack than the prototype. To help with the steering effort, the steering wheel is relatively large. That gives you more leverage over the non-power-assisted steering. I understand the need for keeping weight down but I’m not sure how many Americans will go for the non-power steering. Unless the weight penalty would keep the trike from the 84 mpg goal, I’d go with a smaller steering wheel, a quicker rack & pinion ratio and some kind of power assist. It’s not so hard to steer that you can’t almost palm the wheel when parking, but it takes much more effort at low speeds than most drivers are used to. Once going, though, the steering lightens up and I was able to place the Elio trike precisely on the road. I never felt like there was a shortage of grip. The ride wasn’t plush but it wasn’t uncomfortably firm either, again, about what you’d expect in a small car. Suspension movements seemed well controlled.
Mr. Elio told me that there were three basic design objectives: a 0-60 time of 10 seconds, 84 miles per gallon on the highway, and a top speed of at least 100 mph. I’d be interested to feel how the Elio trike handles at speeds higher than 45 mph.
I’ve said that if the Elio trike does go on sale, it could be embraced by car enthusiasts as a poor man’s Morgan 3 Wheeler, which starts at around $45K. If they meet their price point the Elio will also be about a third of the price of the new Polaris Slingshot reverse trike. With a 2.4 liter GM Ecotec engine, and extreme styling, the Slingshot is more explicitly targeted at the go-fast crowd. Having driven the prototype Elio trike I can now say that it does have enthusiast potential, even if it isn’t quite sporting right now. Once they’re up and running, more powerful versions of the Elio are likely. The engine has been designed by IAV with a turbocharger in mind. Paul Elio told me that Comau, which is providing the machinery and automation for the assembly lines at the Shreveport plant, has left a spot on the line empty for the time being so that a turbo installation station can be added later.
It’s indeed a prototype. Some parts are handmade and show signs of wear from not fitting perfectly. The hinges on the cargo hatch interfered with the rubber weatherstripping. At first I thought the A/C controls, by Vintage Air, were dummies, but under the hood there were A/C components so I fiddled with the knobs and eventually got some tepid air to blow through the two eyeball vents on the dashboard. The prototype had one of Continental VDO’s Flexible Smartphone Docking Stations mounted on the dashboard. That’s how Elio is going to offer in-car infotainment. Below the FSDS is a USB port and a 12 volt power tap. There’s also a 12 volt receptacle in the back for the passenger’s use. That passenger will feel less claustrophobic than in the previous prototype as the profile of the rear side windows has been modified.
You can’t judge build quality or possible durability from a prototype. There were a few rattles and clunks, but in general it didn’t feel flimsy. Still, other than the drivetrain and steering rack, the prototype is close to how they want the production vehicle to be so an extended test drive will yield usable data.
Paul Elio said that production will start in the second half of 2015. With Job One only a year or so out, the design has got to be close to being finalized as tooling and supplier contracts have to be in place by then. Elio said that he expects production will start in Q3 or Q5 of 2015. When I asked him if there was anything that would keep them from going into production, Elio told me, “Funding”. When I later asked him to clarify he said that it was a matter of getting their investors to participate in another round of funding. He stressed how they were happy with their existing investors, who themselves are happy about the reservations. Nearly half of the projected 60,000 first year units are already theoretically spoken for. Elio also said that at this time they aren’t looking for more investors.
As for progress, Elio told me that castings for the first Elio engine have been delivered. It will take four to eight weeks for them to be machined and then a few more weeks for assembly. Assuming that all goes well, they will then build about 30 complete validation cars. Five will be used for crashworthiness and other destructive testing, the other 25 will undergo road testing and will also be used as press demonstrators.
They’re aiming for a 0-60 mph time of around 10 seconds. I didn’t use a stopwatch, but based on the fact that the rather tired (90,000 miles +) Suzuki triple was originally rated right around the 55 hp that Elio’s proprietary IAV designed 0.9 liter engine is supposed to put out, from the prototype’s performance I’d say that they should meet their target. While it’s not fast, I didn’t feel unsafe in traffic.
Concerning safety, since three-wheelers are considered motorcycles as far as federal law is concerned, the Elio trike won’t have to meet the automotive part of the FMVSS, so Elio will likely not submit it for NHTSA crash testing. Paul Elio said that they likely will have the trike privately tested instead and then make the results public. While the Elio will feature air bags and has Barenyi style crush zones front and back, I suspect that most of what protection passengers will receive will come from the fact that the main structure of the vehicle is essentially a full roll cage.
That brings me to a topic that when I brought it up, Jerome Vassallo laughed heartily. If, as Jack Baruth reported after driving Alex Roy’s Morgan, the Brit trike has almost magical powers to attract women, the Elio trike might be a big more like a guarantor of celibacy for young men who drive it. While I was able to talk a fat man into the back seat, I’m not so sure many young women would climb back there and ride tandem with a date, talking to the back of his head. It may be legally a motorcycle and the prototype may have a Suzuki engine but it’s from being a sexy Hayabusa.
Speaking of women, I’d be interested to see some of the results of Elio’s market research and how women perceive the little three wheeled car. One reason why SUVs and now CUVs have been popular with female consumers is the high driving position and the perceived feeling of safety driving a substantial vehicle. At the Dream Cruise showing, while I was there a number of women stopped to look at the car and ask the baseball jersey wearing Elio reps questions, but I did overhear one woman expressing concerns about the Elio’s safety in a crash. Perhaps I’m wrong about the celibacy thing since none of the women seemed repelled by the trike. Their questions were practical, not about styling. Maybe they think it’s is kind of cute. To my eyes it looks more modern than dorky, more Lotus Seven than Aptera.
Elio’s confidence in the car was well placed. I’m not damning it with faint praise when I say that it’s a real automobile, albeit of the three wheeled variety. The prototype may drive like a regular car but building four prototypes is a far piece from churning out 60,000 cars. Between now and the third quarter of 2015 a lot of things could happen but I’m optimistic. It takes a lot of confidence to just hand someone the keys to a prototype, particularly when that someone is associated with a publication known for steely eyed skepticism. When I first became aware of Elio and their trike though I understood why those who said it was vaporware said so, my own initial reaction was, “it’s not rocket science, they could very well succeed.” Now that I’ve driven their latest prototype I’m even more convinced about their chances for success.
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 get a parallax view 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