The Truth About Cars » Elio Motors http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 21 Oct 2014 14:00:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Elio Motors http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Paul Elio Responds to Skeptics http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/paul-elio-responds-skeptics/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/paul-elio-responds-skeptics/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 12:30:20 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=932193 The Elio Motors project continues to generate skepticism. The latest is a post by Tavarish at Jalopnik’s CarBuying Kinja subsite giving us a half dozen reasons while the high mpg reverse trike will never come to be, Six Things That Could Kill Elio Motors Before It Even Launches. Tavarish isn’t the only skeptic. The consensus among […]

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The Elio Motors project continues to generate skepticism. The latest is a post by Tavarish at Jalopnik’s CarBuying Kinja subsite giving us a half dozen reasons while the high mpg reverse trike will never come to be, Six Things That Could Kill Elio Motors Before It Even Launches. Tavarish isn’t the only skeptic. The consensus among automotive writers seems to be highly critical. While I enjoy being a contrarian and going against the stream I still don’t want to be a cheerleader for Paul Elio and his team, but I have to confess that there’s romance in the idea of someone starting their own car company. I also think that there is no reason short of raising enough money why they can’t put the car into production and meet their performance and safety specifications. I’m not so sure about Elio Motors meeting their $6,800 price point but I still don’t think the latest criticism is completely fair.

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First, I’m not naive. I recognize that the people at Elio have gone out of their way to cultivate good relations with this site and with me personally. A major reason for that is that unlike most of the skeptics, I’ve actually spoken with executives at Elio, including their head of manufacturing, their director of sales and Paul Elio himself. I’ve also corresponded directly with Stuart Lichter, a company backer who’s the middleman in the real estate deal for the former GM assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Everyone involved with the company has always answered all of my questions directly, with no evasions. Everything has been transparent, from my perspective at least.

A few weeks ago Elio’s PR guy contacted me with what he hyped as important news, the fact that Comau, the company that is supplying Elio with automation services at the Shreveport plant, will start selling off surplus machinery and equipment in the factory that wont be needed by Elio. I had a couple of questions about the financing of the equipment purchase and their rep gave me Paul Elio’s phone number, but the story didn’t really seem important enough to be of interest to our readers and I’m not simply going to run a press releasey post, so I didn’t call him at the time.

Since I do have a stake, as a writer, in the Elio story, I read Tavarish’s post with interest and I was disappointed that like many of the skeptics, he made a lot of speculation without checking either with the company or their suppliers. Having Mr. Elio’s number in my email in box, I texted him and asked when it would be a convenient time to call if he wanted to respond to the criticisms raised in the Jalopnik post. He called me and he answered the questions raised by Tavarish pretty much point by point.

Point one was that the Elio three wheeler is not a car, that legally it’s a motorcycle and that motorcycle helmet and licensing laws will hinder consumer acceptance. The Elio’s legal status as a motorcycle also means that it does not have to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, including passing crash testing, that automobiles and light trucks have to achieve. I didn’t ask Elio about the motorcycle laws that will affect drivers because the vehicle is what it is. The vast majority of states won’t require Elio drivers to wear helmets and 45 of 50 won’t require them for drivers over the age of 21. Forty five? That number sounds familiar. Oh, right, that’s the number of states where Tesla sells cars. If that’s enough Americans to launch a relatively niche luxury vehicle, it’s probably enough to launch something economical. We’ll return to Tesla later.

As for the car’s safety, Elio has claimed that it will meet NHTSA’s “five star” crash worthiness standards. Tavarish is skeptical because motorcycles don’t even have to be crash tested. In my most recent post on the Elio three wheeler, when I got to drive the prototype, something almost none of the skeptics have done, I asked Paul Elio about crash testing and he said that it was possible, perhaps likely, that because of the vehicle’s status as a motorcycle that NHTSA won’t crash test it. He said that if that transpires, the company will have private firm put the trike through identical testing and that they will publish the results.

Tavarish’s second point also has to do with the fact that it’s a motorcycle. Elio Motors has been promoting their vehicle as environmentally friendly, based on it’s projected 84 mpg on the highway. Tavarish points out that Elio doesn’t talk much about the emissions side of being green and he’s skeptical of Elio’s claims that the vehicle will pass California’s stringent pollution testing, figuring that motorcycles have to meet their own standards in California, that Elio will use that loophole to avoid equipping their trike with “all that messy and expensive emissions equipment, like evaporative emissions canisters, exhaust gas recirculation, and even the staple of cleaner air technology in cars – the catalytic converter.”

Paul Elio told me that Johnson Matthey, who supply about a third of the catalytic converters currently being installed by auto manufacturers worldwide, will be supplying them with the catalytic part of the pollution control device. Eastern Catalytic will be “canning” the converter and supplying the rest of the vehicle’s exhaust system. The Elio 0.9 liter three cylinder, designed by IAV, will feature EGR and variable valve timing as part of its emissions package.  The fuel tank, fuel pressure lines, and returns will be supplied by ABC Fuel Systems will be compliant with automotive standards for evaporative emissions.

Tavarish makes much about the fact that that pollution equipment is proposed for an engine that does not yet exist. All of the prototypes so far have used the Suzuki triples out of Geo Metros. In August, when I last spoke with Paul Elio, he told me that the major engine components for the first prototype had been cast and that it would take a couple of months to get all  the parts in and everything machined before they’d be able to put it together. According to Elio, he current status of the prototype engine is that it’s been assembled and spun without power to make sure there are no interferences. It was then torn down and it is currently being reassembled in a more laborious process that involves checking all tolerances, torques etc. The target date for dyno testing is November 15th. Elio told me that assuming they meet power and torque specs they will run the engine to failure. Following that, 25 validation examples of the engine will be built for pre-production pilot vehicles, some of which will be used for crash testing.

I’d like to point out that with today’s digital tools, engine design is not as hit or miss (no pun intended) as it once was. The use of modeling and simulation software means that if it works in the digital domain it will almost certainly work when made out of metal. Ecomotors, the engine startup (again, no pun intended), has skipped actually building some generations of the prototype design because it was a waste of time just to make sure they worked.

Of Tavarish’s six reasons, the next one is the strongest, whether or not the company has enough money to get to production. Tavarish cites Jo Borras‘ calculation that they’ll need about $200 million to pull it off. While Borras has been one of the most outspoken skeptics, Paul Elio told me that Borras’ figure (and he mentioned him by name) was probably accurate. When I asked him where the money will come from, he said “a variety of funding sources”. Some of the money will come from customer reservations, which are currently at just over 35,000 and increasing at about 6,500 a month. Current investors, whom Elio says are very happy with how things are going, will also be asked to pony up additional capital. Another source of capital will be from selling off unneeded machinery in Shreveport. The reason why they were hyping the surplus machinery and equipment sale was that they now hope to clear between 30 and 40 million dollars from those sales, a big fraction of the money they need.

The equipment to be sold was purchased by Elio Motors from the RACER trust with $26 million in financing. Elio volunteered that he “overpaid a little but not a lot”. At first the plan was to sell it at auction but manufacturing has picked up a bit in the U.S. and machinery prices have gone up. So much so that the auction idea has been killed and now Comau will be going through all of the equipment, testing it to make sure it works and preparing it for individual sale. This way they can ask a higher price than if the machinery was sold covered with dust at a one day auction. Comau will be both selling the gear on the open market and using it to offer their worldwide automation customers an economical alternative to new machinery.

When all that is sold, Elio says that there still will be hundreds of millions of dollars worth of plant equipment that they will be using. Buying a recently closed auto assembly plant can be a good deal. That factory was building midsize pickups not very long ago. The plant is fairly modern and includes an EPA compliant paint shop, perhaps the most expensive part of a modern car factory because it is robot intensive and must comply with air pollution regulations.

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Elio engine mockup. Full gallery here

Elio isn’t certain that they’ll meet their financial objectives and lots of car company startups never got off the ground but he’s optimistic. “What we’re doing is hard, ” Elio told TTAC, “but it’s well thought out and we have the right people and suppliers”.

One hint of where they may get funds has to do with geography. Elio’s headquarters is in suburban Detroit and Paul Elio and his team are based near Phoenix, Arizona, but he called me from Washington D.C. It interesting that he’s in the nation’s capitol just days after the Department of Energy said that it will be restarting the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program. Only about $10 billion of the $25 billion that was allocated was loaned out before the program was put on hiatus in the wake of the failure of Fisker Automotive, which received over half a billion in ATVM money. After the bankruptcy sale of Fisker assets, the DoE lost about $139 milion on the loan. Though the Elio trike doesn’t really use any alternative technologies, it is supposed to be fuel efficient and while the usually reliable David Shepardson of the Detroit News reports that most of the new loans will go to suppliers, I’m guessing that Elio Motors may apply for an ATVM loan.

The Kinja post also takes issue with how Elio is promoting itself and its proposed product. Tavarish says that the company doesn’t have a clear idea who will be their customer and that their promotional videos are lame. Elio conceded to me that they have a very limited advertising budget.  The particular video was shot two years ago, with the P2 prototype (TTAC tested P4), and while there are videos of the current prototype, produced both by Elio and by media outlets, including TTAC, most of the marketing effort is focused in three directions. There is an ongoing road show, taking the prototype(s) to events around the country that attract large crowds and those displays are usually coordinated with some kind of local or network news coverage, but most of the promotional effort is placed online.

Tavarish concentrates on the fact that Elio is at least in part promoting their trike as an “and” car, a second or third car devoted to commuting. In addition to making an obligatory comment about the typical Elio driver lacking female companionship (and, hey, I made a similar joke but actually at the Woodward Dream Cruise stop on the road show the truth is that it seemed to me that as many women were interested as men) he lists the aspects of the car and of potential Elio buyers in a manner that shows that there just aren’t many folks who will be in the target market, someone who can afford a quirky second or third car but who is also cheap enough to be attracted by the low price and great fuel economy. That may be true but there aren’t that many people who fit the stereotype of the characters on Big Bang Theory but the show’s popular enough to be in syndication. Tavarish does concede that the little three wheeler is”likable”.

The marketing strategy that Tavarish compared to throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks may be a bit more focused than that. While the road show exposes the Elio to whomever randomly happens to walk buy at a big event, the online marketing looks to me to be indeed focused, albeit on people who might already show an interest in the tandem reverse trike. At least based on how the ads in my browser are acting, Elio is spending money on online ads targeted at people who have either visited the Elio website or used the name on a search engine. I’m not sure exactly how it’s done, but online advertisers have a way of aiming their ads that are the result of a little spying on us. I’m working on an idea for a musical instrument so now I see a lot of ads for Guitar Center. Back when I reviewed a Jaguar, my browser would display ads for that brand. Before today I hadn’t been at the Elio website or put the name in a search engine since August and I was still getting ads for the Elio trike when I’d go online. By some measures, the marketing is working. Paul Elio told me that the Elio Motors website is getting about 550,000 visitors a month, which he claims is more than a bunch of established automakers’ websites get.

Tavarish’s final point is that the Elio trike is not a gamechanger. As an example of a gamechanger, he cites the Ford Fusion Tesla Model S. I’m not sure why it makes sense to compare the Elio to a luxury EV that costs more than ten times its price. Nobody’s going to crossshop a Tesla and an Elio, though I’m guessing that since a lot of Teslas are also used as “and” cars, they’re not the only vehicle owned by those families. Considering that for affluent Tesla owners, who are the definition of early adopters, the relatively low MSRP of the Elio has the nature of an impulse purchase, Tesla owners may actually consider an Elio as a third or fourth car.

Tesla does happen to be relevant to Elio, if not as a competitor than as a role model. Elio is planning on selling their cars through company owned stores (and have them serviced at Pep Boys), as Tesla does. Paul Elio told me that besides the 45 states that allow direct manufacturer car sales, of the five states that have strong dealer franchise laws, they think they can use their status as a motorcycle maker to get around those laws in three of those jurisdictions and that they’ll be piggybacking (my term, not his) on Tesla’s lobbying and legal efforts in the remaining two states.

I’ve said it before, going forward, everything that Elio has to do to get to production is out in the open. The engine will either run on the dyno or it won’t. The 25 preproduction cars will be built or they won’t. I’ve also said, all along, that there is ample reason for the Elio critics’ skepticism, but so far the automotive startup keeps meeting their objectives, albeit in a delayed manner. As long as they keep meeting those objectives, I’ll keep a fair and open mind about the Elio enterprise.

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

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Exclusive Capsule Review: Elio Motors P4 Prototype http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/exclusive-capsule-review-elio-motors-p4-prototype/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/exclusive-capsule-review-elio-motors-p4-prototype/#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 13:00:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=900778 Click on the settings icon to watch in 2D or your choice of 3D formats. 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 […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.


Click on the settings icon to watch in 2D or your choice of 3D formats.

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.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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.

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Mockup of Elio’s three cylinder engine, designed by IAV. Full gallery here.

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.

Company founder Paul Elio says that he first dreamed of starting a car company when he was eight years old.

Company founder Paul Elio says that he first dreamed of starting a car company when he was eight years old.

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.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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

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Landlord: Another Firm Will Not Supplant Elio at Plant. Manny, Moe & Jack to Service Trikes http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/landlord-another-firm-will-not-supplant-elio-at-plant-manny-moe-jack-to-service-trikes/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/landlord-another-firm-will-not-supplant-elio-at-plant-manny-moe-jack-to-service-trikes/#comments Thu, 08 May 2014 13:18:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=818002 The real estate developer who holds the lease on the former General Motors assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana that Elio Motors plans on using has exclusively told TTAC that regardless of published reports, another tenant will not be replacing Elio and that the automotive startup has a signed lease for the facility and is on […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.

The real estate developer who holds the lease on the former General Motors assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana that Elio Motors plans on using has exclusively told TTAC that regardless of published reports, another tenant will not be replacing Elio and that the automotive startup has a signed lease for the facility and is on schedule with its plans to start production in early 2015.

In other news on the Elio front, the company had earlier indicated that while retail sales will be handled by factory owned outlets, parts, service and warranty work will be performed by a nationwide chain of repair shops. That chain has now been identified as Pep Boys.

A couple of weeks ago local media published the news that some Caddo Parish commissioners reported that another company was in negotiations to lease space in the former General Motors plant where the proposed 84 mpg enclosed tandem reverse trike was going to be built by Elio. Potentially 3,500 jobs were involved with the new tenant. The parish had purchased the plant for $7.5 million and leased it to the Industrial Realty Group, run by Elio backer Stuart Lichter, who had previously announced that Elio would be subleasing about 1/3 of the plant’s 4.5 million sq ft of space. When news of the negotiations with another company broke, one of the commissioners expressed uncertainty about Elio’s plans for the factory coming to fruition. Another commissioner, Stephanie Lynch, who was the only one of twelve commissioners who voted against the parish buying the factory and subsequently filed a lawsuit trying to stop the purchase, firmly doubted that Elio would ever start production.

Just what role the unidentified second company would take in the facility and if it was going to replace Elio was confused by the commissioners’ statements and by the fact that at the time that the Shreveport Times published those comments they were unable to get an official response from Elio or IRG. While nobody quoted by the Shreveport Times article actually said that the proposed second tenant was going to replace Elio, that possibility was implied by the headline, “Is Elio coming to Shreveport? New company eying (sic) former GM plant, commissioners say,” and by the lead sentence, “Thousands of jobs could be on the horizon for the former General Motors assembly plant but not from Elio Motors.”

There is no shortage of skeptics of the Elio enterprise and in a manner akin to the parlor game “telephone”, what was confused in the Shreveport Times ended up in car blogs as another company trying to swoop in and snatch the factory away before Elio starts building their vehicle.

Now I have no idea how the Shreveport Times tried to contact Elio or IRG before they ran that story, or if they’ve tried to follow up in the intervening two weeks since then, but I went to IRG’s website, found Stuart Lichter’s email address, and asked him to comment on the matter. He responded almost immediately and then quickly followed up when I needed some clarification. This is what he told me via email:

The bottom line is there was another company that was showing an interest in the [Shreveport] facility and — as the holder of the lease — I was trying to create a double ‘win’ for the area by getting both deals done.

The other user has gone away and there is a lease in place with Elio — so the short story is any semblance of truth there was in that article or the blog are no longer true.

The idea that Lichter, who is one of Elio’s financial backers, would try to negotiate with another company to replace them as tenants is simply nonsensical. Lichter has been saying all along that his plans were to have additional tenants, hopefully some of Elio’s suppliers.

Assuming that what he told me is true and that Elio Motors is proceeding as scheduled, if they do get their trikes built, they’ll be serviced at Pep Boys shops, or at least the 90% of Elios that the company predicts will be sold in the 35 states and Puerto Rico where Pep Boys’ 800 stores have 7,500 service bays. Elio is currently evaluating service options in the remaining 15 states and the District of Columbia. The repair chain will also handle parts and related logistics for Elio. As yet, Elio has not announced any plans to export or build their trike overseas.

The repair and warranty deal with Pep Boys does raise a question. There were three “Pep boys”, Emmanuel Rosenfeld, Maurice Strauss, and W. Graham Jackson – Manny, Moe, and Jack (actually, the chain had a fourth original founder, another Moe named Radavitz, but he sold his share before the tripartite brand name was coined), and the Elio trike is only a two-seater. As yet there is no word on which of the three is going to have to walk.

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

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Elio Motors Update: Latest Prototype Shown, Lease & Contracts Signed, Factory Stores Announced http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/elio-motors-update-latest-prototype-shown-lease-contracts-signed-factory-stores-announced/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/elio-motors-update-latest-prototype-shown-lease-contracts-signed-factory-stores-announced/#comments Fri, 25 Apr 2014 11:00:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=771194 Since we last looked at Elio Motors, the startup that plans on selling an 84 mpg, $6,800 tandem reverse trike to people looking to replace 15 year old beaters, there have been a number of developments involving the company. To begin with, the start of production has been pushed back until the beginning of 2015. […]

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Since we last looked at Elio Motors, the startup that plans on selling an 84 mpg, $6,800 tandem reverse trike to people looking to replace 15 year old beaters, there have been a number of developments involving the company. To begin with, the start of production has been pushed back until the beginning of 2015. Though Elio had originally announced that production would start in Q4 of this year, there were delays in finalizing the real estate deal for the former General Motors assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana where Elio plans to build their vehicles, including assembling their own engines (whose preliminary specifications have been announced). There have also be some changes to the car’s design as it gets closer to production, with a fourth prototype being introduced. Finally, Elio has announced how they will market and service the vehicle. Like Tesla, they will be setting up factory owned stores to sell directly to customers. Those stores, though, won’t be providing service.

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At the beginning of 2013, Elio and Louisiana state officials announced that the startup automaker would be using about a third of the more than 4 million square feet of vacant manufacturing space at GM’s Shreveport factory. The announced plan was going to be that Elio investor Stuart Lichter’s Industrial Realty Group was going to buy the plant from RACER Trust, which is selling off properties formerly owned by pre-bankruptcy General Motors, and that Elio would in turn lease part of the plant from IRG. Sometime during the course of 2013 that plan changed to the Caddo Parish Commision’s Industrial Development Board buying the plant for approximately $7.5 milion, with IRG leasing the entire facility and then subleasing part of it to Elio. The factory is in Caddo Parish. After a lawsuit challenging the purchase was dismissed, earlier this year the county bought the plant and the deal was consummated. Subsequent to finalizing the real estate transaction Elio announced that they would start what they describe as “significant” hiring  in the fourth quarter of this year, with total employment of 1,500 reached after production starts in 2015.

IRG said that it hopes to attract at least some of Elio’s suppliers to locate operations in the remaining 2.6 million square feet that Elio is not using. In addition to announcing when hiring for the plant will begin, now that they have a lease, the company has contracted with Comau Inc. to provide automation services for the factory’s body and engine shops. Elio will be welding up their own space frames and attaching composite body panels to those frames. Comau will be supplying the robots and machinery to do so. Elio will also be assembling their own engines, designed exclusively for them by IAV. Comau will be providing the transfer machinery for Elio’s engine assembly.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The preliminary specs on that engine have been released. It’s a fairly conventional water cooled single overhead cam 0.9 liter 3 cylinder engine with two valves per cylinder and sequential port fuel injection. The crankcase, heads and oil sump will all be made of cast aluminum. The power ratings are 55 hp and 55 lb-ft of torque. Some of the people who have made reservations for an Elio trike have expressed disappointment that the engine will be smaller and have less power than the 1.0 liter 70 hp engine that Elio had previously mentioned. It doesn’t look like anyone’s cancelling their reservations yet, though.

Speaking of reservations, when I spoke to the company’s VP of retail operations, Jerome Vassallo, about a month ago, he told me that they’d gotten over 11,000 paid reservations for the as yet unnamed vehicle. At the time, based on previous announcements, my guess was that about 1,000 people a month were signing on. Elio now says they now have over 14,600 reservations so it looks like the rate is accelerating.  How many of those reservations are at the impulse purchase level of $100 and how many represent a serious financial commitment to the Elio concept haven’t been publicly revealed.

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There have also been some changes now that the P4 prototype has been revealed. The company is chasing after that 84 mpg figure because they want to be able to get triple the average fuel economy of the American fleet of cars. Towards that end the body has had some aero refinement since I saw it last summer. Headlights are now mounted flush with the body on the hood of the vehicle instead of in Plymouth Prowler style pods sticking out from the sides. The roofline has been extended all the way to to the rear, eliminating the notchback, except for a small ducktail spoiler. The changes are to smooth the airflow, and there’s also now a more pronounced Kamm back. The new roofline has an added benefit of slightly increasing cargo space. The front wheels’ cycle style fenders are now fully skirted, and the company says that it will offer different style fenders as accessories.

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Apparently, aerodynamic concerns have also resulted in a new front suspension design. The previous prototype used a classic double wishbone setup with a coilover shock absorber/spring running diagonally from the outboard end of the lower control arm to an upper mount on the frame. They’re still using unequal length control arms but they’ve taken the coilover unit out of the airflow and mounted it inside the body fairing using a trick setup. The upper shock mount is still on the frame, but the lower end of the shock absorber is located by a pivoting link attached to the lower frame. A narrow pull rod runs from the lower shock mount to the outboard end of the upper control arm.

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In addition to the mechanical and exterior changes, the Elio trike will be getting a nicer interior than used in the previous prototype, with color matched panels. Also, regarding interior features, Elio announced what I think is a rather clever way of keeping up with consumers who expect modern infotainment. The Engineering Services unit of Continental tire is going to be providing electrical engineering and architecture support for the production Elio vehicles. In other words, they’re designing the wiring harness and engine control unit. If you think that a tire company is an unusual choice for an E/E supplier, particularly since Elio has already announced that Cooper will be supplying their OEM tires, Continental owns electronics and instrument supplier VDO.

That connection with VDO will produce Elio’s version of infotainment, a clever application of something VDO developed for the over the road trucking industry. Today’s consumers expect some form of infotainment electronics on their cars. A small company like Elio doesn’t have the resources to develop something like Ford’s Sync/My Ford Touch or Chrysler’s UConnect. Last year, Continental Commercial Vehicles & Aftermarket and VDO introduced the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station (FSDS). FSDS was designed to integrate over-the-road truck drivers’ smartphones with their vehicles and by offering it in their three wheeler, Elio takes care of the “how do you offer Nav on a cheap car?” problem.

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The FSDS has a clamp that will hold most smartphones and comes with a phone app, developed by Continental, that enables the availability of phone features including online services while driving. The unit, which hooks up to your phone via Bluetooth, has an onboard audio amplifier with four channels rated at 20 Watts per channel, an integrated station seeking FM tuner, and a 5 volt USB tap for charging your phone. In terms of functionality, VDO says that the FSDS app includes the functions drivers require most while driving, such as phone calls, maps, online points of interest, and music selection. All features use text to speech to reduce distracted driving, and the app bundles related services such as  Community (communication & social networking), Vehicle (audio entertainment) and Proximity (individual add-ons) so they can be accessed with a single click.

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As the Elio vehicle nears production, the company has finally announced how it will distribute and sell it. Sixty major markets in the United States have been identified and they will each get at least one factory owned Elio store that will sell directly to customers. With Tesla running up against car dealer franchise laws in Texas, Ohio, Arizona and most recently in New Jersey, I asked Vassallo how Elio plans to deal with the same problem. Here’s where three wheels again come in handy. Though Elio plans to have their vehicle meet automotive level safety and crash standards, as a three wheeler, it’s legally considered a motorcycle and thus has an easier and cheaper certification process. According to Vassallo, their status as a motorcycle, as opposed to an automobile, manufacturer will make a difference when it comes to operating factory stores in some states. He specifically mentioned that Harley-Davidson has factory owned stores, though he didn’t say whether those stores were in Texas or the other states that are problematic for Tesla. I checked with Harley-Davidson about factory owned stores and at the time of this publication, I’m still waiting for their PR contact to get back to me about whether H-D has factory owned stores in Texas, New Jersey, Ohio or Arizona. For the record, the Texas dealer franchise laws, which are considered to be the strongest in the country, cover any motorized road vehicle with at least two wheels.

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Interestingly, while the factory stores will sell the Elio vehicles and accessories, if you buy an Elio, you won’t get it serviced directly by the company. Contracts have been signed and an announcement will be forthcoming that an existing nationwide chain of automotive service centers will be responsible for maintenance, service and warranty work on the Elio trikes. Parts and service are major profit generators for traditional car dealers, so it’s surprising that the manufacturer would pass up that revenue, but there are costs associated with setting up parts supply and logistics and many companies today do outsource that kind of stuff.

Finally, Vassallo told me that sometime soon, Elio Motors will make a major announcement concerning investors. Since the company is privately held, my guess is that they’re either going to announce an initial public offering of stock, a major investor, or some kind of program where potential buyers of the Elio trike can also invest in the company. Again, those are guesses.

When the Elio project started getting attention, just about everyone who commented on it assumed it was at best vaporware and at worst a scam. As I said last summer, three wheeled high gas mileage vehicles with composite bodies don’t have a great track record of actually getting to market (cf. Dale et al). Some have questioned Elio’s financials, resulting in comment flame wars between Elio skeptics and the Elio faithful, presumably folks with deposits down. I don’t know much about financials, but being the contrarian that I am, I said last summer that there wasn’t any reason why Elio shouldn’t be able to make a three wheeler with those performance, safety and fuel economy specifications at that price point and nothing has happened since then to change my mind. Think of the Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris and subtract 25% of the cost.

I do question whether it will be cheaper for Elio to build their own motor than buy one of the 1 liter or smaller engines, mostly three cylinders, that are proliferating like mushrooms in the auto industry. When Morgan reintroduced the 3 Wheeler, they chose to buy engines from aftermarket V-Twin maker S&S, not build their own. Last year Caterham introduced an entry level Seven with a 660cc turbocharged triple made by Suzuki. There’s no shame in buying engines. Back in the day, Continental Motors supplied many independent automakers, with both stock and custom designed engines.

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On the other hand, Elio is planning on production levels far beyond those of specialist makers like Morgan and Caterham. At large enough production numbers, it’s likely to be cheaper to build your own motors.

Perhaps Elio Motors’ sums don’t add up. Certainly their backer IRG’s reliance on Caddo Parish’s purchase of the Shreveport assembly plant after publicly announcing only months earlier that IRG would be buying it themselves doesn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence in their stated plans. If the project ends up stillborn, or worse, a scam, I’ll be the first to say that I was wrong, but in the meantime I’m trying to keep an open mind about Elio.

There are genuine reasons to be skeptical, but from a manufacturing engineering standpoint, they can get the thing built and meet their stated performance specs. At the recent SAE World Congress I spoke to people from Comau and IAV about Elio Motors. Obviously, they aren’t going to say anything negative about a business partner, but when I brought up the fact that skeptics think Elio might be smoke and mirrors, the engineers from those firms said it wasn’t likely that their employers would sign contracts for vaporware.

Speaking of contracts and “vaporware”, as this post was being finished, Elio Motors and Flame-Spray Industries announced that FSI will be providing Elio with Plasma Transferred Wire Arc (PTWA) equipment. PTWA is a process that sprays a vapor of molten steel, depositing a thin, 150 micron layer of steel alloys on aluminum engine cylinder walls, eliminating the need for heavier inserted cast iron liners for the piston rings to ride on. PTWA was originally invented by Ford materials science and nanotech engineer Matthew Zaluzec, who started working on it in the early 1990s. FoMoCo then brought in Flame-Spray and Honsel to develop and market the process.

PTWA was first introduced on high performance engines, the supercharged 662 hp V8 in the Mustang Shelby GT500 and the 545 hp twin turbo V6 in Nissan’s GT-R. Flame-Spray markets PTWA as a weight-saving technique and my guess is that weight savings has a lot more significant impact on fuel economy when the vehicle has 1/10th the power and about a quarter of the weight of the GT-R, as is the case with the Elio tadpole.

By this time next year, we’ll know if Elio is for real or not. Actually, we’ll know by the end of this year, when Paul Elio says that his company will finally start hiring people to work at the Shreveport factory. The real estate is secured, they’ve contracted for production equipment, now let’s see if they start hiring some folks to man that equipment.

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

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Is This The Future of In-Car Infotainment? Continental’s Flexible Smartphone Docking Station http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/is-this-the-future-of-in-car-infotainment-continentals-flexible-smartphone-docking-station/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/is-this-the-future-of-in-car-infotainment-continentals-flexible-smartphone-docking-station/#comments Sat, 19 Apr 2014 16:31:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=797898 Former Hyundai executive John Krafcik recently spoke about connectivity and autonomy and of the possibility that electronic gizmos in our cars may make us less connected to the driving experience. That’s not the only challenge automakers and drivers face when it comes to electronics in cars. After seeing the missteps that Ford has made with […]

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Former Hyundai executive John Krafcik recently spoke about connectivity and autonomy and of the possibility that electronic gizmos in our cars may make us less connected to the driving experience. That’s not the only challenge automakers and drivers face when it comes to electronics in cars. After seeing the missteps that Ford has made with Sync and MyFordTouch, with systems seemingly too complicated or not reliable enough for many drivers, it appears to me that the challenge of chasing a technological treadmill to try and keep cars, which most consumers keep for years, electronically up to date, is a fools errand. Comments to Derek’s post on Krafcik’s statement indicated that there’s definitely a market for less complicated car electronics. People have asked, “why does my car need to duplicate the more up-to-date services that my smartphone provides?” Well, someone at Continental Tire’s electronics and instrument division, VDO, asked that same question and they came up with the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station.

Actually, they didn’t ask that precise question because the FSDS seems to have been originally intended for use in commercial trucks, not passenger cars, but it should work with any 12 volt electrical system. I found out about Continental’s phone dock while I was updating our coverage of Elio Motors and the inexpensive three wheeler they say they’ll start making and selling next year. As part of the deal for Continental to provide Elio with electrical and electronic engineering services that include the vehicle’s wiring harness and engine control unit, Elio will also offer the FSDS system as an option on their trikes. It’s a clever and seemingly cost-effective way of providing what we now call infotainment without having to spend lots of money developing software that will be obsolete while the original owners are still driving their cars. I go over the FSDS in my update about Elio, but not everyone is interested in the Elio trike, and this has relevance to the general discussion of connectivity complexity so I thought I’d break this out into a separate post with a bit more detail.

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Continental’s Flexible Smartphone Docking Station (FSDS) has simple controls and software designed for one-click operation.

Continental’s Commercial Vehicles & Aftermarket division, along with VDO, introduced the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station (FSDS) at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show and has been showing it since then at trucking industry trade shows as part of a suite of connectivity products. The FSDS system was designed to let truck drivers’ integrate their smartphones with their vehicles. It appears that Continental is also marketing it as AutoLinQ™Mobile. AutoLinQ is Continental’s brand for in-vehicle connectivity.

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The FSDS installed in the Elio Motors trike.

The phone mounts to the FSDS with a mechanical clamp designed to hold most smartphones and comes with a phone app, developed by Continental, that enables the availability of phone features, including online services, while driving. The unit, which connects  to the smartphone via standard Bluetooth profiles, has an onboard audio amplifier with four channels rated at 20 Watts per channel, an integrated station seeking FM tuner, a 5 volt USB tap for charging your phone and it’s already configured to interface with your vehicle via the CAN bus (which to me sounds like your phone could theoretically be used to control some of your car’s features, just like a built in touch screen). Audio files on thumb drives and memory cards can also be accessed via the USB port on the FSDS’ mounting plate.

In terms of what you can do with it, VDO says that the FSDS app includes the smartphone functions drivers require most while driving, such as phone calls, maps, online points of interest, and music selection. All features use text to speech to reduce distracted driving, and the app bundles related services such as Community (communication & social networking), Vehicle (audio entertainment) and Proximity (individual add-ons) so they can be accessed with a single click. The FSDS is sized to fit a standard single height DIN slot so it can easily be installed in any vehicle made to take a radio. The controls appear to be simple, with just a power switch and a four-position controller.

When they introduced it last year Continental was promoting the FSDS to OEMs and fleets, though it’s being marketed by the same part of Continental that sells to the aftermarket and it’s got obvious potential as something people might want to use to update older cars that have “radios” and “stereos”, not “infotainment”. TTAC has a request in to Continental for pricing information and any news on consumer availability.

With production lead times measured in years rather than months, car makers can’t possibly keep up with the changes in digital consumer electronics and related software applications. By the time a car company’s latest revision to their infotainment systems hits the showrooms, it’s obsolete compared to what many car buyers already have in their pockets and purses. My first thought was that other car companies may follow Elio’s lead and offer the FSDS or something very  much like it in order to provide modern infotainment features in their entry level cars. On second thought, considering that Audi had some consumer issues with early iterations of their MMI system, some folks hate Cadillac’s CUE interface, and Jaguar’s touchscreens’ slow response became a cliche for car reviewers, smartphone or tablet based “infotainment” systems may not be restricted to just the low end of the market.

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

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Elio Motors – It Just Might Be For Real, So to Check it Out, TTAC Rolls Consumer Reports Style and Puts Skin in the Game http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/08/elio-motors-it-just-might-be-for-real-so-to-check-it-out-ttac-rolls-consumer-reports-style-and-puts-skin-in-the-game/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/08/elio-motors-it-just-might-be-for-real-so-to-check-it-out-ttac-rolls-consumer-reports-style-and-puts-skin-in-the-game/#comments Sat, 24 Aug 2013 12:53:04 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=500592 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 […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In the production car, HVAC controls will be on the left and a radio on the right. It’s a little bit cozy, but most folks should fit just fine. You have as much room as in a conventional car with bucket seats and a console.

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.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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.

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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).

Exterior dimensions:
Overall Length: 160.5″
Front Wheel Track: 66.8″
Wheelbase: 110″
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

Cargo space:
27″ x 14″ x 10″ (extends to 47″+ with rear seat down)

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What’s the point of a back window? The small side back windows don’t do much for your passenger’s claustrophobia but they do eliminate blind spots.

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.

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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.IMG_0033

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Stereo pics here.

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

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The post Elio Motors – It Just Might Be For Real, So to Check it Out, TTAC Rolls Consumer Reports Style and Puts Skin in the Game appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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