NEW YORK — Some time next year, a company called Elio Motors claims it will begin building a car in its Louisiana factory that will get 84 miles per gallon on the highway and that will sell for a base price of $6,800.
It won’t be a tiny little deathtrap, either. It’ll have a five-star crash safety rating. At least, that’s what Elio is promising.
That sounds like the wish-list of someone with zero contact with reality, but Elio Motors executives insist it’s possible thanks to the car’s odd lay-out and the complete lack of any new technology. Yes, these folks actually brag that their car has nothing new on it.
Paul Elio, who founded Elio Motors from the crumbled remains of his auto parts design business, said this car isn’t intended to replace the family car, and by the looks of it, clearly it’s not.
“We want to be an ‘and’ not an ‘or’” he said.
The Elio Motors car — it has no model name and they plan to keep it that way — is a three wheeler. There are two wheels out front, separated from the rest of the body, and one back wheel. The engine — 3 cylinders producing 55 horsepower — rides in the nose driving the front wheels.
The weird three-wheeled shape optimizes aerodynamics by cutting way down on frontal area and giving the car a nearly ideal “teardrop” body. Having only three wheels also allows the Elio car to be, in legal terms, a motorcycle.
That should let the company skate by on much looser safety requirements. But, Elio insists, they don’t plan on taking advantage of that loophole. The car will be tested in regular automobile crash tests and, they insist, it will get top marks.
The prototype car I drove didn’t feel like anything anyone would want to buy. But, it must be pointed out, it really was a prototype. It was noisy — like sitting inside a blender — had a harsh ride and didn’t feel like it was particularly well put together. That’s what you get with prototypes.
Most importantly, the engine was not the final production engine. Rather, it was one “borrowed” from an old three-cylinder Geo Metro subcompact. The new engine will be designed and built specifically for the Elio, and it’s supposed to have advanced features like variable valve lift and timing.
Elio Motors says it’s keeping prices low and chances for success high by keeping things simple. All the parts are being made by established automotive suppliers. The cars will be built in a factory that used to make Hummer H3s and Chevrolet trucks. Even the manufacturing process has been simplified, company executives say. The cars will be built with no options. Most options will be added on after the car is built.
The Elio reminded me of another car: the now defunct Aptera.
The Aptera was an electric car that also used a three-wheel design. It looked like a private aircraft fuselage that was driving itself to the airport. I drove the Aptera back in 2010. That was after years of starts, stalls as the company tried to actually produce its revolutionary new vehicles.
Then, less than a year after I tested the car, Aptera went down for the final time, never having made it to market.
On the other hand, while the Elio car seems crazy and weird, Tesla seemed like a long shot to me once, too. The fact remains, though, start-ups in the auto business have a tough road ahead of them.