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Is 84 MPG for $6,800 too good to be true? Not with a few compromises

Yes, Elio Motors plans to introduce a $6,800 vehicle next year that will be capable of 84 miles per gallon the highway. The catch: it isn’t entirely a car.

Founded by Paul Elio in 2008, Elio Motors plans to change the way people commute to work every day. The company is offering a three-wheeled two-passenger vehicle that, while legally classified as a motorcycle, is far closer to a car and could find its way into a great number of American driveways. Though its targeted production was recently delayed from March to September 2015, this vehicle could still become reality.

The Elio Motors car (yes, that is its name) boasts a stratospheric 84 MPG on the highway and a more earthly 49 MPG in the city – the vehicle is clearly optimized for highway aerodynamics, requiring very little energy to slice through the air with a minimized drag coefficient and frontal area. Weighing about 1200 pounds, it will be powered by a 0.9L, 55-hp 3-cylinder engine coupled to a 5-speed automatic or manual transmission, depending on your preference.

Elio’s website claims 22,188 reservations already for the three-wheeled efficiency wonder. This number is likely inflated somewhat, though, by the fact that reservations can be had for as little as $100. The Elio Motors car is targeting production beginning sometime in 2015.

The vehicle will be available in all major U.S. markets and allegedly can be serviced at any Pep Boys. It will feature content from over 20 experienced suppliers and will be manufactured at a plant in Shreveport, Louisiana that will create 1,500 jobs.

Standard features on the Elio are bare-bones at best, and the company is not ashamed to admit it; stripping the vehicle down to the bare essentials is what allows such a low starting price. However, the Elio will come with climate control, an AM/FM stereo, power windows and doors, and a whopping three airbags.

How effective will those airbags be?

Fortunately for Elio, the car will be officially classified as a motorcycle. This will allow it to slide through under far less rigid safety standards than those passenger cars must adhere to, although Elio isn’t using that as an excuse. The company plans to put their vehicle through the same crash tests as regular automobiles and claims it will get top marks.

We are somewhat skeptical of the “top marks,” given that the vehicle will cost just $6,800 and the company doesn’t have the monetary or engineering resources to devote the same attention to safety as major automakers.

That’s not to say it won’t perform adequately in crash tests, though. Elio wouldn’t claim top marks if it wasn’t confident it would at least do reasonably well with the standardized crash tests. It will also come equipped with anti-lock brakes, traction control, and electronic stability control. On the road, though, it won’t fare well in a high-speed collision with a much heavier vehicle simply due to the laws of physics.

Following in the footsteps of Tesla

Elio Motors plans to adopt a sales model eerily similar to that of Tesla: the company suggests “think ‘genius-bar’ as opposed to in-your-face plaid jacket high pressure” with universal pricing, suggesting retail stores akin to Tesla’s galleries to sell direct to consumers. The key difference is that, being legally a motorcycle, the Elio Motors car can avoid the same legislative headaches that have plagued Tesla.

Customers will be able to customize and order their Elio at the stores, and traditional financing will be available alongside a bizarre optional payment plan involving a pay-as-you-fuel strategy enabling customers to pay for their vehicle over time each time they fill up the gas tank.

Ambitious expectations

Elio Motors hopes to sell 50,000-60,000 cars in its first full year of production, eventually increasing to 250,000 units annually. The reason for such high hopes? As Paul Elio has said, the company wants its vehicle “to be an ‘and’ not an ‘or.’” Elio expects its car to be an addition to households that have a larger car for all-purpose use; as cheap as it is, the Elio can easily be added for commuting purposes only and save families a great deal of money on gas.

Jerome Vassallo, VP of sales, points out to Forbes that “as a commuter, 93 percent of the time you’re in a car by yourself.” Elio is targeting customers that want to save money on their commute while keeping a more practical vehicle at home. It is effectively a motorcycle for people that are worried about the danger and unfamiliarity of riding a motorcycle.

Obstacles in the road to realization

But there’s one of the major potential pitfalls: as a legal motorcycle, drivers in some states could be required to obtain a motorcycle license. Considering it is operated as a car, we believe a motorcycle license shouldn’t be necessary, but the details have yet to be worked out.

Another looming issue is that of helmet laws. If the vehicle is legally a motorcycle, the driver could be required to wear a helmet in some states, which would certainly be a huge put-off. It will be down to Elio to create exceptions for its vehicle if it wants to be universally appealing.

Then there is the question of whether the vehicle will be good enough to merit buying. Most reviewers of the prototype version came away underwhelmed with the experience, one saying it “didn’t feel like anything I would want to buy.” That was only a prototype, however, and the first iterations of any new vehicle are often rough approximations of the final product.

We’ll leave it to Vassallo to make the final argument for the Elio Motors car. “We’ll never get around the need for a big vehicle – there will still be boats to be towed to the lake and kids to be driven to soccer practice or school,” he points out. “But the kids and the boats don’t come to the office with us every day, and it’s wasteful to drive a big sedan or SUV with most of the seats unoccupied to travel maybe 10 or 20 miles at a time.”

It will be intriguing to find out if Americans will seriously consider his words. For some, the lure of a $6,800 commuter vehicle that could save thousands on gasoline every year will be more than enough. Here’s hoping this start-up follows the fate of Tesla rather than most every other automotive newcomer.

Would you buy an Elio? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.


Dino3721 (not verified)    June 29, 2014 - 11:20PM

I just placed my down payment. I think your article forgot some important facts. This car is built in America, and has 90% American parts. There is no new technology here. The features are great for an entry level car. And the design is amazing. I had a Geo metro and if was very basic, and that made it easy to work on, and less to break. I think the company has a combination of great ideas. Yes, I would buy it, and yes I have down payment made. I am not expecting a sports car. I am expecting fun transportation to and from work- a 60 mile round trip.

David Sutherland (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 6:28AM

Common sense tells me Aaron is right but my heart hopes he's wrong. I'm a senior citizen and the Elio would be ideal for my needs and budget. I own a car and a pick up truck and am the sole driver yet seldom drive even 300 miles a month. This car (?) makes great sense to me and perhaps others like me (I live in Florida) and I can even see this as an ideal first vehicle for a lot of kids. It could be an alternative to electrics and hybrids, with 49/84 it seems to be right in the sweet spot. I wrote Elio and suggested they take it on the "Shark Tank" (TV show) it would be great exposure and they would have to answer questions that many are asking and even generate some much needed financial support?

Gerard Starks (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 7:14AM

I may be naive or too trusting on gut feelings but to my mind there is just too much involvement and commitment by heavy hitters in the automotive industry for this to be a sham. It will happen.

Roger Wildermuth (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 8:36AM

I have one 'reserved'..... It will be WORTH the wait! Will meet 95% of my daily driving needs (retired and no children).

Dino3721 (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 9:51AM

It takes the big players 5 years plus to come out with a new model. There will be delays. I have faith. I love their concept. The best parts of Saturn- plastic body, no haggle pricing,- the best of the big boys 800 service locations, a price that can't be beat, value- all the options people need, and a design that is stunning. I am fine with delays if the finished product meets their expectations. If it gets built and they meet the expectations- I would be shocked if they do not sell them faster than they could make them. I love their bussiness plan- totally makes sense. Made USA, Good value, great milage, stay focused (it is not a car for a family- stay true to the single driver), keep technology low and simple, make it safe, and a design that turns heads. I would buy their stock in a heartbeat. it will be a great 2nd car. My advice to them is as soon as they can- get one on a TV show. They are creating a market that no one has tried before- I hope they win big!.

Col Mosby (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 10:35AM

Luke Ottaway really ought to do some research before writing articles about subjects he obviously isn't
very familiar with. In the first place, the Elio is considered a motorcycle by the FEDS, not necessarily the states. Had Luke bothered to look, Elio website details the states that do and don't require a motorcycle license. NJ just changed their law, which was stupid, as everyone realized, and as of now only 5 states still have such dopey laws and all of them are certain to fall in line before any Elio hits the showroom. I'm not sure how many states still have helmut laws, but any that do will assuredly change. Luke also is apparently ignorant of the fact that the Elio has performed better in crash tests EVEN WITHOUT ANY AIRBAGS than have several 5 star rated reguar sedans Luke also misses the point that a light car can rebound after impact more easily than a heavier vehicle, rather than sit there and be crushed. It's also odd that a light vehicle will be criticized while heavier vehicles that can do so much more damage are somehow "preferred."
After following the Elio story for a month or so, it's quite obvious that Paul has overcome all of the obstacles - he now has a factory site in hand, he is working on his fifth prototype and has the remaining money required for start up promised and almost at hand. Anyone who thnks this car won't make it to market is living in a dream world.
Luke also has missed the boat with his comment about the "driving experience" of the prototypes.
I can say with authority that the seats of the Elio are superb and the central driving position far
superior. The steering is heavy, but claims that a 1200 pound car will have to have heavy steering are ludicrous. There is simply no conceivable way this car will not be fun and easy to drive. The specs tell you that much, if you know anything about cars. Each of the first four prototypes differed significntly
from the previous version. Much of what was in each was simply there as a place holder - the first dashboards and steering wheel, which some ignorant auto journalists griped about, were never destined to be part of the final product. The engine itself is not the production version, but a three cylinder swiped off some Geo. Ditto for the steering box, a subject of some complaint. Criticisms
of prototype 1 are mostly obsolete come prototype number 4, which is NOT, repeat NOT, the final version. Complaints about two seats completely misunderstand the purpose of the Elio. It was
not designed to be a family car, unless the family is childless. The size of its intended audience is still gigantic - low income singles and childless couples, retired couples or single retirees, students, or as a commuter or second car. Its emissions are also prodigiously low (less than a third the carbon emissions of the Tesla Model S , highway), and every Elio placed of the road eliminates more than 50% of the gasoline consumption of an average car. All this comes at a very low price - less than 1/12th the cost of the average Tesla Models S. So would anyone care to explain why the brainless Federal govt will pay Tesla owners $7500 subsidies,Elio owners none, in order to reduce oil dependencies and carbon emissions? Bang for subsidy buck spent shows Eio to be at least 30 times
more effective than Tesla, highway, and 6 times more effective reducing oil dependencies. And why the Tesla pays no road taxes, despite the fact that its 4700 pounds will do a lot more wear and tear
on our highways than the 1200 pound Elio? Every subsidy dollar should go to Elio and none to Tesla.
As for standard equipment, the Elio is, you know, designed for a low price. To criticize a $6800 vehicle that has most of what people want(A/C power windows radio) is positively bizarre, and
dopey. The Elio also promises a turbocharged version which should allow, after some comparisons to the new/old three-wheeled Morgan, for zero to sixty times of close to, or even less than, 6 seconds. A pocket rocket. They will sell a BILLION Elio vehicles. THAT should be obvious.

Aaron Turpen    June 30, 2014 - 11:39AM

In reply to by Col Mosby (not verified)

Actually, you should do your research, Col. There is no "factory in hand." The factory is MAYBE going to be partially leased to Elio, but so far, the company has not ponied up any cash to secure it. Second, the car has NOT HAD ANY CRASH TESTING DONE. None. At all. All of the crash test data you refer to are merely computer simulations. Third, their latest financials show that they DO NOT have the money required to get started (roughly $200M), only the money to keep themselves on track for this year for continued development. Which is why they issued yet another delay for production a couple of months ago.

All of this is pretty easy to find, man. I've been following Elio for three years and am convinced that it's never actually going to happen; at least, not as promised. They started in detroit five or six years ago and have been "18 months away" since.

Dino3721 (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 12:49PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

I have done the research. I am still all in. We understand it is a prototype, and I understand the challenges. Could I lose my cash? yes. it is worth it me to invest in a dream I believe in. They are doing this smart. Using 80% parts already in production is brilliant. No new technology is smart- Most start-ups that fail are for re-inventing the wheel, and trying to make all the parts themselves. I believe the delay was do to a legal issue that has been resolved with the plant. I expect more delays- it is normal for a new car. You can see the impossible, i see the dream. So far they have a great concept, and are learning from other failed start-ups. Will the FEDS test the car? who knows- but I like the safety features. To be honest, I hope there are delays- I want the car right- not fast.

Luke Ottaway    June 30, 2014 - 12:47PM

In reply to by Col Mosby (not verified)

That's a bit harsh, Col. In addition to Aaron's defense (thanks Aaron) I'll add that overall I am not criticizing the Elio. I thought that was rather obvious from the tone of the article. As for the prototype, I was simply reiterating the experience of the majority of automotive press who got to drive early versions. As I pointed out, prototype cars are always rough around the edges, especially from small start-ups. It's not necessarily indicative of the quality of the production version. And as far as the motorcycle law issues are concerned, pretty much every state will be required to register the vehicle as a motorcycle based on the federal classification (this statement came from Chip Stempeck, Elio VP of marketing, last August). The helmet laws should be less of a problem, as not many states mandate them and those that do may be persuaded to make an exception for Elio. I want to see the Elio do well, but every story like this requires cautious optimism.

jim (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 11:20AM

I am ready to buy two of them one for me and one for my wife.I can put up with a helmet, & a little bit of noise, for 84 miles to the gallon.

Sue (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 11:50AM

We already have a deposit down for one for my son. By the time they start rolling off the assembly line, he will have saved enough money from his part-time after-school job to pay cash. With a 5-star crash rating, a roll cage, and 3 airbags, I feel comfortable about his safety in it too.

Parks McCants    June 30, 2014 - 11:53AM

Can you say Corbin Sparrow? I knew you could... I love the idea of an affordable 3 wheeler and would purchase one (now) if available. The problem (as I see it) is the un-realistic base price. Case in point: Any motorcycle manufacturer selling in North America. The base price of the Elio is lower than a midsize 2 wheeler. While I do expect the Elio to make market, the price tag does not lend itself to corporate sustainability. Interesting Read Luke. Thanks.

dino3721 (not verified)    June 30, 2014 - 12:59PM

I hate to hog the posting but I have to say- it is amazing to me how auto journalist are in aw of the Telsa. Are they nice yes, but they were not giddy over the Volt. Tesla has had 2 fires, their cost is not possible for most people, they are government partially funded, and the last review I read love the car- but at the end said the transmission would not go out of 1st gear- that car is due out next year. I would must rather see our government help out Elio- they are creating jobs, and a product that people can afford. I do not hate Tesla - it is just the cost has to factor in a review. I think of Elio as the Model A- Ford made it cheap enough for anyone to buy it- and sold it in huge numbers.