Rocket Fuel

Consumer Reports

Startup company Elio Motors is closer to achieving its goal of selling an American-made, three-wheel vehicle by securing a former General Motors plant in Louisiana. The lease and financial assistance from the state moves the low-cost Elio “car” closer to a production reality.

With a target price under $7,000, the Elio tandem two-seater looks like an Automotive X Prize contestant. During that 2010 competition, we saw numerous thrifty vehicles combine two- or three-wheels with a variety of small engine or alternative powertrains to achieve extreme fuel efficiency. Most existed as proof-of-concept prototypes, and precious few will ever see production.

Consider the Elio to be X Prize realized. This new model will have a gasoline engine driving its two front wheels; the company promises fuel economy of 84 mpg. That’s the kind of fuel economy you’ll likely see from a scooter. The price is also comparable to some high-end scooters. .

The Elio has a single door on the left and rides on three wheels so it can be registered as a motorcycle and avoid emissions, fuel economy, and safety certifications. That also means it will be able to drive solo in carpool lanes.

The company says the “car” will come with a 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty, have three air bags, antilock brakes, and “50-percent larger crush zones than similar cars.” (Although we can’t think of any similar cars, except for the post-war micro bubble cars BMW Isetta or Messerschmitt KR200. In fact, it really isn’t a car, but rather a motorcycle.) Elio Motors says it expects a five-star crash-test rating from the government based on computer models. Few other details are available, but the company is poised to begin taking orders.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Corbin Motors proposed such a car in 2003. It produced a few hundred examples of its electric Sparrow and had a V-twin gas-engine model called Merlin on the drawing board before it went under. And X-Prize contender Aptera had a daring three-wheel concept with electric power and proposed building a hybrid. Both “cars” had much higher prices than the Elio, and obviously neither came to fruition.

We’ll be interested to see if Elio manages to avoid the same fate, and if it finds enough drivers looking for cheap and unusual transportation.

See our guide to alternative fuels.


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