SOURCE: Insider Car News
I spent this past weekend test driving and learning all about one of the funkiest cars built in the U.S. The kind folks at Elio Motors, the manufacturers of the grassroots Elio three-wheeled car, invited me out to Los Angeles for a special event. At the event, I spent some time with company owner, Paul Elio, vice president, Jerome Vassallo and its media relations extraordinaire, Pam Vassallo. Though I knew a lot about the Elio brand already, these three taught me that there is so much more to this car than just 84 mpg highway and a $6,800 entry fee.
Forced Induction for the Masses
One thing that stood out in the conversations with the Elio team was the thought of forced induction.
Elio Motors’ three-wheel econo-spaceship looks like something from the future, but it’s actually fairly simple. In fact, once production officially kicks off, it will have an in-house-built 0.9-liter three-cylinder engine with around 55 horsepower – the prototype uses what Pam Vassallo calls “Franken-engine,” a modified Geo Metro three-cylinder.
A three-cylinder engine isn’t one that’ll inspire visions of a lightweight track car, despite its approximately 1,200-pound estimated curb weight. However, in a conversation, Mr. Elio did mention two words that did bring about these thoughts, “forced induction.”
That’s right, Elio’s 84 mpg three-wheeled wonder car will not only deliver fuel economy that will lead all American-made, non-hybrid cars, the company is looking into making it equally fun to drive too. It is still very early on in the process, but according to Mr. Elio, he spoke with Precision Turbo at the last SEMA show, and the folks at Precision showed him that it is possible to safely install a supercharger on this tiny three-wheel auto-cycle.
There is one issue at hand, however, and that is the fact that the production engine will have a 12-to-1 compression ratio. This means that either Elio will need to retune the internals of its engine to accept boost or Precision will need to tune the supercharger system to this high compression ratio.
Regardless of the details, the fact that Elio is considering this as an option is incredible. What’s even more impressive are the numbers the three-cylinder engine is capable of. Though there are no specific horsepower numbers available, the initial estimates put the supercharged Elio’s 0-to-60 sprint at just under five to just under six seconds – that’s four to five seconds quicker than the base model. Those are damn-fine numbers for a car that will likely be less than $10,000, considering the base Elio will run just $6,800.
According to Paul Elio and Jerome Vassallo, the supercharger is likely about a year or two behind the release of the vehicle itself. However, buyers want the car once it hits production but are still interested in the extra boost, Elio will be able to retrofit it on your model post-sale and not void your 3-year/36,000-mile warranty.
Turbo-Diesels and Hybrids for the Win
One other item that piqued my interest actually came from me asking the million-dollar question: why not go electric? According to Pam Vassallo, this is actually on Elio’s radar, but the economics and technology just aren’t there yet. The batteries are still too expensive for the low-cost Elio and the batteries are still just too heavy.
From there, Pam went on to talk about turbo-diesel engines. She feels that this will be the next move for the small three-wheeler. That’s not a surprise, as diesels have proven time and time again in recent history that they can consistently beat their already stellar fuel-economy ratings and deliver pretty fine performance numbers, thanks to their huge torque numbers.
Pam also sees hybrid technology in Elio’s future. Sure, it likely won’t be in the next few years, but it is certainly something that can push the Elio to a whole new level.
Execution is Key
Look, many automakers, startups in particular, make many promises and often fail to deliver. With this trend in mind, Elio needs to tread carefully and calculate its every move. Fortunately, most of its dedicated followers are being patient as the brand slowly perfects its hyper-mileage three-wheeler grassroots style.
Sure, Elio has missed target launch dates, but for good reason. Paul Elio and his team have been painstakingly working toward getting their debut model perfected and they refuse to deliver a subpar product. What’s more, not only is the Elio team working on a new car, but it is also working on getting the old Hummer plant in Shreveport, Louisiana ready to produce the three-wheeled rig.
After speaking with Paul Elio and his team, I think that all of the delays are justified, and they are all because Elio wants to get his company off on the right foot. I salute him for that. If only every startup automaker would take this slow-and-steady route, we’d have more Teslas and fewer Fiskers…
Prototype No. 5 (P5) is “Near-Production”
Yes, Elio Motors is on prototype No. 5. The company has slowly built this car from the ground up using its own designs and ingenuity. The last prototype it built, the P4, was essentially a rough draft of the final copy. At an event held for investors, folks with a reservation, and select media, Elio had a rendering (above) of the new P5 on display.
As you can see, this rendering shows a slightly different look than we saw with the P4 (orange model pictured above). The P5 has a more sloped nose with a more dramatic point and a side-exit exhaust. With these changes, Elio’s three-wheel car looks much sportier and ready for dealerships.
What’s more, according to multiple people within the company, the P5 is very close to what we should see when production kicks off in mid- to late-2016.
Car or Motorcycle; Neither, it’s an Auto-Cycle
There continues to be some confusion with three-wheel cars, like the Elio and the Polaris Slingshot. States can’t seem to agree on whether these are cars or motorcycles, resulting in confusion when crossing state lines. According to Pam Vassallo, the federal government is working on passing a bill to standardize these as “auto-cycles.”
In theory, this bill will allow owners to drive these vehicles throughout the U.S. without the need for a helmet or a motorcycle endorsement, but it will also allow the automakers to leave out certain safety features required for cars, like air bags, traction control, and ABS.
Before you start freaking out thinking the Elio will be unsafe, Vassallo was quick to clarify that Elio is going the car route in terms of safety, as there will be curtain air bags, front air bags, and other safety items found in most cars. What’s more, this tiny machine also features a roll cage to keep you safe in the unlikely event of a rollover.
Vassallo anticipates high safety ratings from both the NHTSA and the IIHS.
Plenty of Tech in a Small Package
In a car this small and this inexpensively priced, it’s fair to expect limited tech features. However, Elio has other plans, as it has teamed up with Infinite Skyz to offer an in-car app that acts as a digital instrument panel, navigation, diagnostic center, and app hub straight out of the box. With the addition of optional cameras, this system can also become a dash cam, a security camera, and a rearview camera. What’s more, it also has a remote-start feature and a climate-control interface, so you can start and pre-warm your Elio from your smartphone.
In the image and in the demonstration video below, you can see that the Infinite Skyz interface is presented on an iPad, but Pam Vassallo assured me that this is purely for demonstration purposes, and the final positioning of the interface has not been determined.
Another neat feature that is in the works and should be a part of the P5 is a new instrument panel. The P4 model uses what looks to be an old Geo Metro gauge cluster, and this certainly won’t be part of the production model. Instead, Paul Elio designed his own, unique cluster that has rotating backlit dials for the speedometer and the tach. The image above shows a prototype of the cluster, but I expect we’ll see a much cleaner finish once the P5 is completed.
Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming Elio brand, as I am sure there will be additional big announcements coming as the model nears its 2016 production goal.