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UT San Diego

3-wheeled car geared for solo commuter

SOURCE: UT San Diego

By Morgan Lee 4:23 P.M.OCT. 2, 2014

An upstart automaker from Michigan is hoping to hit it big with a tiny three-wheeled car geared toward the solo commuter.

Privately held Elio Motors has designed its namesake vehicle to achieve 84 mile-per-gallon fuel economy on the highway with a standard gasoline engine and no hybrid-electric wizardry.

The Elio weighs just 1,200 pounds, less than half the heft of a Honda Civic. A narrow cockpit, just wide enough for the driver and a tandem rear passenger, dramatically reduces air resistance. A small trunk accommodates a flight-sized carry-on bag, or a duffel with the rear seat folded down.

Sales staff call it a handy second or third car, to complement a family sedan, minivan or SUV. At a base price of $6,800, they say, the Elio quickly pays for itself in fuel savings and by keeping mileage off primary family vehicles.

 

Specs

Body: Tandem, two- passenger configuration with one side door

Fuel economy: 84 mpg highway, 50 mpg city

Gas tank: 8 gallons

Weight: 1,200 pounds

Price: $6,800 base price with manual transmission. (Automatic optional)

Availability: Production starts next year

 

“It’s cheaper than a golf cart, it’s cheaper than a lot of Vespa scooters,” said Jerome Vassallo, vice president of sales. “It uses a lot less fuel than any used car on the market.”

To stir up interest, Elio Motors has been taking a head-turning prototype on the road to fairs and festivals, from Sundance Film in Idaho to Albuquerque’s hot air Balloon Fiesta. The Elio pulls in Friday for the Miramar Air Show in San Diego.

“We’ve got 35,000 (purchase) reservations that speak to the excitement level and that’s without any TV advertising,” said Jerome Vassallo, vice president of sales. “You don’t have to oversell a $6,800 car.”

In Southern California, the Elio is sure to evoke memories of Aptera Motors and its failed attempts to bring a futuristic three-wheeled electric vehicle to market. The Carlsbad-based company went bankrupt in 2011 after failing to raise enough private funding to qualify for financing from the Department of Energy, despite a letter of support from U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.

Elio Motors also has applied for financing by the Department of Energy. Applicants for the Advance Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan must prove they are financially viable in their own right, without additional federal funding.

Elio Motors may otherwise qualify based on vehicle fuel economy and by re-equipping a manufacturing plant. Conventional technology, however, is the special sauce inside the Elio business model. Much of its car will be assembled from off-the-shelf parts made originally for other vehicles.

Three-wheel cars have been mass-produced before with limited success. The lineage includes the 1950s era “Kabinenroller” series by German airplane manufacturer Messerschmitt and the Italian-designed Isetta microcar with a single, front-facing door. (The Elio has one hinged side door on the driver’s left side.)

The German automotive engineering firm IAV has been tasked with designing the Elio’s 0.9-liter, three-cylinder engine to squeeze out more torque than a similar sized motorcycle motor. Another experienced industrial partner, Comau, will handle factory robotics.

The federal government, meanwhile, has classified the Elio as a motorcycle.

The designation means the Elio is likely to enjoy open access to “HOV” lanes reserved for high-occupancy vehicles. But it also sent Elio Motors on a state-by-state expedition seeking exemptions to motorcycle helmet laws. California will not require a helmet and will accept a standard driver’s license, the company said.

When it comes to safety, Elio Motors is offering a long list of assurances.

The vehicle has a roll cage and will come with front and side air bags. Anti-lock brakes along with traction and stability control also will be standard features.

The automaker is engineering the car to earn a five-star crash safety rating by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency, however, has not committed to testing the vehicle, and Elio Motors may pursue a private safety certification.

Vassallo, the sales executive, said that “the weight of the vehicle allows it to be moved out of the way” in the event of a collision.

He lauded the stability of the front-wheel-drive car. Most of the weight is distributed over the front wheels, whose exposed suspension extends beyond the body, much like a 1960s dragster or a 1990s Plymouth Prowler.

Behind the Elio is car enthusiast Paul Elio, an engineer by training who spent his early career with multinational Johnson Controls before forming an engineering company. In 2008, amid the Great Recession, he founded Elio Motors and bought a GM plant when that company filed for bankruptcy protection.

He believes the Elio will have broad appeal.

“Whatever matters to you, this can move the needle on it,” he told The Associated Press recently.

Elio Motors aims to gear up to an annual production rate of 250,000 vehicles within five years. The car will come with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty.

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