3-wheel car developer promises great fuel efficiency at low cost

12/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Elio Motors, fuel economy, fuel efficiency, environment, technology


A prototype of the Elio three-wheel car has been touring the country with promoters promising 84 MPG.

photo by Janelle Irwin

A fuel efficient car that looks like it could take off and fly at any moment could soon be available on the market for less than some used cars. But some critics worry the three wheeled two-seater might end up costing more than the company claims.

The Elio is expected to get up to 84 miles per gallon on the highway and at least 50 miles per gallon in the city. Jerome Vassallo, Vice President of sales for the Elio Motors, says the fuel economy combines light weight with a sleek design with tandem seating.

“If we were sitting next to each other instead of one behind the other, we would be pushing twice the amount of air as we need when we’re in this vehicle one behind the other. So, around town those aerodynamics really don’t play a role. You rely on a fuel efficient engine and a light weight vehicle, but on the interstate, that air becomes a big factor.”

The three-wheel chassis isn’t all that different than a motorcycle.

“Well, that’s the appearance right? But it is built with a full roll cage, it’s made in an assembly plant – an automotive assembly plant – so the process is a lot different than it is on a motorcycle. Then we enclose it all in a composite body. It has anti-lock breaks, traction control, stability control, air conditioning, heat, power windows and locks and an am/fm radio.”

However, some auto blogs have questioned the wisdom behind creating an enclosed vehicle on three wheels. If states consider them a motorcycle, they could be subject to higher insurance rates, special licensing and motorcycle laws. Florida doesn’t mandate adults to wear a helmet on a motorcycle, but some states do. In those cases, it’s possible drivers would have to wear a helmet inside the enclosed vehicle. Leslie Palmer is the communications director for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. She says those problems won’t be an issue in the Sunshine State.

“Here in the State of Florida we do register them in the same manor as an automobile, but these types of vehicles have to be approved in Washington by the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration. They are considered low emission vehicles. So, once they are registered they are allowed to be driven in our high occupancy vehicle lane. In Florida they are not considered a motorcycle. We do view them as an automobile.”

Competitors like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight get an average of about 50 miles per gallon while the all-electric Nissan Leaf has a fuel equivalency of 100 miles per gallon. More and more people are ditching gas guzzling SUVs for smaller, more economic vehicles, but costs on those hybrids and electric vehicles can soar to more than 40 grand. The proposed sticker price for the Elio is $6800, a number critics suspect may be unattainable. Vassallo claims the car will be built from already manufactured components to help keep expenses down. He adds maintenance on the vehicles is also expected to be inexpensive.

“Those parts were engineered for vehicles weighing 2,000-3,000 pounds and with me only being 1200 pounds, I would anticipate a much longer longevity out of the parts. Another example is the wheels. You know, when you go buy your tires you get them a 25,000 mile tire or a 30,000 or a 40,000 mile tire, but those are rated on vehicles much heavier than ours. So, we don’t know what the ratings will be on the automotive tires we’re using. We anticipate it’ll be a lot longer than what they would be on a vehicle.”

Vassallo says the goal is to make the car available to people who might not be able to afford much more than an older used car while letting them enjoy the benefits of fuel savings. The company is also offering a credit card that can be used for both fuel and a car payment.

“You can come into the dealership and you’ll sign an agreement that says, ‘whenever I put fuel in my Elio I will use this card.’ In return, we charge that card about three times the amount of fuel. So, if you put in $50 that month, you’ll get a credit card bill for $150. $100 of it’s your car payment that month and $50 of it’s your gas. So, if you drive more, you’ll end up paying it off quicker. If you drive less, it’ll take a little bit longer. This way folks that have the job across town but couldn’t take it because they don’t have any transportation and they end up taking two-part time jobs locally, this way they can go out and get the job that would feed their families and get them home in the evenings.”

That’s raising eyebrows on the auto blog-e-sphere. Writers question whether or not the whole deal is too good to be true. Elio Motors hasn’t started production of its vehicles or announced where consumers will be able to purchase them. Instead, consumers can reserve a car now for a discount and some swag as long as they agree to a non-refundable deposit. Some are questioning whether the project will ever take off. Vasallo says the reservation fees are functioning as a sort of investment in the company to make sure manufacturing happens. If it does, the Elio website already lists available colors and will come in either a 6-speed manual transmission or Automatic.

“It is a blast. The top speed is over 100mph – we anticipate about 107mph. You’re zero to 60 times are the mid 9s, so we’re faster than a hybrid, say slower than a Mustang.”

A prototype of the Elio will be at Tyrone Square Mall this weekend.

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