I’ve been a big fan of the Elio since I first heard about the project a couple of years ago. To me, it’s the first real successor to the original VW beetle: an ultra-compact, fuel-efficient vehicle that’s priced so low that almost any driver can afford to buy one. During most of that time, however, I’ve been worried that I was one of a tiny handful of weirdoes who saw the product’s potential, ruining the chances that it would ever be produced.
Those fears were laid to rest on December 6, when the vehicle went on display at a mall in Charlotte, North Carolina. I arrived around noon and was shocked to see hundreds of eager would-be buyers stretching out the door. Taking my place in line, I prepared for what would surely be a long wait. Apparently, I’m not the only person who appreciates the funky charms of this odd-looking three-wheeled auto.
The Elio is the brainchild of Paul Elio, an iconoclast engineer whose vision is to build a highly affordable vehicle for the workaday man or woman, something that’s as cheap to keep as it is to buy. In 2008, he founded Elio Motors and started making the rounds of venture capital firms to raise seed money. From the beginning, Elio had a list of non-negotiable features that the final product would have to have, including the following:
• Super-high MPG ratings; the production model is expected to get up to 84 miles per gallon highway/49 city. One guy I spoke with at the event said that he drives more than 600 miles each week for his job. Needless to say, he was excited about the Elio’s fuel efficiency.
• A ridiculously low sticker price; the base model will sell for $6,800, far less than what many used cars cost these days. For that not-so-princely sum, the buyer will get a .9-liter engine, a five-speed transmission, AC, power windows and door locks, a heavy-duty roll cage, side intrusion beams, a windshield wiper, stabilization controls, and antilock braking. An automatic gearbox will be available for $1,000.00 extra.
• Proven, off-the-shelf technology; more than 90% of the Elio’s components are made in the USA. The company has purchased an old GM facility in Louisiana where final construction will occur. Production is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2015. Pep Boys has agreed to sell parts and provide repair services.
While waiting for my chance to sit in the display model, I learned a few other things. It seems that a huge portion of the Elio’s fan base is made up of avid motorcycle riders. This makes sense, since the vehicle is legally classified as a cycle, not a passenger car. The company has obtained waivers to helmet laws in all but five of the 50 states so far, and eventually the holdouts are expected to fall into line.
With a top speed in excess of 120 mph and 0 to 60 acceleration under 10 seconds, the Elio won’t exactly be “hell on wheels.” But it will offer bike riders something they’ve never experienced before: a climate controlled, auto-like environment with safety features like seatbelts and airbags.
To save money, the company is offering direct to consumer delivery. They will ship the finished vehicles via 18 wheelers to customers around the country. Just choose a retail establishment near your home large enough for the truck to pull into, and the driver will meet you there with your new ride.
After two hours of standing in line, my chance to sit in the Elio finally arrived. I was pleasantly surprised. Legroom and headroom was substantial, as was side-to-side space; and, at 6 feet and 250 pounds — I’m a pretty big guy — I had no trouble getting in and out, though I would hate to be the poor soul sitting in the tandem-style passenger seat. The Elio opens on one side, the driver’s left, and has a single rearview mirror. The door is large and swings easily.
The control panel is Spartan but logically arranged, with a full-sized steering wheel and shift lever just to the side of where the right hand would normally sit. The interior is basic black, and the company offers eight exterior colors; the one pictured is what they call “popsicle orange.” I like it. Add-on features include an upgraded stereo and a power seat. The “trunk” is large enough to hold a full-size picnic cooler or a couple of bags of groceries, nothing more.
A luxury ride the Elio is not; but, for basic transportation and the chance to own a really unique vehicle, in my opinion, it’s well worth the modest sticker price. It had better be; I just became one of the 36,000 enthusiasts to put down a deposit. Only time will tell if I get my money’s worth. I will keep you informed.
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