The Elio may look strange. But take a good look and get used to it, because if reservations are any indication, the oddball vehicle is going to be a fixture on the highway after its expected release in late 2015.
The ultra-cheap, $6,800 vehicle is technically a motorcycle; it has three wheels and the driver and passenger both sit center-aligned. But it probably has more in common with a very fuel-efficient car (at 84 mpg, it's supposed to get you from New York to Detroit on one tank). It’s fully enclosed, and has regular car seats, seat belts, and airbags, and options for a manual or automatic transmission. Its max speed is 100 mph.
The concept is clearly resonating with an initial audience. About 25,000 people have made reservations, and according to Elio Motors CEO Paul Elio, 86% of those include non-refundable deposits ranging from $100 to $1,000 (Like a Kickstarter campaign, the company is promising a discount on the sticker price, depending on the size of the deposit).
Once the vehicle starts coming off the 250,000 vehicle a year manufacturing line—located at a former General Motors plant in Louisiana that once made the Hummer—Elio is convinced demand will eventually outstrip supply. In June, when the bulk of the deposits were made, he notes the numbers exceeded the monthly sales of brands including Acura, Lincoln, and Mitsubishi. Many reservations have been made as the company tours around the country with the prototype. Last week, it was at Comic-Con.
If people can get used to the vehicle's different look and feel, it could have a broad market. "Elio would have had no shot 15 years ago," says Paul Elio. "Now, we’ve become more open to what transportation looks like." Many potential customers wouldn’t want a two-seater as their only car, but he expects people would consider it as a second vehicle for commuting, since most commuters drive to work alone. (Using it only for a roundtrip 80-mile daily commute, you’d make the sticker price back in four to five years at today’s gas prices, according to our calculations).
Others in a lower-income bracket may be attracted by the company’s innovative payment plan. With zero money down, customers can walk away with the vehicle and a $300 a month limit credit card with which to buy gasoline. The card automatically charges them triple the gas price when they fuel up, with the excess going to their car payment. As long as their old clunker got less than 75 mpg, Elio says they won’t pay more than they accustomed to paying when they fill up their tank, but instead they can drive a new, reliable vehicle that won't break down every few months.
"It’s always been cheaper to drive a clunker than a new car. This is the first time it’s been cheaper to drive a new vehicle," Elio says. "I think there’s probably enough of what I call 'desperation sales' to damn near fill the factory up."
The company’s sales and vehicle development model is also somewhat unique. Like Tesla, it plans to open direct sales retail stores in strip malls. And because it designed a vehicle with easily mixed-and-matched components and electronics that are not embedded inside, it’s also allowing customers to completely customize any add-on options, from leather seats or an iPad docking station to the LEDs on the vanity mirrors, rather than the usual situation of paying for packages that include options that aren’t needed. Basic vehicles will be stored in one of seven marshaling centers around the country. Elio claims a customer will be able to put in an order and pick up a completely customized vehicle the next day.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing for the Elio so far. While engineers designed the vehicle hoping for a five-star crash rating, so far, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has refused to say whether it’s willing to perform the tests on the unconventional vehicle (the company has been meeting with officials). The company has had to a hire a lobbyist to pass laws in the many states where its legal status as a motorcycle would require owners to wear a helmet or have a motorcycle license. So far, says Elio, the company has changed laws in about 12 states, and has been successful in all but one state where it’s tried. (Arizona's governor vetoed a bill, because of a rider involving the legalization of beer bikes).
Right now, the company is busy setting up its factory and selling off old GM equipment it won’t need. Whether the Elio will be more like the Volkswagen Bug—a strange-looking "value" car that won over people’s hearts—or Daimler-Chrysler’s Smart brand, affordable mini-cars which never took off in the U.S. as they did in Europe, is the big question.