Elio Motors has been working on its three-wheeled car-cum-motorcycle ("autocycle") since 2009. It plans finally to go into production in 2017 and it's received 56,000 reservations from people eager to buy it. The company says the road-worthy vehicle will cost just $6,800, and have a highway-MPG of 84, putting it into a market category all its own. In every way, Elio has a good story to tell: a genuine American bootstrapping startup that's developed a car—a whole car!—from scratch.
All of which makes you wonder why Elio decided to start offering test drives before its baby was ready. Ahead of trying it out recently, I was primed to like it. But, truth be told, I can't tell you the driving experience was particularly great. The Elio made a noise like a tractor in a hayfield. The gearbox was gunky, bordering on unusable. And the handling did not inspire confidence. It may have felt safe enough in the gridlocked traffic of Lower Manhattan where speeds never exceed 3 mph. But I wouldn't have felt comfortable taking a country bend after dark (the publicity shots of the Elio in a snowy wasteland are ridiculous).
What a shame. What a disappointment.
Before the test drive, I chatted with Jerome Vassallo, Elio's VP of sales, and he made a good case for why someone might want to buy the autocycle. The Elio is unlikely to be someone's only car. But it could be someone's "add-on" or "and-car," he says—the ride you take out when you don't want to take the SUV and you just need to carry a briefcase, which can fit into the autocycle's trunk.
"Ninety percent of the time we're driving by ourselves. We say we want to carpool, but most of us are on our own. You don't want to take an SUV because it's got seven empty seats and it's expensive because it has to do multiple things. It has to tow a camper or a boat, even though you don't need to take a boat to work," he says.
Vassallo agues that Elio pays for itself in energy efficiency—you can make back the $6,800 in what you save not taking the other car. And, indeed, that's how Elio has designed its payment plan. It plans to offer a credit card that deliberately overcharges you for gas as a way of paying back the vehicle cost (so if you buy $10 of gas, you're charged $30). That way, in a sense, you get the car for free, as $30 is what you would normally pay for going the same distance, Vassallo claims.
There are other compelling selling points. Every part is made in America, down to the stereo. Some of the pieces have been 3D printed, improving the environmental profile. You can take it in the HOV lane. Elio is manufacturing the vehicle in an old GM plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, showing that the U.S. car industry lives. And a good deal of the development costs has come from crowdfunding, giving the project a from-the-people appeal.
Vehicles like the Elio could be an important piece of a future, cleaner transportation system. But to get people ready for change, you need to make sure you're giving people a product they can get behind. Offering test drives now—before the windows roll up, before it had installed the exhaust, and before the gearbox even shifts between first and second—makes it hard to say that we can see them rolling through cities of the future.
Watch what happened when we test drove it in this video:
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