Success of 84-mpg three-wheeler far from certain

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — The Elio three-wheeler is getting a taste of the hype elicited by the Tesla Model 3.

People have been waiting nearly two years to get a glimpse of the three-wheeled two-seater with a gas engine that gets an estimated 84 mpg on the highway. And at a pre-production price of about $6,800, you can get a half-dozen for any one Model 3.

“We had to see the Elio in person,” said Jim Ayers, a retiree from Emporia, Kansas, who along with his wife Shirley took the train to Chicago to check out a recent Elio promotional event.

“We love the novelty of it,” said Ayers, one of 53,000 people who have made a pre-production deposit starting at $100.

“He loves the novelty of it,” Shirley added. She won’t be accompanying him on his planned cross-country tour. And though the 6-foot-2 retired shoe retailer hadn’t set foot in the tube-shaped pod until that day, his plans were undeterred.

“I like the idea of it being 90 percent U.S. made, I like the fuel economy, I like the whole concept,” he said with a grin.

The concept is a fuel-efficient commuter vehicle meant for the majority of people who don’t need their SUV, with all its empty seats and inefficiencies, to drive to work.

“This isn’t your only car,” explained Jerome Vassallo, Elio vice president of sales. “It’s almost like a free vehicle when you consider the amount of money you’ll save in fuel by taking it to work instead of your regular car.”

There’s nothing cutting edge about it except the reality of it. Founder and CEO Paul Elio, who was an automotive engineer for Johnson Controls before starting his own engineering company, likens his idea to luggage with wheels. The latter didn’t come around until much later.

“We aren’t launching radical new technology,” Paul Elio said in a statement. “We’re simply repackaging transportation in a different way.”

The package is a tandem-seated, or front-to-back, two-seater with few frills. The P5, or fifth prototype, we tested came with manual steering, manual five-speed transmission, a nonfunctioning seat belt and instrument controls, and with a loud, rough ride more like a go-kart. The P5 prototype does not have the sound-deadening insulation promised in the production model.

Yet it’s fun, in that visceral, hands-on way, unlike so many modern cars that are hard to see the engine through the technology.

It uses a fuel-injected 0.9-liter three-cylinder engine, not unlike a smaller version of Ford’s smallest EcoBoost engine, though without the turbocharger. And the power is considerably less: the Elio putt-putts 55 horsepower, and 55 pound-feet of torque. It’s front-wheel drive because there’s only one wheel in the back.

It is engineered to save cost at every corner. It weighs just 1,228 pounds (a Mazda MX-5 Miata weights 2,332 pounds), so it can hit 60 mph in 9.6 seconds. There is room, and plans, for a turbocharged offering that will hit 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

It has a top speed over 100 mph, but the level of road noise must be akin to living inside Spinal Tap’s amp turned up to 11. Taking it on the highway would require a leap of faith, in the prototype at least.

It gets an estimated 84 mpg highway and 49 mpg city, with the eight-gallon tank giving it a range estimated at over 600 miles.

It is surprisingly roomy in the front seat, even for tall testers like Jim Ayers. Getting in the back seat would benefit from a coach or suicide door, and the headroom cramps if you’re over 6 foot. There’s plenty of room in the rear hatch for most commuter purposes, and could fit a set of golf clubs or a guitar or two without a rear passenger.

Production models will be offered as automatics for an extra $1,000 or so, and three air bags add some measure of safety.

The rear seat will come with LATCH-system harness for child seats, which is what attracted millennial Scott Kostohryz, who goes back and forth to Madison, Wis., every other weekend in a vehicle that gets less than 20 mpg and takes premium fuel.

“Everything fits,” he said. “This is exactly what I need.”

While Vassallo sees it taking off as the Beetle for millennials, microcars such as the Smart ForTwo have not historically done well in the U.S. On the other hand, three-wheeled motorcycles are gaining popularity.

There is no question that personal mobility is evolving, but Elio doesn’t think the market has connected what consumers are used to with what they’ll use in the years before shared, autonomous mobility.

“We don’t know what the answer is in the future,” Vassallo added. “But this is a bridge to get us there.”