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The Elio is closer than ever to your garage — and it’s still $200 million away.

It’s supposed to be in production by late 2016 — but it was also supposed to roll off the line by mid-year, by third-quarter 2015 and by July 2014.

It could be revolutionary — a three-wheeled, two-seat, one-door, 100-mph, 84-highway-mpg commuter vehicle with a base price of only $6,800.

Or, it could never be at all.

You can see an Elio in the concourse at the North American International Auto Show, which runs through Sunday at Cobo Center. Actually, you can hardly miss it: it’s the only low, sleek, tapered, red, pontoon-wheeled car in the building.

It might be an illustration of the future. It’s definitely an illustration of how difficult it is to launch a car company.

“We’ll make it,” says Jerome Vassallo of Warren, vice president of sales for Elio Motors. A chirpy crowd-funded stock offering, scheduled to end Feb. 1, “put us over the hump.”

He says the Phoenix-based company now has enough money to build 25 duplicates of the fifth-generation prototype at the auto show, a fleet it can experiment with and wreck as needed for various tests.

Specifically, he says the company has $100 million of the $300 million it will take to crank out cars in a former Hummer factory near Shreveport, Louisiana.

In theory, the gap will be filled with a loan from a Department of Energy program called Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing.

There’s no promise the loan will be approved, though, and at least two similarly earnest companies went out of business while they were slogging through the process.

If Elio Motors folds, the stock buyers lose their money, and so do many of the 48,000 people who’ve put down deposits of $100 to $1,000 so they can own the first Elio on the block.

But that’s looking on the dark side.

The sunny side says Elio has more than $300 million worth of pre-orders. And whichever side you see it from, the car looks like fun.

Pounding rooftop nails

Paul Elio, an automotive engineer, founded Elio Motors in 2008.

It’s been an uneven ride since. For awhile, in fact, he was pounding nails into Arizona rooftops to pay his bills.

In 2010, he proposed taking over a former GM truck plant in Pontiac and claimed he could put 2,100 people to work. When that didn’t happen, he settled on Shreveport, where 1,500 workers will supposedly average $47,700 a year plus benefits.

By federal standards, they’ll be building a motorcycle, since it has less than four wheels. But in many states, the company says, it has successfully lobbied to have the Elio excluded from requirements for a helmet or special license.

The Elio has tandem seating, with the passenger perched behind the driver in cramped, upright quarters that Vassallo promises will have more padding once the vehicle comes to market.

Fifteen inches longer than a subcompact Chevrolet Spark but 1,000 pounds lighter, the 3-cylinder, 13-feet-4-inch, 1,250-pound Elio will go 0 to 60 in 9.6 seconds, Vassallo says — “faster than a hybrid, slower than a Mustang.”

The 5-speed stick is built into the armrest. An automatic transmission will cost less than $1,000 extra, he says, and there will be enough storage space behind the seats for a standard airline carry-on.

The company envisions it mostly as a second car and predicts sales of 250,000 per year.

If that seems wildly optimistic ... well, pessimists don’t start car companies.

Critics have mixed outlook

As would-be start dates pass without Elios on the assembly line, let alone the road, websites like Jalopnik.com have taken increasingly dour looks at the company.

Executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder of Cars.com is at least sympathetic, if not optimistic.

Start-up car companies “find a learning curve much steeper than they expected,” he says.

Elon Musk, he notes, is a builder of spaceships and electric vehicles, and “between rocket science and Tesla, he says Tesla is harder.”

That’s daunting. But if you’re an entrepreneur, you consider the upside:

SpaceX and Tesla both got off the ground.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn

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