Rubin: 84-mpg Elio’s back at Cobo – and still far away

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The Elio still isn’t close to being available, but it’s getting slower, less fuel efficient and more expensive.

A staple of the North American International Auto Show, you’ll find it along the Cobo Center concourse, most likely surrounded by people waiting to take it for a test-sit.

It’s worth 10 or 15 minutes of standing around. Low and sleek, a black torpedo with three wheels, two seats and one door, there’s nothing else like it at the show.

Waiting to drive it, however, is becoming problematic.

You want to root for the Elio. Assuming it ever exists as something more than an exhibit, it’s classic Americana — a guy, a dream, a plucky underdog of a product competing against the global titans.

In theory, it will top out at 100 mph while rationing fuel at 84 mpg, all for $7,300.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, though, a city on impatient standby for the 1,500 jobs promised by automotive engineer Paul Elio, recent Mayor Cedric Glover told that “what he is in fact is a dreamer and a schemer.”

Elio draws a salary that’s been reported as high as $250,000. Meantime, 64,000 people have placed deposits of up to $1,000, many of them nonrefundable, for a vehicle that was supposed to arrive in July 2014 – and then third-quarter 2015, mid-2016, late-2016, 2017 and now some time next year.

Technically a motorcycle, since it only has three wheels, the Elio was first described as accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 9.6 seconds. That’s been revised to 10.8 seconds, while 84 mpg has become “up to 84” and the base price for a 5-speed with the stick shift in the armrest has drifted upward by $500.

Maybe it’s just that the car business is a rough playground, and some skinned knees are inevitable.

That’s the way Jerome Vassallo sees it — and next to the founder, he’s probably spend more time with the Elio than anyone.

It has star power

He’s the vice president of sales, and in theory, he lives in Chesterfield Township.

In practice, he lives in a used 2006 Travel Supreme motor home, racking up 80,000 miles per year escorting the Elio prototype to auto shows.

His wife, Pam, tours with him and serves as a product specialist on the show floors, explaining how the passenger sits behind the driver and an automatic transmission will be available for an extra $1,050.

Jerome Vassallo can show you photographs of Sophia Loren, Paula Abdul and golfer Bubba Watson, sitting in an Elio.

He can explain how if you commute 15,000 miles to work in a 2015 Ford F-150 at an average of 20 mpg, you could use an Elio instead and pay for the whole darned thing with gas savings in just five years.

He was proudly pointing toward the Elio’s three-cylinder engine, visible through the open hood that tilts toward the front of the car instead of the driver.

It’s no longer theoretical, he said; that’s the power plant for the Elio empire they project to sell 250,000 units a year, or 22,000 more than the 2016 Chevy Malibu.

“It’s one thing to see the garter,” Vassallo said. “It’s another to see the garter on.”

Lots of ifs...

Credibility, Vassallo conceded, is an issue. Elio has traveled this route before.

If the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan comes through from the Department of Energy ...

If the state-by-state lobbying continues to make inroads, classifying the Elio as a car instead of a bike so the drivers don’t have to wear helmets ...

If those 1,500 theoretical workers at a former GM plant can actually start earning their $47,700 per year ...

“Once production starts,” he said, “you and I are having a different conversation. Then it’s, ‘Does it do what it’s supposed to?’ ”

The fans who visit the Elio every winter at Cobo are probably curious. So is Timothy Magner, president of the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s always hope,” he said, even if “to date, we haven’t seen evidence.”

He gets paid to be an optimist, after all, and one fine day, the rubber might actually hit the road.