Elio Motors highlights its $7,000, 84-mpg 3-wheeled car

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Scheduled to sell for less than half the price of the current cheapest car in America, the Elio is a 3-wheeled “car” that hopes to shake up the automotive world. It eschews the trendy electric powertrain for a small gas system, but thanks to its small, light, aerodynamic design, it promises to keep drivers away from the gas pumps for as long as possible.

The 2-seat (1+1) Elio uses a 70-hp 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine, which is in the front. While that may sound entirely impotent compared to pretty much every other car on the road, the small 3-wheeler is able to hit speeds of up to 100 mph (161 km/h), which should be plenty for all highway driving. It can hit 60 mph (96.5 km/h) in 9.6 seconds.

More importantly, the small powertrain sips gas like it’s using a tiny straw and a shot glass, delivering a highway fuel economy of up to 84 mpg (2.8 l/100 km) and a city fuel economy of 49 mpg (4.8 l/100 km). With just 8 gallons (30 liters) of gas onboard, the Elio can drive up to 672 miles (1,081 km) – that’s a trip from New York to Detroit without ever filling up.

Other Elio equipment includes disc brakes with ABS; 15-inch wheels; a 5-speed automatic transmission; and independent suspension with unequal length control arms, coil-over-spring and shock in the front, and mono-shock with coil-over-spring and shock in the rear. The car measures 160.5 inches (4.1 m) long and has a 110-inch (2.8-m) wheelbase and 66.8-inch (1.7 m) front track. Despite the car’s diminutive package, Elio Motors claims that it can fit 95 percent of men and has even tested it with 6-foot 8-inch (2 m) and 325-pound (147-kg) occupants. It promises that trunk space will be at least 27 x 14 x 10 inches (68.6 x 35.6 x 25.4 cm).

Inside the Elio

Elio Motors isn’t ready to send its 3-wheeler out to dealers just yet, but it is claiming that the car will cost US$6,800 when it hits the market. The sub-$10,000 car disappeared from the United States a couple years ago, and the $12,000 2013 Nissan Versa currently holds the title of cheapest in the country. That’s a big price drop if you’re willing to forgive the lack of a fourth wheel.

Elio’s price isn’t one of those obnoxious base prices that excludes radio, air conditioning, seats, door handles … it includes all those things, plus a heater, defroster, power windows, power door locks and three airbags.

Of course, while the Elio is super-cheap compared to other cars, it isn’t quite a car. Even in Elio’s home state of Louisiana, 3-wheeled vehicles are classified as motorcycles, requiring a motorcycle license and helmet. Elio is working with the legislature in getting HB218 passed into law. The bill, which passed the Louisiana Senate earlier this week and was sent back to the House with amendments, would exempt vehicles like the Elio from motorcycle requirements.

The Elio doesn't just look green; it drives green

Even if it’s successful in Louisiana, however, the vehicle will face similar issues in other states – we don’t see many people buying it if they have to get a separate motorcycle license and wear a helmet inside the cabin. Elio told us that it does plan to sell the car in all 50 states and has a government affairs team working on similar legislation in other states where vehicle laws threaten the Elio’s status and acceptance.

As for its claim that this is a car and not a 3-wheeled motorcycle, Elio Motors points to the enclosed cabin and its underlying structure, which includes a reinforced roll cage and 50 percent larger crush zones than similar vehicles. The company even anticipates it getting a 5-star safety rating.

“What do you see when you look at the Elio?” Elio inquires on its website. “Fully enclosed, power windows, wiper blades, steering wheel, gas and brake pedals … you be the judge.”

Of course, it also mentions that the vehicle is considered a motorcycle by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Its executives and lobbyists have some work to do in making the case that it is indeed a car and can be driven as such.

Elio Motors plans to begin production on the Elio by July 2014 in Shreveport, Louisiana. It held a press conference last week to announce its supply partners, and promised that not only will production be in the U.S., but 95 percent of materials will also be American-made. The more than 20 suppliers include Altair Engineering, IAV, NEWTECH 3, and Comau. It will provide more details about its plan for distribution and retail later this year.

With a few questions hanging over the Elio – including whether it will be able to finance its operations – it seems a bit early to start making reservations. The opportunity is available, however, starting at $100.