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My Next Car: Meet the Elio

When it comes to a car’s gas mileage, there’s always a trade off. For a couple of years I owned a Ford Festiva that had a 10 gallon gas tank and got 35 mpg. It was cheap, small, and didn’t feel very safe. I also owned a ’79 Formula Firebird that got somewhere around 10 mpg. Which would you rather be seen driving?

You can get better mileage out of a car by making it smaller and lighter and less powerful and less safe; essentially, less fun.

With that, I present to you the Elio.

The Elio is a three-wheeled car that runs on gas, gets 84 mpg, and when it comes out, will cost $6,800.

Let’s start from the top. Technically, it’s not a car; even though it looks, feels and drives like a car, because it only has three wheels, legally it is classified as a motorcycle. The company is working on getting an exception made to have it classified as a car, but if they are unsuccessful and the car is tagged as a motorcycle, owners will have to follow motorcycle laws (including wearing a helmet if your state requires it).

You might be thinking, why not just buy a motorcycle? Well, motorcycles are no fun in the winter, and for me, no fun on long trips. My wife won’t ride on the back of one, and she gets really nervous when I take the kids on one. Also, the Elio gets more than double the mileage of what current bike gets (and triple what my last one got).

Under the hood is a 3-cylinder gas powered engine. The Elio prototype is currently using the engine from a Suzuki Swift, but the production model will use an engine made by Elio Motors. It doesn’t have a lot of horsepower, but since it only weighs 1,200 pounds it doesn’t need it. The company says the car will reach speeds in excess of 100 mph. I don’t think the car will be a speed demon, but it’s not designed to be. Instead, the small engine combined with the car’s light weight deliver a whopping 84 mpg.

The Elio is front-wheel drive. With the engine (half of the car’s weight) sitting on top of the front wheels, it should get good traction. It also comes stock with anti-lock brakes.

The Elio comes with an 8 gallon gas tank. If you do manage to get 84 mpg out of the car, that’s 672 miles per tank.

Inside, the Elio looks like a cross between a car, an airplane, and a motorcycle. The controls are like a car’s — there’s a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, blinkers, and so on. The Elio seats two, but like a small plane or a motorcycle, the passenger sits in the back. Behind that is a small trunk. If you’re flying solo the rear seat folds down to make a bit more storage space, but I doubt anyone will ask you to help them move in this thing. The Elio only has one door, so I assume the driver has to get out to let the rear passenger enter or exit.

Standard, each Elio will come with A/C, heat, power windows, power door lock, AM/FM stereo, and more.

My next question was, how safe is a car that does 100 mph and weighs less than half of most other cars on the road? Turns out, pretty safe. The Elio is promising a 5 star crash rating. Under the panels, the whole car is essentially a roll cage. I can’t imagine much would be left after a serious collision, but the real goal is being able to walk away from one.

The Elio is set to hit roads next year in 2015. The first ones will be offered to investors, and so, after kicking it around for about a month, I have decided to become one by making an (albeit small) investment. There are two ways to get in line for buying an Elio. One is to pay a refundable $100, $250, $500, or $1,000 to the company. That payment reserves your spot in line, and will be deducted from the cost of your car. The other way is to pay a non-refundable $100, $250, $500 or $1,000 to the company. The non-refundable payments get you higher in line (above the refundable ones), and also get you an additional 50% back off the sale price. (Pay a non-refundable $1,000 now and you’ll get $1,500 off the cost later when the car is available.) You can also upgrade your payment if you want to move up closer to the top of the list. Yesterday I made a non-refundable payment of $100, which puts me in the 4th group from the top.

Here’s some worst case scenario math. I drive 50 miles a day round trip to get to and from work. My WRX STI gets 20 mpg and uses premium, non-ethanol gas. Let’s say that’s $3.50/gallon. Let’s also assume I go to work every day next year. 52 weeks x 5 days = 260 days, x 50 miles a day = 13,000 miles. At 20 mpg that’s 650 gallons of gas at a total of $2,275. With the Elio’s 84 mpg, that’s only 155 gallons of cheaper gas (let’s say $3), which works out to just $465/year.

I work from home quite a bit so those mileage numbers for work are high, but Susan’s car is two years old and as 65,000 miles on it. Last year I drove Susan’s car (by myself) to Washington D.C. (twice), to Tempe, Arizona, and a few other states. Those are all trips that could have been made in the Elio. I’ve also driven my truck (again, by myself) on many trips. It gets even worse mileage at around 15 mpg. Not all of those miles on Susan’s car could have been duplicated by the Elio, but a lot of them could have. Based on my math, the car will pay for itself in two years.

With a family of four, I don’t think the two-seater Elio is the only car I would own. As a guy who likes to occasionally drive fast I’ll be keeping my WRX STI, and as a guy who occasionally likes to tow or haul things, I’ll be keeping my truck. But for a commuting car to rack up miles on while gingerly sipping gas, I think the Elio makes sense. I’ll let you know in a year or so what happens.


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3 comments to My Next Car: Meet the Elio

  • mike

    What color are you going to get?

  • Rob

    Good question Mike. I like the contrast between the black and the lighter colors in the front, so I’d like to avoid black or silver. The red is pretty dark itself. I never thought I’d say this about a car, but I kind of like the orange one the best. If I get a white one I’m covering it in decals to make it look like a stormtrooper’s helmet.

  • Brian

    I saw these a few months ago and I’m also very intrigued. I like the open wheel walls on the top pictures better than the ones on the red model. I really like the green. I saw they have plans for a model with a larger trunk area. It seems like if the put a half door on the rear like an extended cab truck or the RX-8 it could make getting the rear easier.

    Now the bigger question, are you gonna throw in a 15″ sub in the back?