Three Wheels and Only $7000?


Image courtesy of Elio Motors

Three Wheels and Only $7000
| published August 15, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff


An old Saturday Night Live gag from the 1970s, with Chevy Chase and others, featured a “commercial” for "Shimmer," a foamy-looking spray floor wax which looks and smells like a dessert topping. During a heated argument at the kitchen table where family members debate whether the product it is in fact a floor cleaner or a topping, Mr. Chase steps into view and says “relax folks, it’s both!”

Now, in most states, you might be able to drive a car which is also a motorcycle, at least according to a long-held Federal standard that says any vehicle of mode of transport with three wheels or less is considered a motorcycle, even if you get inside and close a door like you would in a car.

Elio Motors, based in Phoenix, Arizona, is now manufacturing a three-wheeled car capable of fuel-efficiency of as high as 84 miles per gallon on the highway, and up to 49 in the city. The car seats only two people—a driver in front, and a passenger in the back—which makes the interior look and feel more like the cockpit of an airplane than a traditional gas-powered car. But drivers who have tested the Elio say that the car’s remarkable level of efficiency makes the relatively small car a winner, especially for drivers who want to squeeze the most mileage out of a commute or a cross-country drive.

Elio hopes the small car will be able to compete with other fuel-efficient cars out there, and its low price tag, about $7000, means the Elio may soon outsell pricier rival models from Honda and Toyota, not to mention the relatively hefty sticker price for a Tesla, which operates using battery cells, not a gas engine.

Online videos of drivers testing the Elio reveal that the interior of the car is not as cramped as it would appear from the outside. One test driver said that there was plenty of room inside the three-wheel car, and that the experience was comfortable—like driving a huge armchair.

Elio says it is able to keep cost down because of the car’s compact size and materials. For example, the car has only one door, which cuts thousands in manufacturing costs. Having three wheels, rather than four, also greatly reduces the production costs. Elio also saves on assembly line costs by offering only two models—thus reducing scores of variables such as standard and optional features. All Elios come equipped with air conditioning, power windows and electric door locks, and the only choice buyers have—other than color—is whether they want standard shifting or automatic transmission.

Additional add-on features can be installed after-the-fact using Elio’s parts suppliers.

Guidelines long-established by several Federal agencies requires that any vehicle with three wheels or less be classified as a motorcycle, so Elio hopes to lobby these agencies to bend the rules for purposes of helmets (in a few states) and insurance, rates for which can be higher for those who ride motorcycles.

Elio will begin mass production soon at a huge assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, a facility once owned by General Motors. Elio, like Tesla, will sell its cars only through company-owned dealerships and not through the traditional franchise business model. Elio hopes to sell about 250,000 units of its car next year.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Score One for Tesla Motors; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 3, 2014.

Taxing the Green Driver; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 28, 2014.