The New 3-Legged Car

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We previously reported on the development of a sleekly designed three-wheeled, two-passenger vehicle planned for introduction next year from startup manufacturer Elio Motors in Troy, Mich. It’s claimed to deliver up to 84 mpg on the highway and boast a sticker price starting at just $6,800. We’ve since been able to discuss the fledgling automaker’s plans with its vice-president of sales, Jerome Vassallo, and actually take a pre-production model out for a brief spin.

The as-yet unnamed “autocycle” is being developed as an economical low-cost commuter car, ideally the second or third model in a family’s fleet. “As a commuter, 93 percent of the time you’re in a car by yourself,” Vassallo says. “You’d drive a small car like this to and from the office and leave a larger vehicle parked back home in the driveway for when you need to carry additional passengers or have more cargo room.”

For starters, the Elio is about the length of a Honda Civic, but is nearly half as narrow, with a long hood, tall roof and back end and only a single conventionally hinged side door. The front wheels extend beyond the front-end bodywork, with an exposed suspension and individual aerodynamic fenders reminiscent of the hot-roddish Plymouth Prowler from the 1990’s.

Inside there’s a rather Spartan interior with simple gauges and controls, with the passenger sitting directly behind the driver. A solid hatchback covers a small backpack-sized trunk, and the rear seatback is able to fold flat as needed for added stowage. Standard amenities will include three airbags, power windows and door locks, an audio system with an iPhone/iPod interface, air conditioning and a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty.

Officially classified as a motorcycle because it has fewer than four wheels, the Elio is nonetheless mechanically more car than it is bike, and is every bit as instinctive to operate. It has a conventional steering wheel, foot pedals and shift lever and will come powered by a three-cylinder, 0.9 liter, 55 horsepower, fuel-injected automotive engine that drives the front wheels via either a five-speed manual or automatic transmission.

Plans are to sell the three-wheeler through a network of Elio-owned stores in the top 60 U.S. markets with multiple locations in each area. Options, which will include items like a sunroof, leather seats and audio upgrades, would be installed to order at one of as many as nine regional “marshalling centers,” with a next-day turnaround promised. “This allows us to build all the cars alike at the factory to maximize our efficiency,” Vassalo says. In another departure from the norm, the cars will not be serviced at the company’s dealerships, but rather via Pep Boys car care centers. “That means we’ll have over 800 service locations nationwide from day one.”

So how’s the car drive? We took what was a very rough prototype out for a drive in suburban Chicagoland. Unfortunately we could only approximate the motoring experience, as the version we piloted was fitted with a crude carbureted engine recycled from an old Geo Metro and lacked an exhaust system of any kind. Still, with an ultra-low curb weight, the 55 horses with which it will roll off the assembly line should suffice, albeit barely.

We’re told the car’s brakes, which faded faster than a black shirt in a bucket of bleach when asked to bring the car to halt, were mercifully not to final spec. While the Elio felt stable at higher speeds, low-speed handling was heavy, given the car’s unfortunate lack of power steering. Entry and egress is about on a par with most small cars, and once inside there’s sufficient head and legroom, though its narrow fighter jet-like cockpit and extended front wheel configuration takes some getting used to.

Still, the Elio is all about providing basic transportation on a budget, and from that standpoint we anticipate the final production version – assuming in fact the car reaches the market on time and as expected – could well deliver the goods.

Tags: motorcycle-car, 3 wheels, budget