/ Jason Torchinsky / 7 am Wed, Feb 4 2015
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  • 40,000 people have paid thousands for an Elio car - will it ever be built?

    40,000 people have paid thousands for an Elio car - will it ever be built?

    Automotive designer Raymond Loewy had an acronym to evaluate his designs: “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.” The Elio doesn’t come out that great on either side of that “yet.”

    [UPDATE: we've corrected an error about the amount required to make a deposit on an Elio car.]

    Livi
    ng in the bubble of gearheaddom, it's sometimes hard to know just how informed or interested the general public is about cars. Every now and then, though, something happens novel enough in the car world that even people who normally wouldn't be able to tell a Corolla from a carburetor become interested. The Elio — that three-wheeled, $6800 car that's supposed to get 84 MPG — is one of those things. So far, over 40,000 people have reserved their Elios at a cost of up to $1000. Are these people actually going to get cars? I'm really not so sure.

    Elio recently announced that they're pushing the release date of their cars back to 2016 from 3rd quarter of 2015. This is after generously missing their July 2014 initial release date. As you'd imagine, this has many of their hopeful early supporters, who have dropped anywhere from $100 to a $1000 apiece on the idea of buying an interesting car, very nervous and increasingly skeptical.

    That said, dropping that much money on almost any idea means that you at least have a pretty strong belief in it, which is why I feel I need to address a few key points before giving any criticism of this still-hypothetical car. First, I stand nothing to gain by seeing Elio fail or succeed — I'm simply an auto journalist, and, like all auto journalists, I like to think about cars and probably could stand to exercise more. Second, I don't have any perverse desire to see the company fail — in fact, if the world ran by the rules of my mind, there'd be many, many small and weird car companies out there. I love strange, unusual, three-wheeled, cars of almost any sort, and I'd love to see more on the road. Third, I'm not in the pocket of the Big Three or a secret cabal of major auto manufacturers or even the local AMC enthusiasts' group. So, we're all clear on that now, okay? Great.

    I don't think Elio will be successful. For more detailed analysis, I suggest reading my collegue Tavarish's excellent Elio articles at Jalopnik including interviews with Paul Elio himself. I'm going to give a bit of a distilled and different version here, though.

    First, the design itself is both much less new and innovative than most people would think, and, even so, it's still too unusual for most car buyers. The basic design — the tail-dragging, streamlined-looking three wheeler — is actually sort of the cliché design for a "revolutionary" car. It's been trotted out so many times over the decades as something that's going to shake up the complacent motor industry that it's sort of the car design equivalent of buying your clothes at Hot Topic — sure, they're 'alternative' to the most established mainstream norm, but they're really just another sort of established uniform.

    A three-wheel design like the Elio — the two in the front, one in the rear design, has a rich history. There've been specialty cars that have used it successfully, in their small niches, like the Morgan three-wheeler, but the modern interpretation, since, say, the 1970s, has become shorthand for out-of-the-box innovation. There was the very Elio-like Dale, which proved to be a complete scam (run by a fascinating person who loved Ayn Rand), in the 80s there was the Trihawk, the 90s saw the Corbin Sparrow and Mercedes' concept (and tilting!) Life-Jet, the 2000s brought us the Aptera, the Campagna T-Rex, and now we have the Elio. This basic design is far from revolutionary.

    That's not to say this sort of three-wheel design doesn't have its merits or has never been successful. In fact, there was a time and place where a design very much like the Elio was quite successful: right after WWII, in war-torn and broke Germany. The car was the Messerschmitt KR200, and the minimal design was just right for giving recovering Germany a cheap, viable form of transportation with more stability and weather protection than a motorcycle, but not as expensive as a car, and only requiring a motorcycle license and taxes. There've been similarly laid-out vehicles that were successful as well — BMW's Isetta (well, a 3-wheeler in some markets), the Fuldamobil, the Czech Velorex, and, in reversed layout, Reliant Robins in the UK, and ubiquitous Tuk-Tuks all over India and Southeast Asia to this day.

    other3wheelers

    So, it's not like any real new ground is being broken with the Elio's design. Its dimensions are even surprisingly substantial, so people hoping for a dramatically smaller city car will be disappointed. For example, it's 1/2" longer overall than a Honda Fit, and it's a few inches wider. It's a compact car, but it's not all that small, really. And inside those fairly robust dimensions, passengers will find an interior layout, no matter how well appointed, closer to that of a motorcycle than a car, thanks to the tandem seating.

    Some people won't mind, but most people looking to buy an Elio as their basic transportation are not going to be used to their passengers sitting behind them. In general, people like to talk to their passengers, and having them right behind you just isn't that conducive for that. The industrial and automotive designer Raymond Loewy used to have an acronym he'd use to evaluate his designs: MAYA. It stands for "Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable." The Elio doesn't really come out that great on either side of that "yet."

    One of the biggest reasons a company might choose to make a 3-wheeler at all is because in the US, it would be classified as a motorcycle, and as such would be exempt from the extremely expensive-and-difficult-to-meet US automotive crash regulations. Elio wants to hit those anyway, and has airbags and a roll cage and other impressive safety equipment, but all that just makes the $6800 price that much less probable. It's great that they're designing the car to be safe, absolutely, but car-level safe and that cheap is a very, very difficult target to hit. I feel like they're vastly underestimating both cost and weight penalties for their stated goal of a "5-star" safety rating. Which begs the question of why make a three-wheeler at all.

    The second major concern is the engine. The Elio prototypes so far have been using a 3 cylinder engine that many of you might remember from the Geo Metro (it's actually a Suzuki engine). Elio is quite fond of this engine, and are planning on doing some re-engineering of it and producing it on their own for the Elio. This strikes me, and many other observers, as a really terrible idea. It's not that the engine is particularly bad — it's not — but it is a bit dated and, more importantly, the process of designing and building your own engines seems like a colossal drain on money and other resources, for very little gain.

    Unless you're doing something radically different — and the engine Elio wants to build is not — there's very little point in a small carmaker building their own engines. Even established low-volume marques like Lotus don't do that. Lotus uses modified Toyota engines, Caterham uses Ford, even DeLorean used Peugeot/Renault/Volvo. It really makes no sense for them to source their own engines, especially when there's so many good options available now.

    Even if we stick to Elio's ex-recto goal of 84 MPG, there's at least three small gasoline engines I can think of off the top of my head that could potentially meet that: Ford's 3 cylinder 1L Ecoboost, GM's 3-cylinder 1L Ecotec engine, and Fiat's 2-cylinder 1L TwinAir engine. Any of these would be able to meet or beat the old Metro' engine's power and efficiency specs, and in each case a much larger company has already handled the R&D, tooling, manufacturing, testing, certifying, and parts and maintenance support of the engine.

    Designing and building an engine, even one based on an existing design, is a huge deal. There's a reason why car companies don't have entirely different engines for every model they sell. Engine development is wildly complex and expensive, and, in the end, this particular consumer especially won't really care about where those 70-80 horsies that are pulling everything around come from as long as the gas mileage hits roughly Elio's stated (and honestly, pretty arbitrary) MPG goals.

    In Jalopnik's excellent interview excellent interview with Paul Elio, Elio acknowledges that designing and building their own engine sounds questionable, but defends it this way:

    "It sounds at first scary, a new company putting a new engine in production, kind of an undoable task, but you have to look at who's really doing it. IAV is doing the engine development."

    Elio is suggesting that IAV, the well-known and respected German engineering service company, is actually doing most of the engine development. And, I'm sure they are, in that Elio is no doubt paying them to do engineering work on the engine. That still doesn't solve the fundamental problem here. Okay, so he's hired top-notch technical expertise to design this engine. And I'm sure they can design a very good engine. But that doesn't solve the question of WHY. Elio's still going to be pouring money into this, the engine still has to be tested, the manufacturing has to be figured out, raw materials have to be sourced, service and spare parts and after-sale maintenance have to be worked out — there's just so much more to the process of engine development here that this just can't be cheaper or better than sourcing something already developed, proven, and tested.

    It makes no sense. Unless something really radical is going on in this engine (there isn't — Elio himself says it's "not cutting edge") it's just crazy for Elio to spend their customer's deposits — still their main source of income — on developing their own engine. It's just throwing money away, and even if everything goes perfectly, they're still dealing with an engine modified enough that it has no proven track record or service support.

    And finally, Elio has yet to address its biggest, boringest enemy: used cars.

    Any new low-cost car, whether it comes from a major manufacturer or otherwise, has this surprisingly robust beast to contend with: America's rich and bountiful supply of good used cars. Let's say I'm dead wrong about all my concerns regarding the Elio, and they do make it to market with a $6800 three-wheeler that gets around 84 MPG. Let's just give them all that. Sure, there will be a number of people who will want the car strictly because it doesn't look or feel like anything else out there. But once that supply is gone, and we're looking at the much larger market of people just wanting a good, cheap, usable car, will a $6800 Elio, with its three wheels, tandem seating, possible motorcycle helmet requirements in many states, and so on, be able to compete with, say, a $4500 2007 Scion xB?

    Sure, that Scion is 10 years old, but it's reliable, incredibly cheap to drive and maintain, good on gas (not 84 MPG good, but not bad at all), and with vastly more interior room and flexibility. Is someone looking for a good bargain going to be willing to pay over $2000 more for better MPG, but a potentially undesirable layout and an unproven service history and no real support network? Maybe, but I'm skeptical.

    If you do a Craigslist search for cars available for $6500 and below, you end up with a huge variety of cars — fairly recent and well-maintained Accords and Ford Fusions, vintage cars, old Benz Diesel wagons converted to run on biodiesel, pickup trucks, aging but decent luxury cars — in short, everything. Sure, there's some people unwilling to take a risk on a used car, but the sheer volume and quality of used vehicles in the Elio's price range is daunting.

    I'm not just picking on Elio here, really — all car makers have to face the used car juggernaut when releasing a new entry-level car, which is partially why automakers are so loathe to offer sub-$15,000 cars in the US.

    So, as much as I'd like to see an interesting car like the Elio succeed, I'm having trouble working up a lot of hope. Launching any new car into the market is a massive undertaking, and I just don't see Elio's current allocation of resources as sensible well-considered to achieving their goals. Their car is revolutionary only in relation to mainstream automobiles, and is part of a design lineage that thrives best in environments much more strained than our own. And even if they do somehow make it to production, there's all those damn used cars floating around, with their non-tandem seating and vast service networks, and no need to get a motorcycle license or wear a helmet or any headgear in any state.

    Good luck, Elio. You'll need it.

    / / 64 COMMENTS

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