Elio's tiny car gets 84 mpg and costs only $9,600 -- here's what it was like

Elio Motors has one of the more interesting, and simple, ideas in the auto industry.

The Arizona-headquartered transport startup, with a factory in Louisiana, just started taking deposits on its first vehicle, a three-wheeler that’s street-legal, made in the US, and will sell for just over $US7,000. So far, over 60,000 people have plunked down some dough for a preorder, according to the company.

The idea is to provide basic mobility to folks who couldn’t otherwise afford a basic set of wheels. The cheapest new car on sale in the US, the Nissan Versa, goes for over 10 grand.

True, you could get a halfway decent used car for $US7,000, but it probably wouldn’t be as exotic as Elio’s new machine. It also wouldn’t get over 80 miles per gallon.

So what’s the thing like? Well, it runs on gas and had a standard transmission, and two seats. Last year, Elio brought a prototype by our New York office, and we checked it out:

Photos by Hollis Johnson.

Elio brought its prototype vehicle to our New York office. We parked it curbside and chatted for a bit -- and watched the Elio draw a crowd! Must have been the colour ...

Hollis Johnson

Mobbed!

Hollis Johnson

The vehicle has only three wheels and two seats, arranged tandem style. The base price is $7,300.

Hollis Johnson

The styling is aerodynamic, including fairings over the front wheels, which project out from the chassis for stability.

Hollis Johnson

The rear is svelte and tapered.

Hollis Johnson

Elio Motors was started by Paul Elio in 2009. Its headquarters is in Arizona, but its manufacturing facility is in Louisiana. The vehicle is powered by a good old-fashioned three-cylinder, 55-horsepower gas engine. Top speed is claimed to be over 100 mph.

Hollis Johnson

Obviously, I wanted to drive it.

Hollis Johnson

So I slipped behind the wheel and got used to the stick shift and the clutch. That's right: It's a manual car. This is one of just a few prototypes, so I wasn't expecting a production-ready level of refinement.

Hollis Johnson

And away we go!

Hollis Johnson

I just went around the block. The clutch took some time to get comfortable with, but the Elio immediately put me in the mind of a classic racer from the past. I totally wanted to get this thing on a track!

Hollis Johnson

I was impressed. Cheap cars with style and personality are great. Elio's plan is to make motoring more affordable, and to that end it has created an inexpensive vehicle that doesn't use any exotic technology but still gets over 80 mpg. Its goal now is to put the Elio into production and avoid having it classified as a motorcycle, which in a lot of states means a special licence.

Hollis Johnson

And earlier this year, I met up with the Elio again, this time at the Detroit auto show, where it was surrounded by cars with FOUR wheels.

Matthew DeBord/BI

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