Elio P4 Review

A people's car for post-recession America

Automakers don’t often let journalists like us drive their prototype cars, and if they do, it’s usually under closely controlled circumstances. So we knew the folks at Elio were either very confident or very foolish when they sat us down in their three-wheel P4 prototype, pointed us out into Los Angeles’ afternoon traffic, and told us to have at it.

“Just keep in mind that this is a prototype and won’t go much faster than 30,” we were told. (Shhh—we got it up to 40.) “Oh, and the seat belt doesn’t work.” Now there’s an incentive to drive carefully.

And Now For Something Completely Different

As we weaved our way through the traffic, we tried to remember that the Elio is not supposed to be a plaything like the Polaris Slingshot or the Morgan 3-Wheeler. This is a people’s car: Small, efficient and affordable, a viable new-car option for the 95 million or so hundred-thousand-mile plus “clunkers” on American roads, most of which average 17 MPG or less. The Elio is a volks wagen—a people’s car for post-recession America.

Elio-P4-01

Still, it’s hard to not to grin when you’re driving something as unusual as the Elio. The driver sits directly in the center of the car, with the passenger seat directly behind. Access is through a single door on the left side.

Elio-P4-08If you don’t have any motorcycle experience—which our test driver didn’t—driving from the middle of the car takes some getting used to. We kept drifting to the left, putting the Elio’s front-left wheel on the center line. Oops.

The car we drove is the P4 prototype, one generation away from the production-ready P5, which Elio hopes to start building at an ex-GM plant in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2016. Among the production elements missing from the P4 is the powertrain: The P5 is to be powered by a bespoke 0.9-liter three-cylinder engine supplied by German engineering firm IAV.

The P4 we drove is powered by the 1.0-liter Suzuki engine from a Geo Metro. Don’t laugh: Its physical size makes it a good stand-in for the IAV engine, and its output is not far off from the production model’s estimated 55-60 horsepower and 55 lb-ft of torque.

The prototype’s acceleration was hampered by a three-speed automatic transmission; the P5 will get two more ratios courtesy of either a five-speed manual or a clutchless sequential automatic transmission (the latter similar in operation to the transmission in the Smart ForTwo, though Elio says theirs will shift more smoothly).

Elio-P4-badgeWith a projected 0-60 time of 9.6 seconds and a top speed over 100 MPH, the P5 should easily keep up with traffic—which, incidentally, we had no trouble doing in the Metro-motored P4. Besides, Elio’s goal is not power, but fuel economy: They anticipate EPA fuel economy estimates of 49 MPG in the city, 84 MPG (!!) on the highway, and 60 MPG in mixed driving.

Responsive chassis, heavy steering

Our test drive did give us a good feel for the front-wheel-drive Elio’s chassis setup. The suspension consists of A-arms up front and a motorcycle-style single-sided swing-arm out back, all held up by a coil-over-shock spring setup. The P4’s ride is firm and busy, but the suspension does an admirable job of taking the edge off the bumps; certainly the adjustable shocks (which will be optional on the production car) deserve some credit here.

Handling is good fun: Despite its rather skinny tires, the P4 develops impressive grip, and our tester was grinning like an idiot after flinging it through a few corners.

The non-assisted steering is heavy—yeah, we know, non-assisted steering is supposed to be heavy, but not this heavy—and feels less precise on-center than we would have liked. (Elio says the prototype is about 200 lbs heavier than the production car, which could affect steering effort.) Oh, and while we’re complaining, visibility to the rear is lousy: The lid for the Elio’s vestigial trunk is where a rear window ought to be, and the prototype’s tiny side mirrors don’t provide much useful information.

Elio-P4-interior-01

Is it safe?

One advantage of the in-line seating is that the Elio provides plenty of shoulder room, along with adequate leg- and head-room. And having some lateral distance from other cars on the road is nice; it staves off that feeling of vulnerability one has when one is towered over by Honda Fits and Chevrolet Sonics.

We were encouraged by the Elio’s crash-test simulations, which show that the P5 should achieve five stars in the government’s front, side and rear impact crash tests—if they can get NHTSA to crash one, that is. Technically, the Elio is an autocycle, not a car, which means it does not require crash testing. Elio says NHTSA wants to crash test a P5, but can’t quite figure out how to do the paperwork.

Elio-P4-interior-02In terms of safety hardware, the production P5 will have a driver’s airbag, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. (And, we presume, working seat belts.) Most states require a car license (rather than a motorcycle license) to drive the Elio, though Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia still require a helmet, something Elio hopes to get changed by the time the car goes on sale.

Frankly, the biggest problem we encountered was when we (reluctantly) turned the P4 into the parking lot. The driver’s shoulders sit about two feet inboard of the front wheels, and when the parking-ticket machine spit out our ticket, we couldn’t reach it. Unless they have gorilla arms, Elio drivers are going to have a hell of a time at toll booths, drive-up ATMs and drive-through fast food joints.

As you like it

Nearly as intriguing as the car itself is the way Elio plans to sell it. The P5 will be sold at company-owned retail outlets and affordability is key: Elio is planning on a base price of $6,800 plus an as-yet-to-be-determined destination fee. All P5s will have air conditioning as standard, and the sole factory option will be an automatic transmission, most likely priced around $800.

Elio plans to offer a unique financing scheme, which will essentially be a credit card secured by the car itself. For every dollar you buy in gas, Elio will add a $2 car payment—so if you spend $20 to fill your Elio, $40 will come due against the car. This means you’ll be financing your gas at credit-card rates, but having the card backed by the car should keep interest rates low while helping buyers who have had a rough go during the recession to rebuild their credit history. (Buyers can also finance the old-fashioned way by arranging a third-party motorcycle loan.)

Elio-P4-02

If you have more to spend on your Elio, you’ll be pleased to know that the sky is the limit on options. Like most cars, the P5’s parts and subassemblies are built by third-party suppliers; unlike most other automakers, Elio isn’t shy about this fact, and pretty much anything offered by those suppliers can be had as an option on the car.

Navigation, leather seats, a sunroof—if a supplier makes it, Elio will fit it to the car. And if a supplier doesn’t make it, Elio will support third-party companies in creating new accessories—providing they will sell them through Elio retailers with a 20% cut for Elio.

Elio-P4-07Now, limitless options could, in theory, mean a limitless price, but Elio allows the buyer some level of control, since all vehicles are built-to-order—sort of. All Elios will be built identically, save for paint color and transmission choice. Potential customers will pick their options when they order their Elio; those options will be installed at a nearby marshaling center before the car is delivered to the dealership. Elio says that as long as the order is placed by closing time, the buyer’s new P5 will be ready for delivery by the end of the next day.

Oddly enough, servicing will not be handled by factory retailers; instead, Elio is planning to partner with Pep Boys, a nationwide auto parts and service chain. The plan is to have at lest one ASE-certified and Elio-trained mechanic at each location. For areas not served by Pep Boys, Elio is exploring the option of contracting with local independent mechanics.

Parts availability should not be a major concern, as the P5 uses off-the-shelf parts engineered for other vehicles. Even though you can’t buy a P5 yet, Elio claims that nearly 80% of its parts can be purchased today at your local auto parts store.

Elio-P4-01

THE VERDICT: Elio P4 Review

We’re intrigued by the prospect of the P5—but is Elio being too optimistic? In order to be financially viable, the company needs to sell well over 100,000 P5s per year—in fact, they’re counting on sales of 150,000 to 250,000 units. That means they’d have to out-sell well-established brands like Mazda, BMW, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Audi, Porsche, and Jaguar Land Rover.

Elio is an unknown company, and they’re selling a very unusual car to a very conservative public. It’s an uphill battle, to say the least—but we do admire Elio’s pluckiness.

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Yeah, no. it is with genuine sadness that I predict this car is not going to do well. It’s a great idea to offer a low cost mode of transport, but it’s ugly as sin. seriously. It looks like it just stepped out of the 80’s with that styling. I’m not sure I trust that engine either, and when I see the words: Automated Manual, it just makes me think of the current Smart car’s transmission and I shudder at the thought of driving it. It’s affordable when compared to other subcompact or city cars currently being sold, but most people are still going to need a loan to get one. For my money, if I’m taking out a loan for a car, I’d probably choose the Micra over this. You get more for your money in a Micra, and they’re a more established brand = easier to trust.

    So it is with genuine sadness that I share my thoughts about this car because I really want to get behind something different and affordable, but when I read rumors of, for example: Toyota possibly bringing the Aygo to North American shores, and of a new open wheel concept being revealed later this year … Yeah, I’ll wait and see rather than gamble with my future car payments and possible buyers remorse.

    Side note: We really do need super reliable, super fuel efficient, and super affordable transportation and I wish car makers would really get on this for so many reasons …

  • Sam the Man

    “Yeah, no. it is with genuine sadness that I predict this car is not going to do well”
    LOL. There is one in every crowd.

  • Eric Cameron

    The most difficult part of this car is getting over the stigma of small cars, especially in America. I think we really need some innovation in this area of automobiles because most people commute on their own with no passengers. If they can place more 1-manned vehicles on the road it will save space and dinosaur juice.

    Motorcycles don’t count because they can’t be used safely in the winter and don’t provide protection from the elements.

  • Tom Buyea — Fla.News service

    You did not mention 0ver 43,000 Elio buyers have already reserved their cars with $500 and $1,000 initial payments already made. People love Elio and will buy them as fast as they roll off the Elio assembly line ! Just wait for the Elio class indy 500 races !! (;^))Hard steering ? I had a 1960 Buick 4,400 pounds right on the title, Talk about hard steering ? !!

  • Tom Buyea — Fla.News service

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and most people think Elios are beautiful ! But as a first date car (Back seat) Not so great ! Unless you are into picking up hitchhiking Hippy girls (Yea I know, What century am I living in ?)

  • Tom Buyea — Fla.News service

    We Elio fans hope it will be a big success but hope does not pay the bills so we will have to wait and see as long as one of the first buyer does not kill himself in an accident with one and scare others away.

  • Tom Buyea — Fla.News service

    Elios are two man cars and drive great in snow and ice.

  • Mike

    So in 3 states, as it is currently, you would be required to wear a helmet while operating this. NICE!!!!

  • Mike

    Still waiting on that Toyota Aygo. YES I AM!!!!

  • Mike

    I don’t think hardly anybody thinks the Elio is beautiful. You must be somehow invested into this car financially. It’s ugly as sin.

  • Mike

    I agree with Jonny. And we’re hardly the only two that think it will be a failure.

  • rogwild

    Just remember, back on (Sep 6, 2013); “Founder Paul Elio told Red
    River Radio that 25 prototypes are –under construction– in Detroit
    as the company enters into the product testing phase. “ (never happened)

    –BEWARE–
    Elio Motors has been taking ‘RESERVATIONS’ for 2 ½ years, but is
    still short $230 MILLION needed to reach ‘production’.
    – In fact, their $100 – $1,000 reservations DO NOT guarantee that you
    will ever get a vehicle; Elio Motors says: “ we are under no
    obligation to supply you with a vehicle.“
    – And when asked, they refuse to provide which ‘reputable financial
    institution’ is responsible for their “Refundable” escrow account.
    – Even with the “$17 million collected for “reservations”, they have
    NOT BUILT nor TESTED one complete Pre-Production Prototype with
    operable systems to ‘validate their claims’ of fuel economy, or
    safety!” …. since 2008.
    – If you ask any ‘difficult’ questions, or express ‘discontent’ on their
    FaceBook page, it is [DELETED], and you are “BLOCKED”!
    Interesting ‘concept’; but NO WAY they will be in production and on
    the road, by Mid-2016, as they ‘claim’. – Their ‘Production Date’
    has already ‘slipped’ from Jun/Jul 2014 → 1st Qtr 2015 → 3rd Qtr
    2015 → to First ½ 2016!
    – They have NOT demonstrated their “84mpg” and do not guarantee
    their ‘selling price’ of $6,800. They have never ‘demonstrated “at
    least 75mpg” to QUALIFY for the ATVM LOAN. They are ‘fleecing’
    our citizens.!

  • Rob W

    i like it…odd but i do. kinda looks like a geo metro with a harley trike kit on it from the front…lol

  • Jimmy Persinger

    I hate to say it,But I do not think you will ever see a car for your money if you buy one,There have been way to many delays,set backs and excuses,Now they have no money to start production and are banking on a Government grant to bail them out of that,No grants have been given automakers in 6 years since the grant program has been in effect.With out that money there will be no Elio cars built but the few prototypes just finished and investors will be fighting over those at Elios eventual Bankruptcy hearings.Also if by some miracle they do make it in to production they wont last long as how much profit could there be in a car that costs just $7,300.00 after buying materials to build it,paying employees to assemble and run the plant,pay for electric and other related expenses, insurance etc there is no way there is any money being made here ,And the first time a big bus hits one of these on the road somewhere broadside they will be cleaning up the debris with a vacuum cleaner and a dust pan and the victims families will be sueing the Elio company for everything they have ,I can tell you by looking at it its not safe on a interstate highway with all the tractor trailers .

  • I find it reprehensible that Elio Motors is still actively advertising their fantasy product at a time when it’s obvious that it’s nothing but a pipe dream. Even before they have produced a single unit for sale, they are in financial trouble and are dependent on a government grant that is unlikely to happen.

    The vehicle has one major design flaw: No rear view window and no rear view mirror.
    Rear view is limited to two small side view mirrors. Is that safe? Hell, no! Titanic blind spot,
    making it nearly impossible to make a safe lane change on the freeway.

    Another design flaw, incompatible with American lifestyle: Drive-throughs, whether fast food or banking. Due to the front wheel placement, the driver can’t reach the window or the ATM.

    The Elio car (Car? in Europe in the 60’s, the design was classified as a “Cabin Scooter”) is not likely to gain popularity with Grandpa or Grandma. So, I guess it’s aimed at the younger user group. However, I firmly believe that any high school student would refuse to get caught in one of these, out of fear of being ridiculed by his/her peers driving souped-up Honda Civics which they acquired, used, for under $10K.

    84 MPG? Sounds nice but who cares? Gas in California is currently at $2.49/gal., and,
    recently, a very large deposit of natural gas and oil was discovered in Texas which leads to the assumption that gas prices will remain fairly stable at this level for a long time.

    Elio target sales per annum: 200,000 units. Ha! Ain’t gonna happen, bro!