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Elio Motors nearing launch of $6800, 84 mpg car

Elio Motors

As you read this article, just remember, people laughed at Henry Ford, too, when Ford said he wanted to make a motorized vehicle that anyone could afford to buy.

More than 100 years later, Paul Elio has the same dream.  

While Ford's Model T had four wheels, Elio's car has three -- two in front, and one in the back.  And the car will seat only two people, but not side by side.  The passenger seat is directly behind the driver's seat.

That configuration, Elio says, largely explains the car's eye-popping fuel economy of about 84 miles per gallon on the highway. 

"At highway speeds, most of your fuel goes to moving air," Elio said at a press conference in Ann Arbor.  "So by seating two people back to back instead of side by side, we're half as wide...we move half as much air, and we get double the mileage." 

Elio says the vehicle, although technically a motorcycle because of its three-wheel configuration, will meet safety ratings for cars and get a five-star rating. 

The potential market for the tiny car could be huge, Elio figures.  There's the millions of people driving old, gas-guzzling clunkers, because it's all they can afford. 

Then, lots of people who might otherwise buy a fuel-efficient but used vehicle might consider this instead, because of its price tag:  $6800 to start. 

Finally, Elio figures lots of households that have a larger vehicle or two for getting the whole family around might want to buy one just for commuting.

Elio also has a creative financing method for low-income people.   

Elio Motors will sell those folks a car for nothing down, and give them a special credit card just for buying gas.  Every time they fill up, they'll be charged three times the price of the gasoline.  The extra two-thirds  will be applied to their loan.

Paul Elio says the idea came to him when he remembered his own cash-strapped college days.  "I always scraped enough together to buy gas," he says.  Since the new car is so fuel-efficient, people who trade in a clunker that gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway will end up paying just about the same for gas and car payment combined in an Elio car. 

Elio Motors is in the process of purchasing a former GM factory in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the whole car - engine, transmission, and body - will be manufactured. 

The company will soon build a number of prototypes for testing and refining.  The first cars are scheduled to roll off the assembly line in June, 2014.

Like Henry Ford, Paul Elio is relying on investors to help fund the enterprise. 

And, just as there was no guarantee of success for Henry Ford, there is none for Paul Elio.  But he seems to have a similar quality of believing in the power of his own invention.  Elio says the Shreveport factory could quickly ramp up to build 250,000 of the little three-wheelers a year.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.