I have complicated feelings about Elio, the company that’s working to bring a mass-market three-wheel car to American drivers. I love the idea of cheap, three-wheel cars with innovative designs. I also don’t have much confidence in how Elio can accomplish this goal. There is one thing I think Elio could be doing very well, but it’s not something they want: opening this segment to cars from India.
Elio’s specific goal is to make the least-expensive, most fuel-efficient car possible, and it’s using a peculiar loophole to achieve it: three-wheeled cars are still exempt from most of the safety and emissions regulations of quad-wheel cars. Those principles could be oddly well-suited to what Indian carmakers are proving to be great at.
Here’s the thing: the only way anyone is going to convince any number of Americans (beyond a certain cult-like core of tri-wheel and general weird car geeks, like myself) to buy a three-wheeled car is if that car is absolutely, unashamedly, dirt fucking cheap.
New three-wheel cars need to compete primarily with decent used cars, and that’s a very worthy adversary. The Elio was originally supposed to cost just over $6,000, which is roughly enough less than even the cheapest new conventional car—there’s really nothing cheaper than $10,000 today— to make people consider it.
There’s so many good used cars at around $6000, though, that to compete the Elio would need to have all the compelling new-car advantages: some sort of warranty, good service, lots of dealers, financing, and probably that smell.
Elio is working on most of these things, but the final pricing they just announced pushes the cost up to $7300, dangerously close to the cost of a much more conventional and practical and serviceable car like the Mitsubishi Mirage, Fiat 500, Chevy Spark, Nissan Versa, or something similar from another company that’s not likely to disappear anytime soon. (I’m giving Mitsubishi the benefit of the doubt here.)
To make the three-wheel option work, I think the cars need to be way, way cheaper. And, right now, the only place in the world where such practical, usable, much cheaper cars exist is India.
India has at least three companies making cars in large numbers that are very comparable to the capabilities of the Elio, and much cheaper: Tata, Maruti-Suzuki, and Mahindra. Now, all of these cars are four-wheelers, so there needs to be some technical reworking to handle that wheelpendectomy, but I don’t think there’s anything inherent in any of the cars I have in mind that would make this impossible.
And here’s where things really get devious: these Indian carmakers could use all of the hard work and lobbying Elio has done to establish the three-wheel car segment to their advantage. Thanks to Elio’s efforts, 30 states now have provisions for three-wheeled “autocycles.” Here’s how Paul Elio describes the segment:
“We’ve made great strides in helping draft legislation that defines the autocycle category. Harmonized state and federal legislation not only allows ease of movement across state jurisdictions for autocycles, but it also satisfies one of our key ‘Must Haves’ of uncompromised safety by defining higher safety requirements than what currently exists in the motorcycle category.”
So, enclosed vehicles with better safety than a motorcycle, but not up to the same restrictions as a full four-wheeled car. All total, you could drive a car like an Elio with a normal license in 41 states! That’s pretty good, and the development of this legislation is likely Elio’s biggest accomplishment to date.
So, with that in mind, what if Tata decided to do some re-working of the Nano to replace the two driven wheels at the rear with one? It’d take some engineering work, sure, but this isn’t rocket science. The latest Nano has grown up a bit from the original, with better trim, a real opening rear hatch, and even an option for an automatic transmission, a key component for many potential American cheap-ass car buyers.
The base price of a Nano is about $3745, with automatic at right about $4000. That’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the Elio, and it’s a much more practical vehicle. Even a 3-wheeled Nano variant could still seat four, with four doors, as opposed to the Elio’s two in-line seats.
Elio always claimed the car will get 84 MPG, though recent ads have used the slimy hedge words “up to” 84 MPG, and as of yet we’ve seen zero proof of any of these numbers. The Nano gets close to 60 MPG in independent testing, which is really damn good for real-world numbers.
Let’s assume the price would go up to cover the costs of the three-wheel adaptations and some possible upgrades to meet even the lesser autocycle safety restrictions. We could tack $2000 to the price of each one and it’s still cheaper than an Elio, and still a more practical car.
Plus, Tata already has some presence in America through Jaguar/Land Rover. There’s a real dealership network there, and while I’m about certain most Jaguar or Land Rover customers would rather eat a bee burrito than be forced to deal with the sort of people interested in a cheap Indian three-wheeler, it’s a start.
If the technical issues of placing one central drive wheel at the back of a rear-engine/rear drive car is bothering you, why not consider the Maruti-Suzuki Alto 800? It’s also dirt cheap at about $3855 and it’s got a front engine/front drive layout that would make swapping two rear wheels for one easy enough to do in an afternoon.
It’s also a fairly conventional, practical four-door hatchback design that would be easy for American buyers to accept, and it gets fuel economy almost as good as the Nano. Maruti-Suzuki is related to Suzuki, of course, and while Suzuki no longer sells cars in the U.S., they sell plenty of motorcycles, and have a pretty extensive dealership network for those.
The Maruti-Suzuki is probably the most rational choice for an Indian company who could pull this off, but I think there’s one more.
The question, of course, is whether people buy them. Trends show Americans keep buying bigger and more expensive cars, fueled by cheap gas, easy credit and a world where long car loans are increasingly the norm. But I think there’s potential for the small and cheap market in this country.
And beyond broke people, misers, and weird-car fetishists, there’s another potentially big market in America for super-cheap three-wheeled vehicles: delivery and fleet sales. Mahindra makes some small vans that would be remarkably well suited to these markets.
I’m thinking of their Maxximo and Supro vans. They’re basically the same platform, but the Maxximo is more of the cargo/workhorse and the Supro is slightly higher-spec for passenger use.
I drove a Maxximo, and was quite impressed with how rugged and useful it was. It’s got a front/mid engine, so it shouldn’t be too terrible to get a three-wheeled variant, though you may end up with a wheel hump in the middle of the rear cargo area instead of two at the sides.
I can easily see a market for cheap (they start at about $5300), fuel-efficient (around 45-47 MPG) city delivery or utility vans. A Maxximo could probably do 85 percent of the jobs people would buy something like a Nissan NV200 to do, and an NV200 starts at about $20,000. If one Maxximo wouldn’t do the job, two could, and you’d still be nearly $10 grand ahead.
If you needed to take up to eight (!) people around in something that at least resembles comfort, the Supro version can do that, and that one costs about the same as a two-passenger Elio.
Mahindra has a U.S. presence and dealership network as well, but it’s a network of tractor and utility vehicle dealerships. Still, that’s something, and while they’d likely have to increase their presence in the more urban areas where these vehicles make the most sense, they’re a huge company, and could likely handle it.
I’d love to see an American company do well in this market. I’ve just never been convinced Elio is the one to do it, with the approach they’ve been taking. And, let’s be realistic, small-scale carmakers are great for niche sports cars and exclusive premium rides, but if you want mass-market and cheap, there are huge advantages to scale. And these Indian companies are right now the biggest makers of super-cheap cars.
Maybe Elio should be talking to these guys, and work out some kind of partnership. Make the current, more exotic Elio a more sporting, premium offering, and use converted Alto 800s to fill that low-end niche?
I’m just thinking out loud here. And, I’m sure I’m underestimating engineering conversion issues to go to three wheels and overall costs and everything. But with the three-wheeler autocycle segment finally becoming something even close to defined and mature, there does seem to be an interesting opportunity to have a whole new class of low-end cars here.
Then again, maybe I just want to see these things buzzing all over the place.